Have you ever walked into a room and immediately known something was wrong? What about before you walked into the room?
For years I have watched stereotypes and cliches comprise the majority of representation of autism in literature, television, and film. Some aspects of these portrayals were true to my life, and others were not. As the expression goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.
One portrayal has always been problematic for me: The idea people with autism have low emotional quotient (EQ). The suggestion I’m incapable of empathy is ridiculous. From what I’ve seen of many other people on the autism spectrum, it’s an absurd assertion in general.
Simon Baron-Cohen has built a career out of characterizing autism as a zero-empathy disorder. One vicious blogger I had the unfortunate luck of stumbling across quotes Baron-Cohen’s credentials at length, then proceeds to use them to mock actually autistic people having the audacity to claim any degree of reliable self-knowledge. In her blog, Psychopathy… Or Asperger’s Syndrome, she says the only reliable way to know if an autistic person has empathy is to ask a third party. She backs this up with things Simon Baron-Cohen wrote in The Science of Evil that reflect her opinion. I wonder what a third party would say about either of their capacity for empathy? The names they’ve given to their work show a lack of empathy, without even glancing at the content.
It doesn’t take long to find articles and research which show the view of autism is shifting towards what I’ve observed: People on the spectrum experience overloads of empathy, to the point where it’s hard to process and exhibit appropriate reactions.
The blogger I mentioned above tried to address this theory by saying unexpressed empathy amounts to no empathy at all. The ableism of this opinion is staggering. If a person only communicated through sign language, would she say they aren’t talking because they aren’t verbalizing? If they used a wheelchair for mobility, would she say they weren’t really moving?
If I am overwhelmed with empathy towards someone, my face might become deadpan. This can be my silent meltdown expression. By her logic, if my face doesn’t match my emotions, I don’t actually have feelings.
I suffer from anxiety. It can range from mild, all the way to clinical depression. Some triggers for anxiety are hard to avoid. It took me a long time to trust they weren’t figments of my imagination. These can come in the form of sensing the emotional state of people around me; sometimes before seeing them.
I’ve had times when I woke up with overwhelming dread. This feeling was accompanied by sweating, shaking, stomach aches, migraines, and panic attacks. On each of these occasions, it turned out someone in my life was suffering some kind of catastrophe. There was one occasion where the closer I got to school, the worse my stomach hurt. When I got to school, I found out a classmate had died. Maybe you’re thinking the symptoms earlier in the day were unrelated to finding out about the heightened stress levels and emotional upheaval; a mere coincidence. I never have believed it was coincidental, and recently I stumbled upon a possible name for the phenomena.
Sentinel Intelligence is the ability to sense threats that are undetectable by most people. People with high intelligence and heightened anxiety are more likely to exhibit Sentinel Intelligence. It’s connected to altruism and raised empathetic ability. This phenomenon flies in the face of Simon Baron-Cohen and the blogger’s theories. It confirms what I already witnessed to be true of many autistic people.
Peculiarly, the main character of my novel exhibited Sentinel Intelligence before I even had a word for it. Rory Lyon demonstrated Sentinel Intelligence before I even had a description of it. That’s the benefit of OWN STORIES. We need to learn to respect the lived experience of people.
It is aggravating that there are writers who think they can do some research, and produce characters in a book that reflect the real lives of people with autism. A large portion of the available research material is produced by Autism Speaks, who are mostly interested in fear-mongering for the purpose of raising funds. Another material comes from people like Simon Baron-Cohen, whose theories are increasingly being disputed, and people like the blogger who has an axe to grind.
What makes these writers think they can produce a character that understands things about the experience of autism that are only now starting to be studied and understood by researchers? That’s what I did with Rory Lyon. I gave her characteristics of Sentinel Intelligence when people in this field of study were only starting to look into the phenomena.