Mind & Body

A Study Has Confirmed What Autism Advocates Have Been Saying for Years

April is Autism Acceptance month, so there's no better time to shed light on one of the most misunderstood developmental disabilities in the world. Many allistic people (a term for people without autism) carry around unexamined assumptions and misconceptions about autism. For example, ever heard that autistic people don't have a sense of empathy? If you didn't already think that was absurdly false, new research is putting the stereotype to bed for good.

The Eyes Have It (Anxiety, That Is)

One of the most pernicious stereotypes about autistic people is that they are somehow incapable of empathy, or that they have an incomplete or undeveloped theory of mind. That idea goes back to the 1980s, when British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen championed what he called "mindblindness" as the primary symptom of autism. To him, it explained why many people on the autism spectrum avoid eye contact. Baron-Cohen (incidentally, the cousin of comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen) suggested that autistic people didn't feel the need to make eye contact because they lacked the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others.

As you can probably imagine, many self-advocating autistic people have long had an issue with an interpretation of their condition that painted them as biologically unsympathetic or uncaring. It's pretty insulting, to say the least, to be told that you're incapable of caring about the people you care about, and autistic people have been saying that for years. Finally, in 2017, a study vindicated their objections with an alternative explanation for the issue of eye contact — one that actually matched their experiences.

As it turns out, the issue isn't so much that autistic people are insensitive to the feelings of others. It's more that their brains are oversensitive. When autistic volunteers were given visual stimuli of other people's faces, the researchers found an excess of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for recognizing faces and interpreting facial expressions. That kind of overstimulation can cause pretty severe anxiety, which in turn can make meeting a stranger's (or a friend's) eyes downright frightening. That heightened anxiety? It's basically what autistic people have been talking about this whole time.

A New Paradigm

Many therapies devised for autistic people put a major focus on overcoming that aversion to eye contact. But according to Dr. Sue Fletcher-Watson from the Development Autism Research Society, learning to look other people in the eye might be "like a leftie learning to write with their right hand." It's possible, but it could be uncomfortable and not especially necessary. 

While there are some strategies that can make allistic people feel comfortable (such as looking at their eyebrows instead of their eyes), maybe those of us who are supposedly so good at social engagement can instead adapt to a less traditional way of connecting. After all, most of our societal norms are built on a baseline assumption of allism — that is, having no autistic symptoms. If your brain happens to fit the mold that social rules are based on, it's considerate to do what you can to accommodate amygdalas of a different kind.

If you want to know more about what it's like to live with autism, the best way is to ask somebody who actually lives with it. Barring that, you can read their book. In "Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking" from the Autism Self Advocacy Network, real people from yesterday and today recount their actual life experiences. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas April 6, 2018

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