Each individual with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is unique. I say this knowing that having Autism implies sharing similar characteristics with others who have this condition. These include an inborn disposition to misunderstand and avoid social engagement, communication difficulties, desire for sameness in behavior and activities, and narrow interests that are pursued repetitively. The basic problem of ASD is an inability to relate in ordinary ways to people and situations, leading to an extreme aloneness.
Yet, classifying people and the problems they have, as necessary and helpful as it is, leads us to notice what it is about them that makes them fit a particular condition or category. How they are unique, even different from the characteristics of that condition, is less likely to grab our attention.
The traditional view of Autism Spectrum Disorder as a failure to form normal attachments, to lack feelings, to be self-centered, and to lack purpose and direction, does not fit my experience of adults with ASD. I have found, to the contrary, that attachment to others is often enormous, at times overwhelmingly intense, and frequently unbearable. Autism, in my view, is less about disliking people and thus avoiding them and instead a paralyzing fear of the desire to be with people.
The same is true of the commonly thought of inability to empathize. Often the experience of others’ feelings is so intense and strong as to be overwhelming. Rather than being unaware of how people feel or being aware but not caring, typically it is the opposite, an acute sensitivity to emotions that propels someone to push people away in order to prevent oneself from being assaulted by the depth and intensity of feeling what someone else is experiencing.
In my years of working with adults on the spectrum, hardly an instance has passed when I have not been impressed by how honest they are. I say this not to exalt Autism as more virtuous than normal but because deceit, hypocrisy, falseness and dishonesty are simply uncommon traits in this condition. To have ASD is to feel isolated, disconnected and alienated from others. Why antagonize people by treating them badly when one is already lonely as it is.
If anything, what troubles people with Autism Spectrum Disorder the most is fear, fear of being rejected, isolated, made fun of, abused and misused, and alienated. I know this is contrary to the typical view. Aloof, remote, detached and self-centered are traits usually associated with Autism, for good reason given how socially awkward they can be, and it is precisely because of this, because of how easily they are rejected, that fear hovers close by many of those on the spectrum. Undoubtedly, this is why hiding is a dominant coping mechanism seen in so many with ASD.
Closely aligned with the perverseness of fear is the frequency of helplessness. This only makes sense given how strange and alien the world, especially the social world, often appears to people with ASD. Imagine lacking a clear understanding of how people think and feel and why they behave the way they do, and it is not hard to see how powerless, vulnerable and lost one might be. I think this is why adults on the spectrum often appear remote and detached. It would be easy to cope with a deeply felt and consistent sense of helplessness by acting as though one didn’t care about others. Safety is a primary need, and if detaching from others is a means of achieving that, why wouldn’t one opt to project a sense of invulnerability?