In recent years the narrative has shifted from saying that autistic people feel too little – usually due to a purported empathy deficit – to saying we feel too much. This move has been widely celebrated: seen by many in the autistic community both as vindicating autistic self-advocates, and as a step forward for the neurodiversity conception of autism as a difference rather than a deficit.
To give a bit of initial context, this shift began largely in light of decades of autistic self-advocates stressing that many characteristically autistic social problems are more the product of an overwhelming sensory world, rather than due to an innate inability to empathise. In light of this, neurotypical researchers eventually began to propose new cognitive theories of autism, and in turn to carry out studies to test various related hypotheses.
The most notable example of this is the intense world theory, initially proposed by Henry Makram and his co-authors in 2007. This theory claims that autism is a product of ‘hyper’ sensitivity rather than ‘hypo’ sensitivity as had been previously thought. In the words of Makram et al:
‘because a subset of cues are overly intense, compulsively attended to, excessively processed and remembered with frightening clarity and intensity. Autistic people may, therefore, neither at all be mind-blind nor lack empathy for others, but be hyper-aware of selected fragments of the mind, which may be so intense that they avoid eye contact, withdraw from social interactions and stop communicating.’
For them, this includes not just cognitive-perceptual differences, but also ‘hyper-emotionality’, leading autistic people to become, in their words, ‘trapped in a limited […] internal world’. In turn, subsequent research has seemingly supported this theory, such as a recent study which found precisely that autistic people don’t look others in the eyes, not due to social disinterestedness as previously thought, but rather due to sensory-overload – just as autistic people, and in turn Makram, suggested.
Quite understandably, such theories and the re-framing associated with them have been celebrated by autistic people as emancipatory and ‘ground-breaking’. Especially given how damaging the empathy-deficit myth is for the autistic population, and also given how this new framing seems to better fit with autistic lived experience, it is easy to see why so many embrace this new framing. Hence one recent article that is intended to support autistic self-advocacy, for instance, states: ‘As it turns out, the issue isn’t so much that autistic people are insensitive to the feelings of others. It’s more that their brains are oversensitive’
Nonetheless, there is reason to be wary. As feminists have long argued, part of the relationship dynamic between the oppressed and the oppressor regards how the oppressor tends to systematically appropriate the vocabularies and claims of the oppressed under the guise of friendship. An yet the this is actually done in order to reinforce – albeit more subtly – existing power-relations. In the case of autism, this would mean neurotypicals in positions of power adopting some of the vocabularies or insights of autistic neurodiversity proponents in order to seem like supporters; yet to in fact use this process to produce a more subtle, and thus harder to spot and combat, pathologisation of autistic being.
In this regard, the first thing to note is that the intense world theory is still a pathology paradigm theory through and through. For on the one hand, how the theory is presented by Makram uses all the same unduly negative descriptions (‘compulsive’, ’impairments’ and so forth) and metaphors (the ‘trapped’ child, who needs ‘unlocking’ etc.) we see in all the other medical accounts. On the other hand, it seems to have been widely overlooked how, within psychiatric theory, it does not matter whether a psychological difference is considered ‘hyper’ or ‘hypo’: either way, it is taken to be a matter of pathologically falling outside the norm. ‘Too much’ may be different to ‘too little’, but it is still considered just as inherently bad. Hence, although this challenges one pathology paradigm framing of autism, it only replaces it with another.
But perhaps the most worrying thing here regards how this new framing leads to autistic suffering being blamed on autistic oversensitivity. In this regard it is worth drawing attention to a form of psychological domestic abuse sometimes called ‘gaslighting’. What this refers to is the systematic undermining of the victim’s sense of reality in order to make them think the abuse is their fault rather than the fault of the abuser.
Very significantly, one of the core ways to do this is for the abuser to convince the victim that they are just too sensitive, meaning that any hurt they feel is not down to their abusive environment but rather due to their own inability to cope with the world. Hence, if the abuser, say, cheats on their spouse, the abuser can argue that it wasn’t a big deal, and that the spouse is just oversensitive, perhaps even overly jealous, thus dismissing the hurt and instead framing the victim as being the problematic one. In other words, subtle manipulation techniques are used to not just to victim-blame, but also to make the victim internalise and thus believe this – to the point where they finally lose their sense of reality and can be totally controlled by the abuser.
With this in mind, I am wary of all accounts that frame autistic suffering and disablement stemming from us being hyper-sensitive. Far from reversing it, all this does is make the pathologisation of autism more subtle, more hegemonic. In fact, the issue is that the sensory world is designed for the neurotypical, and so has by and large failed to accommodate the autistic sensory-style. That is, whilst it is true that we suffer from ‘too much information’, this stems from the neurotypical-centric way in which the world is organised – not due to how we process the world as such.