Almost empathy

I had a conversation with someone a little while ago which got quite involved. We were discussing some very deep feelings about ourselves and each other; we’d covered some difficult ground and were getting pretty emotional. And then out of the blue, apparently I showed something that was “almost empathy”.

It’s been years since I bit someone’s head off like that in public. I’ve got so used to keeping my responses under wraps. But it happened.

I’m not usually so jumpy over precise choice of words – at least not in reciprocal conversation. Having my own issues with finding the right words in the moment, I don’t tend to attach significance to this sort of thing. But the word itself and the way it came out – it wasn’t even patronising. It was encouraging, even approving. But spoken as if it were obvious to everyone present just how big a deal it would be for someone like me to be showing empathy.

Actually, of course, it’s impossible for autistic people to show real empathy*. So it was only “almost empathy”.

Empathy is something that comes up a lot in the autism literature, good and bad. It’s not as all-pervasive as it has been in the past, and many organisations and individuals are now actively refuting the misconception that “lack of empathy” is an autistic trait. But it’s still out there. And it bites.

In many ways, I would say I’m more practised than most at putting myself into another’s shoes. I feel deeply what others feel. I can’t always respond at the same time as they’re talking to me, while I’m processing their words – but that’s a multitasking thing. Often I miss the opportunity to express my response in a “socially acceptable” way; and of course there is only that one brief chance, swiftly evolving into the dangerous territory of dwelling on the subject. This, of course, makes everyone feel awkward – and ironically, will probably get me accused of insensitivity for precisely that reason! When timing is important, should you make the expression late and risk further distress to the recipient, or let it pass?

As a rule, I don’t express sympathy or empathy in group settings. It seems to me the considerate thing is to respect the feelings of the distressed person, so withholding a response that might cause further discomfort seems natural. Even one-on-one I rarely risk responding outside the few people I know won’t be uncomfortable with my delayed processing speed. There’s the fear of not being able to communicate my feelings appropriately, stepping over some invisible line to trespass onto deeper, more personal terrain. But of course, never to be seen expressing empathy can lead more confident individuals to believe I do not feel. They cannot read or respond to me any better than I can read or respond to them. Yet their ability to feel, to take perspective and to empathise, is never called into question.

You may not see it. You may not feel it. But there is nothing “almost” about my empathy.

* Sarcasm implied

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Finding my balance

My balance has always been terrible. I remember PE classes at school, when I was very small: those wooden benches they’d stand up for you to walk – or for the confident, run – along the top. When we got older sometimes they’d turn them upside down, so the narrow beam was at the top. Nobody ran then. I was the kid who tiptoed and wobbled, afraid of falling even from the broader topside. I couldn’t balance on the beams in play parks. I could fall off anything.

I don’t know why this is. I’ve read recently about the “seven senses” model, which might go some way to explaining it. The idea that in addition to the five senses – sight, sound, taste, touch and smell – there are another two: balance and proprioception. Since Aspies are known to experience differences in any or all of the five popularly-recognised senses, it stands to reason that the others might also pose some problems.

Proprioception is one I find really interesting. As I understand it, this describes an unconscious awareness (and presumably control) of where your limbs and body are currently located, in relation to themselves and to other objects around them. I say “as I understand it”, because I don’t fully recognise this concept as a thing. My limbs don’t place themselves unconsciously at rest, and I certainly don’t have any automatic awareness of where they are! Knowledge of where I am in relation to other objects is gained in a deliberate and conscious way – and when I’m not able to focus, such as when I’m very tired or have just toppled myself reluctantly out of bed in the morning, walking into walls or letting fragile items of crockery slip out of my hands are pretty everyday occurences. Clumsiness is a fact of life.

I can see how the senses of balance and proprioception could be quite intricately linked. Deficits in proprioception (as I’ve described it here) could certainly lead to problems in the balance area. The state of balance is a delicate one, attained only by precise placement of body and limbs in the posture most appropriate to the environment. In motion, balance is transient – the body flowing through a sequence of balanced or accurately unbalanced states to achieve the correct form of movement. If proprioception is impaired, then balance will not be automatically achieved. It becomes instead a conscious and deliberate act, requiring painstaking mental effort to maintain.

I’m pretty fit, but when I walk down a hill on uneven ground, I must be very slow. I have to look ahead, see the next stable foot placement, and make a conscious movement to achieve it. My legs don’t flow automatically into positions that will maintain a stable balance, and they won’t catch me reliably if I go wrong. It’s exhausting! Mountains are more tiring going down than going up!

There are both mental and physical aspects to balance. I suspect that the root of autistic issues with balance are mental, but the problems there have certainly interfered with me developing the physical ability to balance when consciously trying. (I don’t know whether this links into any of the observations about autistic people having “poor muscle tone”. Again, I could see how that might link with balance and proprioception issues, but that’s possibly over-extending the point.) The muscle tone and “memory” are developed through repeated activity – and if people without the mental issues are practising unconsciously throughout their lives, then those of us who need to focus consciously to achieve physical “flow” must necessarily fall behind.

On the flip side, small achievements here for me can feel like mountains conquered. It’s been a couple of years since I started attending semi-regularly a “stretching and balance” class at my gym after work. It took me SO long to get started. At first I was toppling within seconds, unable to hold my posture even with one foot only inches off the ground. But I persevered. And now I can hold the “tree” position, on a good day, for duration of the exercise.

I’m getting stronger. Intellectually, of course I see the numbers going up on the weights machines I started working with in January. But it’s a whole different thing when a whole body strength exercise that you simply couldn’t do before suddenly becomes possible. It makes the progress real.

Last weekend I met up with some university friends. Of the many things we visited, there was one with a jungle playground, surrounded by wooden balance beams just begging to be climbed. I waited until everyone was otherwise occupied before I dared to try. And I walked across them all. Eight inches wide and less than a foot off the ground, but I managed it without a wobble. I found my balance!

A sense of balance could be mental, or it could be physical. Most likely it’s a bit of both. I don’t really care. It feels good 🙂