Vincent Van Gogh, an artist I have great affection for, once said,”As we advance in life it becomes more and more difficult, but in fighting the difficulties the inmost strength of the heart is developed. ”
Which brings me to this curious idea that autistics lack the capacity to feel love and empathy. I’ve been hearing it since I was thirteen, and I do believe that it became a type of self-fulfilling prophesy for me during my teen years. I would jealously watch my friends couple up, not only saddened that I thought I was forever deprived of what they had, but struggling with my own desires for women, which were growing more pronounced and undeniable each day. Because I was a teenager lacking in the critical thinking skills to dissect, question, and dispose of this falsehood, I let it rule my existence for far too long. I denied ever feeling love, though I had no other word for what I was experiencing.
No more. Now, I am in control of my emotions, and own each and every one of them. Love, anger, passion, melancholy, loneliness, joy, the lot. People who think that autistics do not feel these deep and powerful, intensely human emotions have created a funhouse mirror of what our true selves are. I, and many other autistics, am a bubbling cauldron of passions, including love and empathy. I simply express it differently from a neurotypical understanding, and sadly, learned for the longest time to suppress it, because I thought it was unnatural.
Speaking of love, this also ties deeply into how I feel romantic love as a queer woman. That too, is another type of love which is not understood as being valid, real, and complete. It’s often dismissed as useful merely for cheap titillation, a “phase”, or an abomination. Just like the passions of the autistic, bigoted types feel the need to dismiss queer love because they fail to understand it. It paints outside the borders of their narrow box. And, like autistic emotions, many of us are compelled to camouflage this love, which dare not speak its name (I know, that refers exclusively to male homosexuality, but it’s too poetic to pass up a chance to use) out of fear or misunderstanding of it, either absorbed by us in an inverted bigotry, or expressed by others.
Keeping all of these boiling emotions, all this love, in a neat box which can be cleanly interpreted by others is impossible without some difficulty and pain. Anxiety, depression and eating disorders are common among queer women and autistic women. It reminds me of an image I saw in Catholic school, of Mary’s heart, which was burning with fire and bleeding, from swords piercing it. I’m not a Catholic, but I can strongly relate to that image of the burning, bleeding heart. After so much internalized pain and fear, that could very well be mine.
But the fire has tempered it to be strong as steel, and there’s no denying that I am eternally grateful that my heart bleeds. Vincent was right. I don’t wear that strength on my sleeve, flaunting it constantly, but I acknowledge it, and I am proud of it. And I am proud to love and to be loved, and to feel that tug of mutual pain and caring known as empathy. You’ll never really know, if you are neurotypical, just how deep it flows in me. And that is your loss.