Sensitivity and Idealism in Autism

by Guy Shahar

8th February, 2017

Most children are born sensitive and idealistic.  It is at the heart of who we are as human beings.  That is why we are accustomed to hearing such profound and moving purity from the mouths of the young.

As they grow, and are faced with increasing adversity from the world around them (including, inadvertently, from their parents who have themselves become part of this world), they are faced with a choice – either absorb the pain of the harshness to which they are exposed, or find some way of protecting themselves from it.

At first, the only option that occurs is to absorb it, but when it continues to intensify as they grow, and is even reflected in the behaviour towards them of other children, this becomes too painful a situation in which to remain resilient, and they revert to the second option of protection, and to some extent desensitise themselves to the worst of what they are subjected to.

Of course, it is not really a choice.  The instinct of self-preservation guides it, and in case there is still any reservation, it is propelled by the prevailing messages in society that they should “toughen up” and that they “just have to get used to it”.

So they do, which has the advantage of enabling them to continue to participate in the world around them and with other children who are undergoing the same process, and of sheltering themselves from the worst of the pain inherent in human social interaction in its current form.  These are advantages that meet the urgent needs they face.

However, it also has disadvantages.  It separates them from parts of their innate nature and puts the actions that are necessitated by their new choices at odds with it.  An inherent contradiction arises which remains, to varying degrees, at the edge of their consciousness, and that is never resolved.  They also become less patient with those few who take a different course and retain something of the connection to the essence with which they were born, as it reminds them of this contradiction within themselves.

This is why we now live in a world where sensitivity is regarded as a weakness, idealism is perceived to be naïve, sincerity is treated as a dispensable luxury, and integrity is almost universally considered a worthy but unattainable ideal, a perception that normalises our own loss of integrity and gives us license to further corrupt ourselves.

In time, these youths grow into adults, who are so assimilated into this culture that they become the parents who inadvertently, but necessarily, give their own children the harsh experiences that ensure that they too embark on this inevitable process.

Where all of this is relevant to autism is that a key difference between autistic children and others, is that those with autism do not go through this process.  They are not instinctively disposed to this form of self-protection.  The option simply does not occur, and if it did, they wouldn’t be inclined to or even know how to take it.

This doesn’t mean that they find the harshness any less painful, or are necessarily any stronger than other children in their ability to withstand it.  It is simply that the same binary choice is not available to them.  And without being able to take that choice, they retain their instinctive idealism and integrity, but at the cost of becoming completely overwhelmed by what they are subjected to and, for that reason, unable to fully participate in society.

Being constantly assailed by the effects of what they experience as the hardness of the world, and without the option to desensitise themselves enough to participate in it, the only course left to them to ensure their survival is to retreat from it and begin to emotionally detach themselves from the reality of what is going on around them.

Could it be that the more superficial presentations of autism – which we regard as “sensory issues”, “social difficulties”, “co-ordination problems”, “poor emotional regulation” and so on – might stem from this underlying situation?

As I have written many times before, if we see autism in this light, the condition is a disadvantage only in the context of the current social reality of this world (outlined above).  In the more evolved world to which we mostly aspire (though still widely considered to be a naïve ideal) where there wasn’t routinely enough harshness and negativity to overwhelm, the instinct to remain open in the face of adversity would be a great strength.  It would ensure the continued cohesion and integrity of the individual even when the going got tough.

If we were able to retain some connection with our origins and to value the autistic person from a very young age for who they are and for what they bring; and if we at least did what we could to protect them as much as possible from the harshness that we inflict upon one another, we may even find that they have the potential to lead us towards such an ideal.

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