The Selfishness Paradox

It turns out that there are a number of very real autistic traits which are not "textbook" at all – in other words recognised by mental health professionals in the official literature – but nevertheless are very familiar to anyone who has experienced them. None of these are official diagnostic criteria, but they are nonetheless real.

When I was part of a group of autistic people who met regularly to share our experiences we discovered several of these that we all had in common but which hadn't even occurred to the group's NT facilitator.

One was an aversion to the overuse of names in conversation. It's fine when there's a group of people as of course you need to be able to know who is being addressed but when it's one to one it just feels... unpleasant and sinister. No matter how illogical that may actually be.

Another of these non-textbook traits is what I think of as the Selfishness Paradox.

During our group discussions we all discovered that we had a tendency to let other people get their way at the expense of us getting ours because at least we knew we could handle the disappointment of not getting our own way.

That was a known quantity.

However the other person's potential emotional reaction at not getting their way was an unknown and potentially very scary, especially to someone with hyper-empathy.

This could be seen as putting other people first.

"But," some people might say, "you do that in order to make yourself more comfortable so in fact it's done for selfish reasons!"

That is a logical argument. It's part of the larger philosophical point that there is no real altruism - the claim that we only do things to help others because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

This may be true; however I think what actually matters is the real effect of our actions on other people and their experience whatever the motivation. In this case it is the others who benefit the most, completely oblivious to the fact that it has in part been done to make ourselves more "comfortable" or to avoid mental pain.

It's a common fallacy that autistic people don't experience empathy. In fact the complete opposite is true - empathy is so overwhelming that it can cause us to appear to shut down emotionally. Hyper-empathy feels like a combination of having too much affective and somatic empathy – you sense what someone is going through, feeling or thinking and end up physically responding in a way not that different from how you'd respond if it was happening to you.

This hyper-empathy is not surprising – an autistic person is constantly watching and taking in their surrounding to pick up clues as to what the "acceptable" way of behaving in that social environment is, doing consciously what comes naturally to more neurotypical people. This makes us more susceptible to the minutiae of other people's behaviour.

There's no telepathy at work here, it's just being observant as a survival trait. Meerkats standing up on the savannah looking out for danger.

The hyper-empathy is an emergent property of this vigilant mindset. 

No wonder socialising can be so exhausting.


Photo by Keenan Constance from Pexels

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