Sunday, January 24

A New Autistic Understanding of Empathy

Dear Self:

Today I had a thought.

I know that nothing happens in isolation. The circumstances of my life, whether big or small, personal or public, can deeply affect people on the other side of the world. Good things and bad things that happen to me can be incredible blessings to others, and each of us can learn from the experiences of others.

But it's more than that. I had a glimpse today into the reality that, perhaps, life circumstances are more connected to others (and more influenced by them) than I really understand.

My example: 

I often make people feel uncomfortable, sometimes just by existing.

(It's not on purpose; I wish I could do something to make it never happen again. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable, ever.)


Being attracted to guys makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I attracted to you? Maybe. It's unlikely. Even if I were, it wouldn't go anywhere. The law of chastity is pretty clear on that one.)

Being just autistic enough to be strange, but not enough to be obvious, makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I really that brash/proud/unthinking to not be able to pick up on what that person actually meant, or to break that social norm? Maybe. I'm just normal enough that people can attribute *all* of my social flaws to personality defects.)

Appearing highly confident (more like emotions just don't communicate as easily) can make some people uncomfortable.

Sounding "smart" (or having an obsession with selecting the right word for each sentence because of each word's inherent differences and nuances) can make some people uncomfortable.

Most of the things in my life can make people feel uncomfortable. And  many... and maybe even most... people have told me, and tell me, all the time, that they feel that way. That being in my presence (and it's magnified many times by those who spend a lot of time with me) makes them different... in a usually somewhat unpleasant way.

Side note.

When I realized that many people felt uncomfortable around me the first time... I immediately cut social ties with every person who was close to me but not family. The realization that I, just by existing, made people uncomfortable, was something I couldn't handle. Helping people feel loved and accepted and worthwhile is one of my biggest personal goals in life, and realizing that I was doing the exact opposite made me want to give up. I realized later that it was worth being around people even if it hurt me and them. Usually.

So I have a bunch of facets that can make me uncomfortable to be around. My best friend tells me that he feels inferior to me no matter how many times I try to build him up. My younger sister tells me that she doesn't feel creative when compared to me, even after creating really cool things. A girl once even went so far as to say that I was scarier as a judge (of her internationally acclaimed music performance) than the judges she was preparing for.

And what if God intended that?

What if God made me the way I am so that I could be a stumbling block? A stray thorn?

I realize that my trials can help people when they see or realize a greater perspective, but what if they're also designed to burden the people around me? To push them beyond their limits, try their patience, and bruise their self-esteem? What if my trials, the ones that burn me out and make me want to cry myself to sleep, were also sent to my family, associates, ward members, and everyone else in contact with me to try them as well?

Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but until today it had never occurred to me.

When my sister got cancer, it wasn't my trial. It affected me, but not really all that much. When my brother had cancer, it was harder, but only because I was trying to help take care of him, our business, and graduate school all at the same time. I ran out of time and energy every single day, and that was my trial. The actual trial of leukemia never even got close.

I've talked with other people who had the same experience, and it had a massive impact on their lives. For some of them, it shook their faith. For others, it pushed them closer to God.

For me...

Maybe it's from the autism. Maybe one reason I struggle to empathize with people with experiences I haven't had is that they don't affect me the way they do everyone else. 

And perhaps that's also why it never occurred to me that my trials could be a burden to others.

Are there people who look at me and wonder the same questions I do? Are there people who can somehow feel the emotional pain hidden under the busy, successful outer layer?

I think there are.

And that adds a whole new facet to life. One that I hadn't thought about.



If I had had this insight/revelation six years ago, I think I would have made the decision to never reach out to people again.

Because my focus was on not hurting people. I knew that *some* people experience discomfort at the beginning of the relationship, but anyone who stayed got past that, right? And my problems were my own problems.

But they're not. My problems are your problems and his problems and her problems, and somehow just by existing the emotional pain I feel affects you.

That's why people have such a hard time with gay rights issues. And why news stories can affect political voting. And why so many people are deeply affected by things they know nothing about.


So what's my conclusion today?

I've realized that sharing who I am openly can make people hurt inside, as well my intended goal - to help them heal.

Do I, out of supposed care for the people around me, hide my problems so that others can't vicariously experience what I do? Do I coat myself with a thin, hard veneer such that people can't catch what's inside?

Thankfully, in the last few years I've learned something important about how God works... and something important about happiness.

Happiness isn't about having an easy life or having things the way I want. Happiness isn't about knowing all the answers or understanding why or how things will happen. Happiness isn't about knowing the future or being in control. It's about trusting God, and following Him.

Learning to be happy takes time. It takes work. And, in many cases, it takes a lot of difficult experiences. Sometimes those experiences are inside us. And sometimes they're not.

I don't know how I feel about my newfound understanding. It highlights a bunch of red flags I didn't even know I had. 

But I think I'm ok. This helps me in my goal to not be afraid. When I understand the things I face, I can measure them, rather than cower in fear of the unknown.

Now I understand why I've had therapists cry during counseling sessions. I never got it before.

So my life, as hard as it is for me, might be hard for others, too. The seeming unfairness I've had to struggle with could be a struggle for someone watching me. And my own painful pathway could inflict emotional wounds on others when we've never even met.

I don't understand it... because that's not how my life works. But I got a glimpse today that, maybe, that's how it works for others.

If that's how it works, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that anyone has felt my pain. And I hope that anyone watching me can find the light that I have... and feel the love of God as I have as well.


  1. Another thought: If I lack the ability to empathize, that means that I may have to have my own personal set of trials, right? With empathy, I could vicariously experience a trial that someone else is going through... as strange as that seems to me... and not have to go through the trial myself to understand. But if I can't feel the same things, and I have to learn that specific lesson... God may have to teach it to me personally. Man. I feel like God uses vicarious experience a lot in most lives. That could mean that my life is going to be rough.

  2. Stumbled on your blog from a link someone shared on FB (your well-shared post about your views on the controversial church policy). Stayed on your blog because I really, deeply admire your faith in Heavenly Father and His ability to see you through everything. And that you can eventually receive all blessings (and most likely a great deal more than those of us that didn't have to work through as much to get them). I'm married, have two children, and live in California where these are very hot topics and my children will be most likely be exposed to a great deal of incorrect information. I must say, as a mother and a youth leader, I am unspeakably grateful for people like you that are willing to lay it out there and be a faithful pioneer for people with testimonies of the gospel who also have same-gender attraction who are wondering where they belong and how they can handle the pain and difficulties they face. It seems you found the answer: turn to God.
    And my response to this post is "Wow...deep thoughts." Really good thoughts. Just think of yourself as a rock polisher that helps us roll our rough corners off. :) I think we're all each other's rock polishers. That line of thinking also helps me with my tendency to get down on myself when I make mistakes. I try to learn from them but I still feel bad about the harm I cause (in terms of hurt feelings) that can't always be undone, even with an apology. It does help a little to think that my mistakes can actually help people, if they are willing to turn to God.
    Lately, I've been thinking about the Provo Temple. How even though I don't think anyone would argue that God started the fire, he did allow it to burn. But it's because he knew he could turn into something so much greater. So when we turn our will over to God, he can make everything--even others mistakes and bad choices--work for our good. So even though I can't always fix all my mistakes completely, He can.

  3. I learned a long time ago that the very thoughts we think can have a profound effect on others. If I choose to take the thoughts I've had after reading your stories and share them with others, does that make me less empathetic? To me, you are following a spiritual prompting to teach and that surely could not happen without empathy. Thank you for helping me gain a greater understanding.

  4. Hi David. I'm thinking that growth is almost always a bit (or a lot painful) and the ways we push and stretch each other are okay. I think that you help way more than you hurt or that your hurt helps more than it hurts? Something like that.


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