Because of their difficulty recognizing what other people are thinking and feeling, adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder typically understand the literal, rather than the figurative, meaning of communication. The statement, “I feel blue,” for example, might confuse someone with Autism who would not immediately recognize the reference to being down, sad, or depressed.
Such a tendency to misunderstand the intentions imbedded in figurative communication lends itself to the conception of adults with Autism as gullible, easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action. “Put your money in the stock market” might easily be interpreted to quite literally invest all one’s savings into stocks. The vulnerability to misunderstanding is seen not as a willing decision but an automatic, reflexive outcome of their condition.
The belief that people on the spectrum are by nature vulnerable is quite different from seeing vulnerability as a conscious decision to take risks in allowing others to see who you really are, particularly what you are ashamed of or don’t like about yourself, and to instead strive to be transparent and open, to reveal uncomfortable truths in the belief that doing so will lead to greater happiness and fulfillment.
Brené Brown, a research professor at the Univerisity of Houston’s Graduate School of Social Work describes vulnerability as, “that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.” She believes vulnerability is “the core, the heart, the center of human experience.” It makes way for courage, love, joy, and creativity, and leaves us “open to more connection, more clarity, and more unexpected opportunity to experience life in freeing ways.”
The views of Dr. Brown and others who study vulnerability are radically different from how vulnerability is viewed with respect to adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and I am of the opinion that their view is actually more in line with the experiences of many people on the spectrum who desire connectedness with people as much as their neurotypical counterparts. True, their experiences are often replete with instances of derision, rejection, ridicule, and disapproval, but these are the doings of others who don’t understand them rather than the outcome of their struggles and challenges. Their desire for vulnerability, in the sense that Dr. Brown and others mean, is real and strong and equal to any other persons or groups of people.
The fact that adults on the spectrum are susceptible to misunderstanding others is not synonymous with a desire to be engaged with others, to be open, honest and willing to take the risks that lead to more openness, more clarity and more freedom to live life to its fullness. It befits us to recognize the difference between these two perspectives, to remember that vulnerability can be positive and enriching, not something to be avoided or the inevitable outcome of one’s neurodivergence. People, whatever their differences, in the end are all the same.