On Empathy and Building Spaceships

On Empathy and Building Spaceships

Two things happened in my life yesterday (three if you count the fact I had an excellent halloumi pizza, but that’s of limited relevance to this post). One, I finished my first week of a two month intensive web development bootcamp. Two, my twitter timeline* exploded in reaction in reaction to a (since deleted, with an apology**) post at SF Signal titled “We Are All Disabled”. A title that, frankly, wasn’t a good start, and it got considerably worse from there.

So I’m an autistic person studying coding, and there’s so much baggage there I don’t know where to start. I was a kid who loved books and loved numbers (and, when I got my hands on them properly, loved computers). I felt consistently pulled to make a choice between them. “Are you going to go into arts or sciences,” my Grandfather would ask, from when I was about 6 years old and still confused about how art meant painting and arts meant books and history. (Why yes, I do come from a rather educationally privileged background.)

When I was around 10, I read an article in a newspaper about Asperger’s Syndrome. “That’s me!” I wanted to yell, as I made my way through the bullet points. I got to the last one. Doesn’t like writing stories. I thought of the novel I’d just written. (It was about two German children on the run in WWII Wales. It was probably half plagiarised. Still, it was a novel.) I read the bullet point again. “This isn’t me,” I thought, deflated.

It was me, but I wouldn’t have that confirmed for years.

(I’m not sure, now, whether I missed a subtlety of the article or if it explicitly excluded people who write fiction from the definition. Either way, the idea that I couldn’t possibly be a writer and be autistic persisted and was reinforced from all directions.)

The weight of this perceived binary choice weighed heavily on me throughout my teens. When I leaned towards science, I received some excellent mentorship, but I also noticed it was easier to dehumanise me when I focused on maths. When a teacher goes round the class complimenting something about everyone’s personality and when they get to you they dismissively comment that you’re “good at maths”… that actually really hurts, and when it happens repeatedly, you start to wonder if you’re a person at all.

When I was nineteen (to cut a very long story about how I got there short) I enrolled in an English Literature degree, with an effective minor (my university didn’t formally have minors at that stage) in Creative Writing. I loved it. I did an MA in the same subject. I worked in student services. I wrote lots, inside and outside of formal study.

And at 30 I’m still writing and I’m studying web development. And it’s not because I chose one thing and then chose the other, it’s because I want to add new skills to what I can do. Still, when I explored this option, it felt like I was giving in to stereotypes. Was I just finally admitting that I can’t work with people and that I’m basically a machine to be plugged in to other machines? Was I denying that I could do the not-stereotypically-autistic things I had done for years?

(It’s hard to deal with interacting with stereotypes because you want to challenge them, but you also don’t want to declare yourself an exception, not like those autistic people over there. It’s important to me to both say “hey, yes, actually I can do customer service very well” but also not declare human worth dependent on being good at customer service.)

But I’m not just studying coding. I’m studying at a Dev Bootcamp. An environment that emphasises empathy, team work, pairing. We have weekly classes called “Engineering Empathy”. It’s a course that considers part of its mission to challenge the cultural toxicity in much of the tech industry (good). But I’ve also seen this approach placed in opposition to the stereotype of the autistic coder (who is always a loner, always a cis man, doesn’t know how to interact with anyone else, doesn’t understand how he impacts anyone else or see why he should take account of anyone else).

Hello whole other range of conflicted anxieties!

(I haven’t see this perpetuated by those who are running my bootcamp, to be clear. I’m thus far having a great, but exhausting, experience – the staff have listened to me and acknowledged me when I say I find something hard and when I’ve asked for basic accommodations or told them I need to do things a little differently, that has not been a problem.)

See above for why challenging stereotypes are hard. Some autistic people are studying coding and are very aware of how their role interacts with others. They get on well with other members of their class, but find relating to them takes some conscious effort. They want to support their classmates. They generally have good relationships and act appropriately but make the odd faux pas. They know they talk too much and can dominate a discussion but are actively working on not doing that. They sometimes approach coding in really atypical ways and can have trouble explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing, but they understand the importance of making the effort. They’re worried about money because although they have a good employment record and positive references, but can’t do a lot of the traditional filler jobs like hospo or retail while they look for fulltime work (and not because they can’t talk to people but because they’re also dyspraxic and would drop things). They go for a beer after class and enjoy it but may find the music too loud. They wouldn’t want to pair-program all day in their eventual job, but can see the value of it. In other words, they have areas they need to work on, just like all their classmates, and they know there are environments they will do well in and others that are not so much for them. (This is me, in case you’re wondering.)

And some autistic people studying coding may have more trouble in this sort of environment. They may need a more solitary learning approach. But it’s really wrong to conflate this with problems in tech culture like sexual harassment.

So I have two camps of anxieties (actually I have a lot more, but that’s me). On the one hand, I’m worried that by pursuing a more traditionally autistic line of work, I’m falling into stereotypes and somehow proving those who undermined my humanity right. On the other, I’m concerned (despite evidence to the contrary) that I could be too autistic for the particular course I’m taking.

That SF Signal post. I didn’t just stick it in the first paragraph for the hell of it. The author describes herself as an empath and she experiences this in the context of disability. Had the post been about that, it would have been fine. Unfortunately she sets this up in opposition to autistic people which is, of course, not true and reinforces an idea that is used over and over again to deny rights and justify violence towards autistics. I’m not going to comment on everything I have problems with in the post, because I’m already over 1200 words, but there’s this:

We have today’s technology, tomorrow’s, and the very idea of going to the stars and a great deal of the means to get it done, in large part because of the work of those on the Autism spectrum. Our lives have changed and grown because of the FLK’s (Funny-Looking Kids) and FAK’s (Funny-Acting Kids). They are precious, valuable, essential.

But making and doing and living are three different things. Humanity will deserve to leave this planet and go to the stars, and we’ll be able to survive and thrive—because of people like me.

Yes, autistic people have been responsible for scientific and technological progress, almost certainly disproportionately so. (We also write books and paint and sing. We care for family members. We work in boring admin jobs. We are disproportionately unemployed and underpaid – and we do important things whether we are employed or not.)

When we have skills in technology, we don’t have them for you. We live under capitalism, so usually someone else is making money from them. And I’ll certainly use my skills to help out a friend. But it is not the natural order of things that our abilities (whatever they are) exist in the service of allistic (ie not autistic) needs or desires. It is certainly not the case that our very existence is for providing these skills to the service of allistic needs or desires.

It’s perspectives like this that made me worry, that still make me worry, that by pursuing a tech career I’m allowing myself to have my humanity undermined. And I think this seems like a ridiculous fear to a lot of allistic people. But when you’re autistic you come across ideas like this – even as a small child, even before you know you’re autistic – and bit by bit they grind down on you.

The author is right, of course, that when we go to the stars we will need more than just the technological capacity to get there. And she is right that different people will bring different skills to that. But we’re not automatons making it happen to your directive. We’re not precious objects for you to own. We deserve, every bit as much as you do, to have a part in that future of humanity. We deserve a future for our species, because we are part of that species. And if the existence of humanity, as individual people and collectively, as people who build societies and futures, is what makes us deserve to move beyond the earth, then we, as humans, will deserve to because of us, as well as you.


*I saw excellent commentary by @roselemberg and @PunkinOnWheels in particular, but I’m sure I missed a lot from many others given the constraints on my time.

**The apology is here and a link to a screenshot of the original post can be found in the comments – a cached version can currently also be found here.


  • The Reading List, 2/14/2016

    […] “On Empathy and Building Spaceships“–“Was I just finally admitting that I can’t work with people and that I’m basically a machine to be plugged in to other machines? Was I denying that I could do the not-stereotypically-autistic things I had done for years?” […]

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