Please note that unlike my previous articles, this piece is very long (essentially four articles in one), emotional, and psychologically-detailed. I have broken it down into sections for easier reading, and these are all ultimately related. Please note, as well, that I use both person-first (“person with / person who has / etc.”) and identity-first (i.e., autistic) language in this article, to describe individuals affected by autism. Finally, direct quotes have been italicized, with emphasis added to words by way of bold highlighting. Links are underlined.
An Introduction, on Society
Lack of societal inclusion is a very profound and pervasive problem for those who have disorders and disabilities. Discrimination is commonplace for these individuals, especially kids. One study  (2015), for example, on autistic kids and the social stigmas of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) found that “65 percent of the children were sometimes or often avoided or left out of activities by other kids… [and] about 13 percent were physically bullied.” One need not look far to find even worse stories of neglect and abuse (A, B, C, D). This behavior from wider society makes little sense to me. Why are these individuals so often treated with such contempt and scorn? Why are they ignored and pushed aside, sometimes merely for existing? Why are they not granted equal access and opportunity in society?
There are laws in effect to protect disorder- and disability- affected individuals from discrimination. Key among these is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which provides protection “in public accommodations, employment, transportation, state and local government services, and telecommunications.” Another, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, was created to provide qualified students with equal opportunities in education. These and other measures, however, ultimately mean nothing when wider society cannot accept disorders and disabilities, cannot accept affected individuals for who they are, on an interpersonal level.
The answer to the questions posed above is that we, as a global community, lack empathy.
Autism and ADHD (Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are not diseases; they are not contagious, nor are they even inherently harmful to others. Just as an object will not move without first being acted upon by some external force, ASD will not suddenly and randomly manifest in a healthy and well-functioning adolescent or adult. ADHD will not transfer to another person as bacteria does. So, then, why do people act in such an unethical manner towards individuals who have these and other conditions?
Why do people say one thing (that they are accepting) and then almost immediately do the complete opposite (ignore the disorder/disability-affected individual), without even the pretense of communication? If they were empathic and accepting, or at least tried to be, would they not actively engage in conversation in spite of the perceived challenge; would they not at least hear the individual out and give them a solid chance before making the decision to not associate with them?
While ASD, ADHD, and similar disorders can present very real challenges at times, to say that you accept someone who has a disorder or disability while completely turning your back on them (or purposely choosing to only rarely interact with them) is to directly devalue them. People should not be ignored simply because they are not always easy to interact with. One should be willing, always, to give chances to those affected by disorders and disabilities. To further emphasize and extend this point, it should be remembered that people can (and typically do) change and grow. By virtue of this, even those individuals who have seemed to exhaust their welcome should be given due consideration in the future. If they claim to have changed and improved upon what is seen as “problem behavior,” they should be given benefit of the doubt, and allowed a solid chance at proving said change. They very well may have experienced positive change, but it might not be readily apparent depending on the nature of their disorder or disability, and depending on the mode of communication one uses with them. This is not to say that one should remain supportive at all costs (therefore ignoring potential safety risks, and one’s own well-being); but rather that we should not give up on or withdraw our support from individuals without just cause. I would caution against liberally and loosely defining what constitutes just cause, however. The nature of the behavior should be considered carefully, in relation to the disorder. For example, ponder the fact that research has found anxiety to be present in as many as eighty-four percent of autistic children. This anxiety was recently correlated  (2016) with inherent factors of uncertainty (as will later be discussed herein, autistics like rules and certainty), and could potentially trigger repetitive behaviors  (2012). With this in mind, should the individual be punished if they are being repetitive due to anxiety, which would seem to be naturally occurring in ASD?
In my last semester at Pasco-Hernando State I took an excellent and eye-opening World Religion class, wherein we students were led through a thorough and objective study of the major world religions. The class was very interesting and intriguing. I learned a great deal, not only from a theological standpoint, but also from philosophical and anthropological standpoints as well. Labeled an introductory-level class, it went well beyond base theology and the three major monotheistic religions. There were fascinating discussions on ethics, among many other topics.
One of the core concepts in these discussions was that of ethical failure. One fails ethically when they profess to live by a particular set of morals and/or ethical principles, but then break or otherwise fall short of maintaining said morals and principles. Ethical failure also occurs when someone intentionally disregards and/or devalues another, typically in an attempt to only help themselves. Even if said personal gain might help others, the positive end goal would not excuse the behavior as ethical. It is, then, in short, all about intent. In the latter of these, if one were to approach a situation or interpersonal problem in such a way that they attempted to work through potential solutions, keeping intact their moral faculties while striving to the best of their ability to respect the other person(s) involved, then negativity would not be reflected upon their character.
Concerning ethical failure in the context of disorders and disabilities, we need to think long and hard. Do people intentionally ignore affected individuals because they do not care about them? Or, is it that they are ethical and caring, but do not understand the disorder or disability, and therefore do not know how to approach and/or support the individual? Finally, what of those people who do have an understanding for disorders and disabilities, who are ethical in other ways, but choose to not use their knowledge to benefit affected individuals?
Consider that failure and, moreover, success, as many people conceive of them, are often associated with material wealth or lucrative careers. Instead of taking this view, what if we recognized these as things that inevitably will happen at some point (failure), or will happen with effort (success)? What if the only form of failure we were concerned with preventing was ethical failure, and the only form of success we desired to achieve was ethical success? Being of sound morals and good character is more and more valuable each day as our society changes and becomes further desensitized to negativity. Success in the traditional sense (possessing wealth, a high-end career, etc.) is, by contrast, but a temporary pleasure – and so fleeting as to be nearly transparent in the grand scheme of things.
The directive to love your neighbor as you love yourself (treat others as you would want yourself to be treated) is a precept that exists at the core of Christianity and Judaism. Ultimately, however, this most-prime of all ethical commands reaches much further, across religions and cultures. In this way, it transcends race, ethnicity, gender, disability, and spoken language, and underlies the fact that people of all walks of life want to be treated with respect, dignity, and kindness. The article linked above summarizes this command nicely, as “practicing justice towards fellow human beings.” Accepting someone who has a disorder or disability is to love your neighbor as yourself; in the process, one is both ethically successful and empathic.
Instead of recognizing differences in others and treating them in an ethically-appropriate manner, we tend to fear those things we do not necessarily understand. In addition, we often choose to not involve ourselves in matters that make us uncomfortable, or that do not fit our views of how our lives should proceed. We live in a very fast-moving world, and are quick – too quick, in many cases – to judge others. We tend to struggle, if we attempt at all, to break free from and see past our own narrow experiences of life and our definitions of what should define it. Nobody is perfect in this regard; to accept others and embrace their differences is something we all contend with at times. We can have a hard time being ethical. That, however, does not mean we should not strive to the best of our respective abilities to succeed in doing so.
Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences – disorders like, but not limited to, autism and ADHD – are the result of natural variation in human DNA. These disorders are embraced within this framework of thinking as differences in human functioning, rather than being treated as problems in need of a cure.
Proponents of neurodiversity, instead of rejecting or treating the individual poorly, recognize that we are all simply wired a little differently. They believe that the disorder-affected individual – afforded understanding, patience, and support – can, in many cases, be just as successful and prominent a member of society as so-called “normal” people. Instead of focusing solely on a cure, those who advocate for neurodiversity focus on promoting acceptance and providing support to individuals in need of it.
Searching Google for “neurodiversity” shows there are many differing opinions on the matter. There are those who support neurodiversity, and those who only desire a cure for involved disorders. These people, unfortunately, have a hard time conceptualizing that there can be positives in neurological disorders. I understand this divide, as it is not possible for such a concept to exist without contention. The problem is that some, on both sides, take things too far. I have no problem with respectful and reasoned disagreement, but some of these statements border on vitriolic. This in-fighting is needless. Much as I made the case for looking beyond the use of specific language in relation to disability (using person-first vs. identity-first), I again implore the various neuro-communities to stop fighting. Uniting would be universally beneficial, whereas the current state of arguing serves to accomplish nothing. Regardless of what you believe, and no matter how well-intentioned you may be in expounding and evangelizing your beliefs, you should always be respectful of others’ beliefs, and allow them to form their own opinion or viewpoint on a matter.
Having said that, I believe that people who have autism, ADHD, and other neurological disorders are not entirely different from other people.
Much emphasis is placed on ASD being a disease, that a cure for it is needed. Finding a cause (or causes) is also being heavily researched. Again, autism is not a disease. It is merely a disorder that represents a different way of thinking. Yes, it can be exceptionally severe and paralyzing, but it also manifests in such a way that it can be of benefit to society. Microsoft recognizes this, as does Hewlett-Packard. Both companies, and others, are coming to recognize the unique attributes that can manifest within ASD.
As Steve Silberman, author of the compelling book NeuroTribes (in which he details the history of ASD in society) put it recently, in addressing the United Nations on neurodiversity:
“Autistic people are not failed versions of ‘normal.’ They’re different, not less.
By focusing exclusively on long-range research into alleged ‘risk factors’ for autism, while ignoring the need to dramatically improve the quality of life for autistic people and their families today, we fool ourselves into thinking that autism is a ‘puzzle’ that will be solved by the next medical breakthrough. Instead, what autism really is is an enormous population of men and women with tremendous potential who are being denied what everyone deserves: the chance to live a happy, healthy, safe, secure, and productive life. Viewed in this light, autistic people are one of the largest disenfranchised minorities in the world. Imagine if society had put off the issue of civil rights until the genetics of race were sorted out, or denied wheelchair users access to schools and public buildings while insisting, ‘Someday, with the help of science, everyone will walk.’ Viewed as a form of disability that is relatively common rather than as a baffling medical enigma, autism is not so ‘puzzling’ after all. Designing appropriate forms of support and accommodations is not beyond our capabilities as a society, as the history of the disability rights movement proves.”
As Silberman further stated in his speech: “Inclusion does not mean simply inviting people with disabilities into our workplaces, classrooms and communities as a compassionate gesture. It’s about ensuring that every member of our society is given the greatest chance for success. When people with developmental disabilities have what they need to thrive, everyone benefits. That’s the message behind the notion of honoring neurodiversity… Let’s move beyond shallow “awareness” of autism to appreciate autistic people in the fullness and depth of their humanity.”
There are good aspects associated with ASD. For example, it allows for an attention to detail not widely seen in the wider population. Central Coherence Theory, formulated by world-renowned developmental psychologist and autism researcher Uta Frith maintains that, among other features, ASD is characterized by specific imbalances in an individual’s ability to integrate and process information at different levels of cognition (Frith and Happé, 1994 ; Happé and Frith, 2006 ). This works locally (pertaining to individual details) and globally (pertaining to the “big picture” and overall mass of details). Frith noted that in normal information processing, information is drawn from a wide array of sources and pieced together; this cognitive process, she called “central coherence.” When an individual has weak central coherence, they have a poor ability to assemble large amounts of information within a specific context (this is why I have difficulty holding in mind many meteorological variables simultaneously when forecasting). Inversely, one who has strong central coherence is able to easily connect the dots, so to speak, and relate pieces of information to one another. Rather than seeing weak central coherence as a negative implication of autism, Frith believes that this “imbalance” is a positive feature, calling it a “detail-focused cognitive style” that allows information to be thought of and processed in a different light. Going back to my meteorology example, I am skilled at finding individual short wave troughs (cold fronts, essentially) on upper air analysis charts; however, I struggle to see them as relating to other meteorological features and across larger spatial scales. Frith has gone so far as to say that the failure to process global, big picture details is “an outcome of superiority in local processing,” which is to say that people with ASD perform better at processing local details than non-autistics. There is truth to this, as Shah and Frith proved (1993) .
It is these traits, and others outlined below, that companies like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard are recognizing and capitalizing on.
Furthering the idea that strong attention to detail is present in ASD, Swettenham et al. (2014)  found that the disorder involves a reduced susceptibility to perceptual blindness (described here and here). Similarly, autistics are considered to be strong “systemizers.” Cognitive neuroscientist, psychologist, and world-renowned autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen theorized  that autistics have a strong inherent desire to construct “systems,” which can be anything that receives an input and produces a correlated output (the cost of this skill is that they lack skills in empathizing ). That is to say, autistics naturally like to analyze rules and patterns that exist, in an “if-then” framework (if towering cumulus clouds form, then rain will likely follow, for example), and discover the relationships between them (read my article on systemizing here). Systemizing is an inherent counter to uncertainty (allowing the individual to feel/create control), and Baron-Cohen has argued  that it is an indicator of talent. A combination of strong attention to detail and an inherent drive to search for rules and patterns can lead to “out-of-the-box” thinking and unique solutions to problems, with savantism (exceptional skill or knowledge in a limited, specific field) present in some cases. Indeed, Wallace, Happé, and Giedd  (2009), and Heavey et al. (1999  and 2012 ) drew conclusions towards this end. Heavey’s studies found a link between individuals’ calculating of calendar dates and weak central coherence. It was noted that parts of the calendar can be cut into individual pieces and groups, and therefore, be made readily available for processing and future recall. Anecdotally speaking, I mentor a student who is superbly talented at this and recalling meteorological statistics, and I myself have a talent for the recall of historical dates. Treffert found (2009)  that savantism is present in as many as one in ten autistic individuals. Autistic individuals, furthermore, typically exhibit high levels of loyalty, sincerity, and honesty (more on this later).
Empathy is powerful. As Baron-Cohen once noted, there are two distinct kinds of empathy: affective and cognitive. Affective empathy drives our ability to respond in an emotionally-appropriate way to what others are thinking and feeling. Cognitive empathy, meanwhile, is the part of empathy that allows one to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and “put themselves in that person’s shoes,” so to speak. One way to differentiate between them is to think of an impaired state of affective empathy as relating to and being like what is known as a state of “flat affect.” To have a flat affect is to neither experience nor express the typical range of emotions (this is usually seen in schizophrenia). Contrast this with an impairment in cognitive empathy, which signifies that the individual can experience and express emotions, but has trouble processing and understanding them. These two separate pieces come together to form our inherent ability to understand and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.
In the fascinating video linked just above, Baron-Cohen discusses, and makes an argument for, the idea that exhibiting low amounts of affective empathy is a key factor in explaining human cruelty. As he puts it, “when we dehumanize a group [of people] as the enemy, we have the potential to lose our empathy.” This, he notes, is evidenced by world events like the Rwandan genocide, and the Nazi atrocities of World War II. Such world-impacting events start as individual dehumanizing moments; they are problems on a much smaller scale that continue to grow out of control.
Baron-Cohen, in his book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (Zero Degrees of Empathy in the U.K.), goes much further in discussing empathy and how a lack thereof results in unethical behavior and, ultimately, outright cruelty towards others. Baron-Cohen proposes that empathy occurs “when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” “Single-minded attention,” he says, “means we are only thinking about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions.” Exercising “double-minded attention,” on the other hand, means we are “keeping someone else’s mind in [our] mind at the very same time.” Essentially, this is to say that thinking only of oneself is to turn empathy off; and to think of others is to turn empathy on.
While the book’s contents are, overall, too far beyond the scope of what I am writing here to discuss in much more detail, perhaps the most key takeaway from Baron-Cohen, as relates to this article, is that unethical behavior first arises when one’s empathy begins to erode. This erosion of empathy, he notes, typically occurs when one first devalues another human being, and is a process that can potentially lead to further acts of cruelty. This process can take many forms (relationship abuse, drugs and related gang violence, human trafficking, and Hitler and the Nazis, for example). Science of Evil is an intriguing book. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning about empathy and/or some of the drivers of human behavior. The last thing I would like to touch on from the book is Baron-Cohen’s proposal that there are “six degrees” of empathy. Six stages of a spectrum, if you will, that one may broadly fall upon. I have placed it below, heavily paraphrased. For more information, please read The Science of Evil.
|Level 0||Even when it is pointed out to them that they have hurt another person, people at this level do not care. That they have hurt another person means nothing to them. They cannot experience remorse or guilt because they do not understand the feelings of the person they have hurt.|
|Level 1||One may still be capable of hurting another person, but they are able to reflect on what they have done to some extent, and show regret.|
|Level 2||People have enough of an understanding for the feelings of others to be inhibited from physically hurting them. They have enough empathy to understand that they have done something wrong and hurt another’s feelings, when it is pointed out to them.|
|Level 3||One knows they have difficulty with empathy and may try to mask or compensate for this. May avoid jobs or relationships where there are constant demands on their empathy, because empathizing can be exhausting and stressful for them. They keep their heads down, so to speak, and hope this helps them not have to interact with people. “Conversation may be a nightmare at this level because there are no rules and [because] it is so unpredictable [and unable to be systemized]….” Baron-Cohen says.|
|Level 4||One has low to average levels of empathy at this level, though this does not typically affect everyday behavior. More men are at this level than women. Friendships are based more on shared interests and activities than on the sharing of emotional intimacy.|
|Level 5||Individuals have a capacity for empathy that is above average. More women are at this level than men. Friendships may, at this level, be based more on emotional intimacy, sharing of confidences, mutual support, and expressions of compassion. People here hold back their opinions so as to not dominate or intrude; they are careful in their decisions, taking into account a wide range of perspectives. “They take their time with others even if they have lots of other things to do because they want to find out how the other person is, and what is on their mind.”|
|Level 6||People at this level demonstrate a remarkably-high capacity for empathy. They are “continually focused on other people’s feelings, and go out of their way to check on these and to be supportive. It is as if their empathy is in a constant state of hyper-arousal, such that other people are never off their radar.”|
To address the topic of empathy specifically as it relates to ASD, I want to share a small amount of information on the concept of “theory of mind (ToM).” It was first mentioned, as far as I can determine, by Premack and Woodruff  in 1978; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (Baron-Cohen’s doctoral advisor at the time), introduced  it into the autism lexicon in 1985. ToM focuses on the social, communication, and cognitive deficits of ASD, and is simultaneously an idea, concept, and tangible representation of ability and skill. This may be confusing and not make much sense at first. However, it should begin to come together more coherently when we replace the word “theory,” and think of it to fundamentally mean “understanding.” What we are really talking about with ToM, then, is an understanding of the mind (to lack or have an impaired ToM is to misunderstand the mind).
Within theory of mind, there exists the concept of “mentalizing.” This is the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, to understand that others have thoughts, feelings, intentions, and desires that are different from one’s own; and, to infer what others are thinking. Autistics typically exhibit poor skills in these areas, bringing about a potential misunderstanding of emotions, both in themselves and others (which leads them to improperly respond in social settings). A theory of mind deficit is part of why someone with autism may, for example, mentally “shut down” when faced with certain emotional situations or thoughts. To explain this anecdotally, it is like hitting a wall, mentally, beyond which lies an open, empty space where there is no awareness or thought. It is feeling so mentally overwhelmed that you stop feeling, essentially. The individual might close themselves off from others, engage in self-harm, or try to harm others . They might also respond in an unexpected way, either as a coping mechanism to sensory feedback (acting out with a behavioral tantrum, for example, or again, shutting down) or, perhaps more simply, due to lack of experience in some situation. Interestingly, it has been found that damage to the brain’s right-side temporo-parietal junction, which has been proven to be involved in the mental monitoring of oneself and others, can lead to theory of mind deficits (more information:  /  on the RTPJ and ToM relations).
Related to theory of mind is a really interesting concept known as “meta-representation.” Just as “meta-cognition” can be thought of as thinking about thinking, meta-representation is representing in one’s mind some thing which one sees. A more helpful and approachable example of this process, hopefully, is that a drawing depicts something, and someone who looks at it would represent it – as an idea, as a concept of a thing, as an image – in his or her mind. It is through meta-representation that we generate new knowledge or meaning, by mentally considering thoughts and concepts.
Theory of mind and meta-representation practically work hand-in-hand to affect different aspects of cognition. It is for this reason that autistics can have trouble understanding that another person might believe something that is actually not true. This “false belief,” as it would be known, is not understood by the autistic because they would wrestle with the concept of how someone else could accept something that they – the autistic – know to be false. They would fail to a degree, or totally, to take into account that a point of view other than their own could exist. However, even lacking a theory of mind and having difficulty with meta-representation has positives. Because of these limitations, autistics are naturally less inclined to act deceptively. To lie, one must be able to meta-represent. There must be an inherent understanding and awareness for the fact that there can be two different perspectives or versions of an event: there is the true, reality-based version (“I ripped the pages from the book”), and the false, fictional version (“Jake ripped the pages from the book”) that can be believed as true by someone else. This knowledge is typically not possessed at a high enough level when one has an impaired theory of mind, and meta-representation deficits.
This does not mean an inhibited meta-representation ability brings about total honesty, as meta-representation exists on a spectrum just as much as ASD itself does. It does, however, make for a substantially lower disposition for dishonesty. I wrote above that autistic individuals are known to display high levels of loyalty, sincerity, and honesty. To return to that line of thought, this is due largely to their inability to engage properly in meta-representation. They simply do not know any other way of behaving because other possibilities, such as deceptive behavior and disloyalty, typically make little or no sense to them. When autistics are overly frank and honest, potentially coming across as rude or inconsiderate in voicing an up-front opinion or thought, it is because they have trouble considering that being honest to the utmost degree in that situation would be inappropriate. Problems can also occur when the individual says something (perhaps inappropriately) without thinking and considering potential outcomes; these statements can be taken the wrong way.
Theory of mind deficits lend themselves to the stereotype (read: myth) that people with autism have little to no capacity for empathy. From my own experiences on the spectrum, from observing autistic individuals, and from discussing ASD with parents of autistic kids, I have come to believe this is not true. Research corroborates this. Work conducted by Mazza et al. (2014)  and others has shown that affective empathy remains intact in ASD. According to Mazza, “affective impairments found in people with ASD are mainly related to the cognitive recognition and processing of emotions, rather than to the actual ability to feel emotional distress or concern.” The study concluded that, “a few studies have formally assessed empathy in individuals with autistic conditions… [and] showed an impairment in cognitive empathy, but the presence of normal empathic concern…” So, rather than being un-empathic, it is just that autistics experience empathy in different ways, due to the fact that their theory of mind is impaired, and because they may not have much experience in social settings. A good example to highlight this difference is that in many cases, though they seem emotionally unattached and unconcerned when it comes to people, autistics are able to form tight, emotionally-close relationships with their pets, for whom they can show deep care and concern. Further, it is because affective empathy remains, states Baron-Cohen, that “people with autism are often highly motivated not to upset others or hurt others, and are themselves upset to hear that they may have done this if it is pointed out. And once they know that someone else is upset or suffering, they are very often motivated to want to help or offer comfort.”
My personal experience with empathy is an interesting one, given that my autism is relatively mild. I feel that I do not entirely lack a theory of mind or awareness thereof, but that I do struggle at times to conceptualize the mindsets of others. To try to put into words what an impairment in cognitive empathy is like, it can be hard to understand why others are thinking, feeling, or doing something at a given moment. I find it difficult at times to gauge how I should respond in certain situations. I can determine the proper response or emotion itself, but not necessarily the intensity of my response. That is to say, I will respond with the right action or emotion, and feel the correct emotion, but fail to determine how sensitive my response should be (which impacts how I say what I say, or do what I do). Emotional over- or under- reaction is the result, if that makes sense. It is rather difficult to explain.
Although it is anecdotal and only one more point of reference to consider, discussion with an autistic colleague and friend of mine (a fellow former weather camp student I worked collaboratively with for several years in a social media weather forecasting venture) would seem to further confirm my own experience. This can best be summed up by anecdotally stating that an impairment in cognitive inhibits one’s emotional sensitivity and responsivity to the emotions of others. I think the best example to describe this would be to think of emotional sensitivity as having a volume meter that is inconsistent. Sometimes, the volume is turned up and there are no (or few) problems processing emotion, while other times, the volume is turned down, which can cause the autistic to respond in a blunted way or seem totally oblivious to the situation.
It is important to remember, in all of this discussion, that theory of mind impairments will vary with each individual, and therefore, should not be overly generalized. I have actually read accounts of autistic empathy that would seem to indicate an excess of affective empathy. These would seem to correlate with my belief in and experience with my rather-basically-coined “empathy volume meter.” Some people are inherently (broadly and also more narrowly) under-sensitive, while others are inherently over-sensitive.
Whereas one would assume my capacity for empathy to be low because of impaired theory of mind, I am actually quite empathic when it comes to interpersonal interaction. I am skilled in working and connecting with autistic kids (my efforts in this endeavor include mentoring an autistic student in meteorology). Further, I have worked with individuals who have a plethora of learning disorders. I have a proven passion for weather education, evidenced by my activity as a faculty member in the National Weather Camp Program operated by How The Weatherworks, and the many times I have demonstrated hands-on weather activities and experiments at public and private events, for homeschool and public school groups, and, for teachers locally and across the U.S. Furthermore, although my social skills are not the greatest and I am introverted, I am quite interested in socializing, and often take an interest in what others are doing. It is not my capacity for empathy that is limiting, but, rather, my inherent ability to consistently understand the thoughts of others.
A meaningful capacity for empathy is critical to connecting with individuals who have autism, ADHD, and other disorders and disabilities. A display of empathy could be as simple as listening to what another person has to say for the period of a few minutes or hours. Or, it could be more complex, like taking time over a long period to regularly socialize with the individual. It does not have to be an entirely constant effort, but we should still strive to exercise our empathy on a regular basis. In this way, we do not lose it, and our capacity for it grows. To spend time with someone socially; to attempt to gain an understanding of another person: these are but two examples of empathizing. It does not matter if we spend ten minutes, ten days, or ten weeks at a time engaging people empathically; what matters is that we stay open to empathy, and always give our best effort in displaying it. The quantity of our empathy, overall, is far less important than the quality our empathy.
One cannot have empathy without perspective. We must recognize, respect, and embrace differences that are of cultural, religious, and ideological (political and other) import. This, however, is not enough: we must, furthermore, understand, or at least attempt to understand, these differences. In some cases, this requires that we bracket (that is to say, objectively set aside) our own beliefs. However, we do so recognizing the personal growth taking place as we gain new perspective and social insight. This growth, subsequently, has nothing but positive implications for us. Self-reflection plays a large role in this perspective-gaining process, just as it does when one is involved in a mentoring relationship.
As someone who has ADHD in addition to ASD, I have had a tumultuous social history. I have been the target of bullying, labeling, and stereotyping, and have been socially ostracized throughout my life. I find it difficult to consistently make eye contact, recognize social cues, and start and maintain conversation. Exacerbating these is the fact that I can, at times, be conversationally repetitive, especially when anxious. Social anxiety, caused and reinforced by many failed attempts at socializing and accumulated years of poor social treatment, is something I have struggled with, especially in the last five years. Although my autism is not overly severe and pervasive, and although I have worked persistently, especially recently, to improve my social skills, I still can have trouble interacting with others.
People, whom I have considered friends, have told me that I am socially incapable and unable to have friends. I have been heavily ignored by my supposed peers over the years, and continue to be, in many situations. When I tell others of my disorders, they typically respond by saying that they are (or are working to be) accepting of them. At the same time, however, many of these same people ignore me, unless I initiate interaction and make a significant effort to engage them. Interactions are not guaranteed, however, and tend to be very brief and/or limited in scope when they do occur. I have tried my best to be friends with people over the years, but it is only rarely that I have seen my efforts returned in kind.
I have spent much time within the realm of meteorology. In high school, I threw myself into the weather enterprise with a passion and single-minded intensity that astonished many; indeed, professional meteorologists and others in and out of the field have marveled at my interest level over the years. I was driven in my studies by an interest that arguably exceeded that of other students, and even professionals. There was never enough information available to me, as many National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists can tell you. This propelled me to a level of professional success that is rarely seen for so young a student in the field, especially at the high school level.
I have always recognized the value of teamwork, and believe fully that collaboration in the meteorological community should be of the utmost importance. I have tried repeatedly, yet struggled, to build relationships to that end. I have, further, always believed in using my success and skills to help others in the enterprise. Whether this is by introducing someone to a connection I may have, mentoring, debugging or contributing to a piece of code, or whatever else, if I could be of benefit to another person, then it would be a win for me personally. I felt that a few people working together could do more good than any one person could on their own; this is especially true regarding research efforts. Meteorology students however, have always been and continue to be a social enigma to me; welcoming, and yet, somehow, very cliquish at the same time, largely resistant to interacting with me. I am certain that my autism played, and continues to play, a role; yet, at the same time, there is something more, something deeper, that even an intense shared interest cannot penetrate. Perhaps it is that my successes have proven intimidating, or envy-inciting? Though I myself have been there, wanting to be better than others, I ask, “why would they be intimidated or envious?” Many of these people are just as successful as I am. Actually, any student currently in the enterprise is automatically more successful. With all of this said, social relationships within meteorology have been and remain elusive. My successful relationships therein have been of a professional nature, on the basis of working partnerships or mentorships. There has been, at least, one graduate student with whom I have successfully connected in a mentoring relationship, who has been, more and more as time has progressed, a friend. He and the professional mentors I have had have been bright spots in a social landscape that has been very dark otherwise, both inside and outside of meteorology.
With incredibly few exceptions, I have been ignored to an extreme degree in my social life. I largely continue to be, and it hurts. It hurts to see conversations end almost as soon as I join them. It hurts to see others be physically distant from one another yet make the effort to stay in contact, when people I know do not care to consistently make that effort with me. It hurts to reach out to people for even the simplest of interactions on common or near-common intellectual ground, only to be rejected because they see me as a thing to be dealt with, or as a socially incapable and inferior person, or for some other reason. I recognize in saying all of this that people have their own lives, and all that that entails, to manage. I recognize that some of my social inhibitions can be perplexing and difficult to handle when not fully understood. But, I am a person too; one not so handicapped in any way that I should be ostracized and kept apart from others. I want to have friends. I want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way. So why am I shunned, and set aside? It is, perchance, highly idealized of me to ask so much. Yet at the same time, why should I not be entitled to this equality, why should I not desire the things I see others so often experience: the chance to socialize on equal terms (and enjoy those experiences), and the chance to contribute in a meaningful way to society?
It is a difficult thing for me to write about but, going into 2015, I was struggling mightily with changes that were happening in relation to my career path, as well as continued lack of success socially. After studying meteorology intensively for nearly ten years, my rapidly-progressing climb in the field came to a screeching halt. Math has always been a difficult subject for me. As I began seriously considering where I might pursue my degree, I realized that I was far from where I needed to be in math, skill-wise, due to certain cognitive deficits, which bring about limitations in my inherent mathematical computation ability. This revelation made me realize that a traditional meteorology career was likely no longer on the table. It was the cause of much panic and stress; even as I said I could catch myself up, I knew on some level, instinctively, that this was not true, that the nature of my comprehension problems would prevent me from handling the upper-level math required in meteorology classes. It was only after much deliberation on whether or not I thought I would be able to successfully earn a meteorology degree (also taking other factors into account), that I made the decision to find another career path. Everything in my life seemed uncertain then, as the goal I was most determined to see through to realization slipped from my grasp. It was with a feeling of trepidation and uncertainty that I went into 2015: already lacking in friends and social interaction, I also lacked in career aspirations.
I was introduced to the concept of neurodiversity by a friend I had for a short time, in the spring of 2015.
We started talking one day, after one of our two classes, and I proceeded to ask her if she might be interested in us being friends. It was at this point that I mentioned my disorders, even though past experiences screamed that she would not want to talk to me if she knew of them. She was more than willing to talk however, and it was her belief that “nobody is perfect or normal. It does not matter what you look like, the color of your skin, hair, eyes, or disorders. They are just the features that make you who you are.” That was her response, along with the statement that she did, in fact, want to be my friend. She assured me that the things I considered “issues” and problems did not faze her, and would not scare her away (quotation marks on the word “issues” were added by her, because she saw my disorders and other disabilities as differences in functioning and not unmanageable problems).
That changed my life. Not because it was a profound statement in and of itself, but because she actually followed through; she backed what she said with corresponding behavior, unlike every other person around my age I had tried to be friends with to that point. We had a good friendship, but because of the long-standing social anxiety I was only then finding myself able to fight, we did not begin speaking and become friends until nearly a month before the semester ended.
As we began talking, I was still very hesitant and quiet – unsure that I could actually finally have a friend – but my social confidence slowly began improving. It was by an acknowledgement of her own innate imperfection – and subsequent quiet contentment therein, in recognizing that normalcy is non-existent – that she first helped trigger my slow, but sure, up-swelling in confidence and self-esteem. In the time since, I have come to consider that “normal” is a social construct at best: “normal,” it could be said, is defined as what is socially-acceptable and socially “trendy” at a given time. It is the average of current social behavior in society.
I was not fully committed to, or active in, being an advocate for individuals who have learning disorders and conditions/disabilities that affect learning until May of 2015. Since then, I have presented a talk on learning disorders and learning-affecting conditions – namely, autism and color blindness – at the 40th Annual Meeting of the National Weather Association (NWA). I was invited to present my talk to the West Central Florida Chapter of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and as part of the NWS’ Integrated Decision Support Services Webinar, which was held this past January. More recently, I was accepted to present new work on color blindness at the AMS’ upcoming 44th Conference on Broadcast Meteorology, and the NWA’s 41st Annual Meeting. I was invited to join the recently-formed NWA Diversity Committee as a founding member, and am active in Committee affairs. As part of my Committee responsibilities, I am leading a subcommittee on disabilities. This subcommittee is already actively contributing to the goals of the Diversity Committee, as well as those of the NWA and will, in the coming years, work to affect change and promote awareness within the larger weather enterprise for individuals who have disorders and other disabilities. All of this is in addition to research I am conducting that mixes meteorology with psychology, communications, and advocacy work.
My friend unknowingly played a crucial role in all those things, as she greatly influenced my final decision to become an advocate. To say she saved my life would be totally cliché and overdramatic, but, in a sense, she did. She saved me from myself. Despite having several highly-positive influencers in my life, without the changes she helped facilitate, I would have continued to settle for being less of a person than I am capable of being. I needed the right kind of friend to serve as a catalyst and forcing element of sorts, a friend who could cause me to see as false all the negative things I had been conditioned to believe about myself.
People often say they have a “best” friend. What, though, qualifies a friend as such? “Best,” at most, is a subjective platitude, and it sets upon the person an unfair expectation. How can one be a “best friend” when people are so fluid, when so many variables exist to be considered along the spectrum of human behavior? One can be better than another at something, but never better at everything. It is for this reason that I prefer to rank friendships for how “meaningful” they are. My definition of a “meaningful friendship” is rather simple: it is a friendship (romantic or not, though in a romantic relationship they are assumed) in which both people are treated fairly and ethically; and, in which the effort and desire to communicate is mutual, even if that communication is infrequent. It should go without saying that, in a meaningful friendship, there is a shared interest in knowing and interacting with the other person; there is sincerity; there is honesty; there is some amount of loyalty (dependent on the depth of the relationship); there is a mutual attempt at understanding; and, finally (and perhaps, most importantly), there is an understanding of imperfections. By this, I mean that each individual should regard the other in such a way that they seek to understand and accept them no matter what imperfections they may have, so long as there is no potential for harm in doing so. To have an understanding of imperfection is to recognize the inherent value in another person. It is impossible to attempt an understanding of another person, or to accept any differences they have compared to oneself, without naturally recognizing that they have value (and this is also to have empathy). Furthermore, to succeed in achieving this, we have no false perceptions of the other person. This is not to say we know everything about them, or that they could not succeed in deceiving us; instead, I mean that we do not place them upon a pedestal and over-value them; we do not believe them to be something or someone they are not. An understanding of imperfections goes beyond simply recognizing that one is neither perfect or normal, although that is a core piece of a meaningful friendship.
While I have never looked down on or viewed people who have disorders or disabilities as weak or in a negative manner, as I began 2015 my self-esteem and self-perception were very much lacking in that regard. Excepting my early to middle childhood, it is difficult for me to say in good conscience and with respect to myself that I had any meaningful friendships before meeting my classmate. Not one (close-in-age) person I met in my teenage years was consistently understanding of and unconcerned with my disorders once they learned of them, insomuch that they would not affect the friendship or what the person thought of me. I had friendships, but none were especially good, much less overly meaningful.
Thus, I was to the point that the thought of somebody caring enough to actually want to be my friend, and the thought of them being active in that, (i.e., having a meaningful friendship with someone) was nearly unthinkable. I spent nearly all of my high school years, and all of my college semesters before the spring of 2015 in a state of major social disconnection, trying to interact socially, but failing in that quest. I became overly selective in who I chose to interact with, and basically chose to not concern myself with social matters because nearly all of the people I tried to talk to or be friends with largely ignored me. This behavior, and the negative conditioning and bullying I had experienced, only furthered my social anxiety, and the belief that I was socially inept – which I would have to overcome when I met someone who could pull me out of my shell.
It was during this time of social disconnection in the spring of 2015, when I was trying to figure out a new career path, that my classmate and I became friends. In knowing her, I was, in a lot of ways, connected to the world for the first time. I became someone different. Someone better.
Regrettably, when all factors (my social anxiety, mainly, and her own quiet personality) are considered, we did not have many conversations. But, she treated me as an equal, and was sincere and genuine in being my friend; in “meeting me where I was,” so to speak, and engaging me and taking interest in what I had to say; in always greeting me with a smile and asking how I was doing…. It was in these ways that she eased many of the problems I had – especially those related to social anxiety, low confidence, and self-esteem – and enabled me to fight them. She showed me, in a very quiet, very subtle way, how to believe in myself, and within that, how to see myself as more than a mere diagnosis and statistic. She showed me and, furthermore, is proof that, I am, indeed, capable of having meaningful friendships, and that I should never have believed the naysayers who led me down the horrific rabbit hole of self-doubt where I thought otherwise. She was a wake-up call that caused me to realize what I was missing in being so self-exiled socially, and my experiences – and even mistakes – with her gave me the courage to talk to others without overly-critical worry for their perceptions of me. Perhaps most importantly, with a single sentence – an empathic sharing of personal perspective and mindset – and backing behavior, she changed how I view my own “issues.” Those quotation marks are mine, as I now recognize my disorders not primarily as weaknesses and barriers, but as strengths and assets that potentially can serve to further enable me to be and do better in all things.
With that change, I was able to break down and move beyond long-held misconceptions I had about myself. I am capable (of having friends, of the advocacy work I am engaging in, and of many other things); I am worthy and deserving (of people’s time, of having friends, of my accomplishments, and other things); and, I am not less of a person just because I am affected by disability. I am who I am, and autism, ADHD, and other seeming-impairments do not make me inferior; they do not define me.
As above with ethics, we should question matters related to our relationships. If a friend says they are supportive of you, but changes and begins to devalue and treat you poorly, should it be considered that they were never your friend in the first place? Putting this thought into the context of this article, if one has a disorder or disability and their friend turns on them at some point after learning of their disorder or disability, should they consider that person to have never been their friend in the first place? If these people are considered to have been one’s friend, should they be given future chances to prove they have changed, just as much as those who have disorders and disabilities, even though they have wronged, or are perceived to have wronged, the individual affected by disorder or disability? People have the potential for change and growth, but for this, I have no answers. It is a very personal, very subjective matter. Just something I pose to you, my reader, to ponder.
My friend planted seeds of change while furthering the maturation of others and, as a result, in the year since, I have experienced much personal growth. Though I wish I had not waited three months to speak to her, I am exceedingly grateful to have known her even for the short time I did. Unlike many people I have known and tried to know, and even unlike other, past friends I have had, she was ethical, and accepted me through and through. Because of the change she sparked, I have been able to fully recognize a talent for helping those who have learning-affecting conditions and other disabilities, and realize other career interests, like psychology – which I am now pursuing a degree in.
In saying all of this, I do not seek, in any way, to over-value my former friend. She is only a person, completely human, and therefore completely fallible. I recognize that fully. And yet… at the same time, I do not want to under-value her too much, either. Considering my exceptional lack of positive social engagement, it means something to me that she was such a good friend; it means something that she was so understanding, in a world where so many people take little time, if any, to attempt to gain an understanding of others. She saw me as different, but still capable – not less, as so many others have – through the lens of neurodiversity, and I will be forever grateful for and inspired by that.
This article has been very cathartic to write, but the writing process – reflecting on many of my experiences, some of which I have not thought about in several years – has been painful. I am fortunate now to know a few with whom I can be myself; whom I can genuinely consider to be sincere friends. Outside of this infinitesimal group, people still ignore me frequently – even as, and now perhaps in some cases because of the fact that I left traditional meteorology and have started a new journey in psychology – and intellectually-fulfilling and worthwhile social interaction, especially around my age and in my peer group, is hard to find. But, I realize something in the wake of my experiences last spring, and after a year’s worth of growth and new experiences. I am happy (content with where I am professionally and in terms of my general career path), and I am content, perhaps for the first time in my life, with who I am as a person (comfortable in my disorders and disabilities, self-esteem, and confidence). No longer am I concerned or content with living life down to the level of those who would seek to see me as, or cause me to be, anything but utterly content and happy with myself.
Pulling It All Together: Closing Thoughts
Although I have wanted to write in various ways about some of the individual ethics-related elements discussed herein for quite a while, I did not possess the words and fully articulated thoughts with which to satisfactorily compose any such articles until recently, nor was I of the right mindset.
To write so candidly in a public forum of my experiences and so directly of problems that are of moral, ethical, and societal concern – this is not something I do lightly. It is highly discomforting, and I have thought very critically as to whether or not I should go through with writing and publishing this piece. However, I feel that it is necessary if I am to affect even a small amount of change. To paraphrase Emma Watson in her gender equality speech to the United Nations, I will say that in doubting whether or not I should deliver this article, I have reminded myself that if I do not endeavor to do this, who will, and when? Who else will work to bring awareness to these issues, and work to correct these problems? I am in a position where I have the potential to make a difference, and that is what I am trying to do, however small it may be. After three months, having engaged myself in very deliberate and thoughtful writing, and much reflective thought, I give to you this disquisition, this synthesis of science, and non-science, and heart. In some ways, this is a dissociation with my formerly unconfident self, and a eulogy for what stands, in many ways, as my first real friendship. In other ways, it is a plea for equality, societal acceptance, and inclusion, not only for myself, but also all others who have disorders and disabilities. It is, lastly, a proclamation showcasing some facets of the transformation I have undergone in the past year as I have found a purpose and new aspirations for my life in lieu of the traditional meteorology career I long desired.
It is important to always express kindness and empathy towards others, even those we do not know – and especially to those who have disabilities. These are the individuals most often ignored, and hurt, in society. One never knows what positive, potentially life-altering change a seemingly-simple act of kindness or empathy may spark. People, regardless of disorder or disability, can succeed in many cases – if they are given the right opportunities and levels of support. To this end, we should strive to more readily accept and embrace those who are different, or are perceived to be different, from ourselves. At any given point in time, even when we are not consciously trying, we have the potential to affect another person in a positive manner. It should be this fact, and not money or possessions, not fame or influence, not popularity, that motivates us to act empathically as often as we healthfully can, to the best of our abilities. Kindness, after all, makes the world go ‘round.
As my former World Religion instructor, Steven Meigs, once eloquently stated: “Diversity is beautiful; diversity is awesome. When you see someone very different from you, the correct response shouldn’t be to separate yourself; the correct response should be: ‘I don’t understand that person; I want to meet them.’ We should gravitate towards things that are diverse, because it enriches us; it helps us grow.”
This article is dedicated to my former classmate and friend. Had we not met, I would not be the person I am today. Although we fell out of contact after the semester ended, as classmates often do, and although our friendship was regrettably fleeting, I am okay, as I recognize that everything happens for a reason and has a specific timing.
This article is not perfect by any means, nor is it something I would normally publish, as it is incredibly personal. I originally wrote it to mark Autism Awareness/Acceptance Month (April) 2016. However, let us consider this: in a more empathic world, should not every day be a day for awareness and acceptance for autism (and also for all disorders and disabilities)? I think it great that we dedicate the entire month, annually, to raising awareness and promoting acceptance, but why not take it further; why not practice these things every day of the year? That should be our goal, not looking constantly for cures or causes, not taking sides in meaningless arguments.
My articles are usually short and tightly-written. For the most part, I try to remain non-technical and under 2,000 words to allow for easier reading; this massive, nearly-11,000-word piece (10,977), by comparison, spans twenty-seven pages in Microsoft Word, and is quite technical, psychologically speaking (by my usual standards, at least).
I sincerely hope that in reading this and allowing yourself to interact with something that is different and outside the bounds of normalcy, you have opened yourself to new thoughts and perspectives. I hope you feel challenged in that way, to be more open-minded. I hope you will leave this article with a better understanding of empathy, and of autism, and that, having read briefly of some of my experiences, you will, in the future, be more cognizant of your potential impact on others. Finally, I hope you will be motivated to be more ethical and empathic – in your day-to-day social interactions, but especially when interacting with individuals who are affected by disorders or disabilities. Choose empathy and kindness.
References – Journal Article Citations in Order of Appearance
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