If you Google a list of Asperger’s characteristics, chances are you’ll find one that reads something along the lines of “lack of empathy.” The twenty-page report that made my Asperger’s diagnosis official even included a mention of me allegedly lacking empathy based on the 1:1 observations from one six-hour testing session. I’ve heard the whole “lack of empathy” thing innumerable times in my twenty-one years of existence. Let me tell you this, based on my firsthand experience: that statement is absolute crap. It is NOT true.
I’m not sure what started the myth that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. Is it the Asperger’s face, seemingly eternally locked in one position? Is it the Asperger’s eyes, that find it too hard to make eye contact or that seemingly always stare off into space? Is it the inability to read the social cues that come so naturally to neurotypicals? Some people have told me that the way I look at them is really unsettling. I feel like people assume that the way you look on the outside directly influenced by how you feel on the inside. With this logic, if you have a blank face, then you are not feeling anything on the inside. I don’t believe this logic to be true. I am an intuitive person and I can usually tell how someone feels, even if his or her face reads otherwise. Because the Asperger’s face always appears apathetic at a state of rest, neurotypicals assume that we must not be feeling anything. Make no mistake — people with Asperger’s are humans too. And, like all human beings, we have emotions and feelings. One of the sentences I’m sick of hearing is “You don’t feel anything.” That statement is always a knife to the heart. I have always felt emotions. It’s just that, for years, I hid how I felt because I was terrified of looking stupid or dumb.
From a young age, I was ashamed of my own emotions. My emotions were highly volatile and any emotional expression was of high energy. I didn’t hold back on anything, be it sadness or happiness or frustration. I was in trouble regularly as a result. I was told that “normal” people did not act that way and that people would reject me if I kept my shenanigans up. So, for years, I suppressed my own emotions to the point that one day I could not feel anything. I would try to feel a certain emotion and nothing would happen.
The following story, of how I broke the spell, is one that I always tell people: In November of 2012, my mother and I were at the Carousel Mall movie theater here in Syracuse, watching Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians. I found myself really relating to the character of Jack Frost who, after being invisible for his entire 300 years of existence, just wants to find that one person who believes in him. When that moment finally happens, in the form of a little boy named Jamie, it is heartwarming and heartstring pulling. In that moment, I found myself sobbing hysterically. It was if someone had taken an ice pick and sent it flying through the rock-sold ice that encased my body, shattering it and freeing me. I had never cried so hard in my life. And I didn’t feel any guilt or shame in my emotional expression. For the first time in forever, I felt alive. I felt present in the moment. Ever since that day, my emotions have felt more readily accessible. I express my emotions and don’t feel like crap afterwards. My emotions remain high energy in their expression. I’m not one for faking it or half-assing it. If I feel something, I will let it out, because I’m just grateful to be alive and for the life that I have. I still get the occasional person who will tell me to calm the fuck down, and I’m so sick of this double standard: that neurotypicals have the right to lose their cool or to get giddy happy while Aspies do not because, well, they’re allegedly emotionally unstable. As a human being, I have the right to express myself just like any other human being. My brain might work a bit differently than yours but, other than that, I’m just like you. When you have Asperger’s, your five senses are more heightened than neurotypicals so overstimulation happens on a regular basis. But, when you’re on the adventure of life, you want to enjoy to the max because life is the most beautiful thing ever.
Madison “Maddie” Flavin is currently in her last semester at Syracuse University. She is a double major in Spanish and Selected Studies in Education. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s in February 2013, weeks before her twentieth birthday. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, while you’re at it, check out her Tumblr page, I Ride on the Rush, (vpike.tumblr.com) where her love of the entertainment industry, particularly movies, knows no bounds.