Personal story about learning empathy with Autism, an Autism Spectrum Disorder


Bitterness is a trap aspies and auties can easily fall into; it’s entirely understandable, but it doesn't help the healing process. There is something that can be quite embittering for many of us on the autism spectrum, something appallingly undermining. For a start, there's the stigma, the social taboo, the fact that to some people, you are now an embarrassment, and some of them show it.


On the inside, it’s a horrible feeling of vulnerability and helplessness to know that the non-autistic world sees you as seriously impaired, and there are a million and one ways it will try to make you feel you are not a fully functioning human being. At best, you know you'll never be quite “normal”; and in a herd-mentality society that runs on the fragility of constantly questioned and reiterated ego dependent on social acceptance, that is a bitter pill indeed.


lost on a cagey dodgy planet

This feeling of being vulnerable, confused, a bit lost, still happens to me every day after more than fifty years. I was not diagnosed as having Asperger's syndrome until adulthood, but well before that I did not produce appropriate emotional responses on meeting other humans, and that led to a disastrous cascade effect - I lost contact, became withdrawn, and fell off the cumulative ladder of socio-emotional learning.

To this day, I have significant impairment in the socio-emotional skills. I can’t be sure I am reading people’s signals accurately. Indeed, often I know I haven't, even before they become guarded and then pissed off - I'm not at all sure I fully understand what they are saying, especially if they are circumlocuting, “being polite”, trying to imply something rather than saying it straight out. I need direct, literal communication: and on this cagey, dodgy planet I seldom get it, which means that much of the time I can’t be sure that I did in fact “get it”.

I often have to ask for clarification, which can lead people to think that I am a “please explain” duh-brain; it also leads to conflict because they think I’m just being awkward in not accepting what they think they have said, or not coming back with what they deem the appropriate emotional response. At such times, my underlying high IQ is not obvious to the casual observer. This can all add up to a very embittering feeling of insecurity - the feeling that I am condemned to a position of permanent and humiliating disadvantage, of seeming to be a bit of an idiot.


Bitterness can set in when living with autism or Asperger's syndrome. Is it possible to leave the bitterness behind, to work through it to a sunnier place? I hope so. I’m still working on mine: here are some ideas I’ve found helpful.


Strategies for handling bitterness

The first point is one that actually elongates the process rather than shortening it. I have often been told that I need to forgive, to let go, to move on. That is true: but it is utterly pointless trying to do that unless we have first fully, honestly and laboriously worked through all the negative feelings, all the grief we have about not fitting into this world. It is vital and indispensable that anyone who is on the autism spectrum has the absolute right to go through our own grieving process in our own time, and let go of it all only when we are REALLY ready to do so.

Forgiveness is not an instantaneous action, a simple stroke of volition. It is a difficult emotional process, and it simply doesn't work if we try to jump stages. It is easy to say we must forgive, let it go. Yet we cannot forgive until we have let the anger up to the surface and expressed it. And don’t ask whether or not your feelings are reasonable - feelings are never reasonable. They are not meant to be reasonable: feelings are feelings, not rational ideas. Don’t get the two confused, they are very different phenomena.

Thus, to get to the stage of being able to let go of our resentments, we must work through all the powerful stages of grieving - the denial, the depression and hopelessness, the slowly mobilizing anger, the growing reconciliation to our new, impaired daily reality, the radical reassessment of our goals, life experiences and interpretations. It takes time, often a lot of time - and we need to allow ourselves to do it in our own impaired time, not on a schedule suggested by well-meaning (or otherwise) helpers.

When we have worked through the grieving stage by stage, then it may be possible to finally let go of bitterness, forgo judgment, relinquish our desire to punish those who don't understand us, and let the past go. But it often happens that the process cannot start until we have at least resolved to desire to let go, even if that mental resolution sits uncomfortably against our feelings. It’s like walking on two legs: the intention is necessary to start the emotional releasing, but is useless without it.

Who do I want to be?

A major challenge for many of us is choosing where we want to stand. I can proudly claim my right to be an aspie and not see this as a disability, or needing to change at all to fit into a non-aspergic world. I can meet with others over the Internet, find a job where I don't have to socialize with others, and indulge my favorite obsessions without messing anyone else's life around. At the other extreme, I can humbly acknowledge my crushing disability, and make extreme efforts to learn compensatory strategies that will help me become as "normal" as possible to fit in with everyone else. Neither of these suits me, and I've taken a middle position on the spectrum, which makes sense that I have a spectrum disorder!


A spiritual angle

I have found it helpful, in the (hopefully) final phase of emotional healing, to seek some spiritual meaning for the whole process. Was this event one which I should bother to analyze rationally, seeking a legally framed story of cause and effect, or was it just one of the unavoidable hammer-blows of fate? Or was it, perhaps, a challenge from the gods, designed to shift me into a different mode of functioning?

The divine (if you can accept the possibility that it exists - and I may still be looking to blame God for what happened to me!) characteristically chucks us curly ones that throw our previous plans and understandings off balance. The difficulty of rising to meet such challenges is no different for us auties and aspies than for the “normal ones” - or rather, for us it may be easier. The normals still have the luxury (or obstacle?) of being able to hold on to their comforting views of the world, of themselves, of the purpose of life: whereas we are foreigners in a strange world in which we are reminded a hundred times a day that we are visitors to this strange place.

But, could that become a strength? We may be able to think outside the square - let’s face it, we have little choice, since the square may now be closed to us. My need for literal and straight communication meant I had to be skeptical about anything anyone said to me, go back to first principles and seek truth with logic - an unpopular quest in a social milieu where the admission ticket consists of already knowing and accepting the consensus view, however illogical or untruthful it may be.


Making sense of it all

Can we, whom the gods have chosen to bless with this challenge, make any positive sense of being on the autism spectrum, and painfully carve out a new direction? Was it a divine intervention to force us to learn a very different way of being to the way of most on this planet? Is it all karma for actions we perpetrated in a past life? Can we learn from our dire experiences some new compassion for the suffering many?

I haven't yet completed the long process of making sense of it all, and it will probably take me some years. But I have found that it helps to keep myself open to the possibility that I needed to learn something, probably many things, from the many unpleasant things that happened over the years - bullying, taunts at school, abusive father, social alienation, constant sacking from jobs to name a few. I hope to gain insights that will make me a better person in a spiritual sense, perhaps that the direction I had been headed in during my recent incarnations was in need of change, and that I needed to take on board some painful humility about the common suffering of humanity which will help me become a more giving, forgiving and compassionate person in the end.

At all events, I try to keep one guiding principle in mind every day: the fact that I am an aspie does not make me less of a human being, does not detract from my human rights - including above all the right to make a positive contribution to the betterment of the human condition as a whole. It’s difficult, especially in the face of constant adverse reactions from judgmental types - but maybe they too need to learn the lessons this disaster is trying to give me.


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A personal story from an adult with Asperger's syndrome on dealing with resentment