Someone forwarded me a fascinating article about the impact of being aware of the emotions of others: What It’s Like to ‘Wake Up’ From Autism After Magnetic Stimulation.
“Though he wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 40, John Elder Robison felt isolated and disconnected throughout his entire youth and early adulthood. But in 2008, at 50, he took part in what became a three-year research project looking at brain function in individuals with autism spectrum disorders and exploring the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to help them.”
So what exactly happened when you first stated noticing emotional cues?
When I got to work I walked into the waiting room, as I usually do, and I looked at everyone and there was this flood of emotion. I could see it all: They were scared and anxious and eager, and never in my life had I seen something like that. I had to step out of the room because I didn’t know how to cope. It felt like ESP. Maybe in the past I used the logical part of my brain to look at people around me and carefully analyze. I figured out situations using logic. So I had that powerful ability but now the screen of emotion was turned on, too.
So it wasn’t the positive outcome you had hoped for?
I’d fantasized about really understanding other people’s emotional world. I imagined a world of sweetness and light — emotions I’d been missing all my life. But when it happened, the reality showed me what a fool I’d been. Now, I could look at a person and sense all their emotions. And most were downers. Maybe they were upset about whether they could afford to fix their car. Maybe they had kids in college and tuition was choking them. Maybe they were jealous or angry. It was enough to make me burst into tears over ordinary auto service-department conversations. I couldn’t talk and I had to go outside. I must have come across as so very weird.
So, in a way, you feel your autism had protected you from the pain in the world?
Yes. And now, I realized, that protective shield was suddenly lost.
Perhaps non-autistic people are so accustomed to this that we don’t feel the impact like Robison. Or at least I’d always assumed that empathy was a good thing. Seeing it from his perspective puts a new spin on it. Maybe we haven’t quite evolved along with the pace of urbanization and globalization. I’d imagine that if we lived in small towns back in the day, empathy was manageable, but being exposed to news from all over the world, feeds from hundreds of contacts, an endless stream of strangers in dense cities… maybe our brains are a bit behind in being able to properly manage the emotional load.