There are a few mysteries surrounding autism that I cannot fathom. One of them is the perception that people on the spectrum lack empathy. This turns out to be a misunderstanding and is a myth rather than a fact.
The other mystery is the tendency for people on the spectrum to think in black and white with no room for gray areas. This is something I have great difficulties reconciling as I have always see myself as a person who perceives the different shades of gray. In fact, I cannot understand how people can be so adamant and black and white about many matters? How can people be so confident and firm in their opinion? If anything, the only thing I’m black and white about is seeing things in gray. Perhaps it is partly due to having a family member who always tend to see things in black and white (either right or wrong), I try to see both sides of a coin; the pros and cons; the objective and subjective; and always end up sitting on the fence. I don’t believe in absolute right or wrong and good or bad.
Take my advice, I don’t use it
I made myself clear from the beginning that I do not hold myself out as an advocate of autism or represent anyone on the spectrum, not least to mention, giving advice. I am also wary of self-help books which claim to give people advice on “How to …”. I believe what is applicable to one may not be applicable to the other and have difficulties coming to grasp with advice that attempts to generalise all humans and assumes that everyone starts off from a common ground. Because it takes one to know one, I am reluctant to put myself in a position where I claim to speak for all.
I can explain this with the Chinese saying 因材施教 which translates to mean “teach according to one’s ability.” The origins of the saying derives from The Analects of Confucius.
“Confucius then gave two answers to the same question put forward by two different students independently. To the one student, Confucius advised him that he should consult with his father or brother before making a decision, and to the other one, he said that he should go ahead with the request. Why then these two answers for the same question? Confucius explained that the first one was too daring in decision making so he asked him to slow down, and for the other student, he was always hesitant in making decision so Confucius encouraged him to make the decision immediately.
~Kim Cheng Patrick Low, Teaching and Education: the ways of Confucius. Educational Research, 1(12), 681-686. http://www.interesjournals.org/full-articles/teaching-and-education-the-ways-of-confucius.pdf?view=inline
Terms & conditions apply: the importance of context
I believe that we are a product of our circumstances and everyone is shaped by their own experiences. Circumstances is determined by and is not limited to the following: genetic, environmental, upbringing, cultural, education, personality, religion, nationality, beliefs, political, socio-economic, status etc. Surely, one size doesn’t fit all.
This comes with a reminder that there is an implied term for every word I said depends on the circumstances of the case.
What does this have to do with empathy?
It always perplex me when it is said that people on the spectrum lack empathy for I could argue the same of neurotypicals. Leaving this point aside for now, sometimes I think that my ‘lack of empathy’ stems from having the need to discern the context of the case (which for the most part is impossible because to determine the circumstances of the case, I would have to know the person or situation truly well), while others can readily form an opinion about something (or even jump into a conclusion) without discerning the context of the case. It is possible that my attempt to rationalise a situation or a person’s behaviour may come out as a lack of empathy in some situations.
So take my advice:
But don’t forget the context:
“Follow your passion. Stay true to yourself. Never follow someone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path. Then by all means you should follow that.”
Ellen DeGeneres, Tulane University Commencement Speech 2009