Growing up Autistic, I believe my difficulties with communication strengthened my empathy for animals. It broke my heart that no matter how desperately and clearly they communicated their terror and pain, they were ignored and discounted.
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I’ve wanted to speak on this topic for some time now, but I’m honestly worried I won’t be able to do it justice. I know I won’t be able to convey everything I want to convey, but I wanted to try, best I can. I do want to be clear that I do not speak for all Autistics. I am sharing my own personal experience. Every Autistic person is different.
I didn’t know I was Autistic until my thirties. It’s only been in the last handful of years that I’ve been able to look back on my life through the lens of Autism and better understand so much of my experiences, and the ways in which I see and relate to the world around me. Looking back, I believe my Autism has been an integral factor in my connecting with non-human animals.
I’m far from the first Autistic person to draw this association. Perhaps the most prominent voice on this topic is animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who has spent decades designing slaughterhouse equipment. Grandin has written extensively on how being Autistic allows her to put herself in the place of animals; how she can understand how they think, what scares them, what makes them feel safe.1 And, how she uses that profound connection to design “better” and “friendlier” ways to systematically slaughter them.2
I, on the other hand, arrived at a different conclusion.3
It never once occurred to me that non-human animals don’t have thoughts, emotions, desires, and rich interior lives all their own. While I didn’t know it at the time, looking back, I believe this was due to my own Autistic experience.
My entire life, I’ve felt like everyone had some manual that I’d failed to receive. Human interaction and communication is utterly baffling to me. Growing up, out of necessity, I became something of a child anthropologist—observing the behavior of the people around me and doing my best to approximate what I thought was expected. Navigating everyday interactions was—and is—an exhausting, intellectually and emotionally-demanding process.
This was made all the more distressing by the fact that I felt everything so intensely. There was so much I was experiencing and wanted to communicate—yet it was impossible to translate it out to those around me. But, just because I couldn’t express everything in a way others could understand, didn’t mean I wasn’t going through it.
I assumed this was the same for others—human and non-human alike. That just because non-human animals couldn’t speak in a way humans could fully understand, didn’t mean they weren’t capable of thought, emotion, or communication. In fact, I was certain they were communicating. Just as I was. It was only that humans couldn’t understand their language at the level they could, just as people around me couldn’t understand mine.
I knew how profoundly frustrating, isolating and demoralizing it was to be unable to convey what I wanted to convey. I knew how it felt to never be truly understood. And it broke my heart thinking of what non-human animals were experiencing at the hands of humans; that no matter how desperately and clearly they communicated their terror and pain, they were ignored and discounted.
Honestly, I think most people do connect with non-human animals in their childhood. If you put a piglet or chicken in front of a child, they will want to play with them. But we’re taught to conditionally sever this connection: this animal is okay to love, this animal is okay to eat; love Babe the pig, but eat bacon; watch Finding Nemo, but eat fish; love dogs, eat cows. Over time we separate ourselves from the most fundamental truth we knew inherently as kids: that it’s not okay to hurt others.
For me, this separation never seemed to fully take. One of the most troubling—and, frankly offensive—theories about Autism is that Autistic people are deficient or totally lacking in empathy. More recent theories of Autism propose that the exact opposite is true: that “rather than being oblivious, autistic people take in too much and learn too fast. [That] they are actually overwhelmed not only by their own emotions, but by the emotions of others.”4 This certainly is the case for me.
As odd as it may sound, I empathize to a debilitating degree. I can’t help but put myself in the place of others, including non-human animals. Growing up, I assumed that others did this as well, which made cruel or even simply inconsiderate behavior seem all the more menacing. I couldn’t understand how people could knowingly harm one another and other sentient beings. I couldn’t understand how they could be so seemingly disconnected.
How could they not recognize the piercing screams of pigs being lowered into a gas chamber as an expression of pain. How could they not recognize the cries of a mother cow in the dairy industry after her calf has been ripped from her side as an expression of grief and anguish. I couldn’t understand why so many people didn’t appear to see what seemed so clear to me. And honestly, it hardened me some to humanity, because I assumed it was intentional blindness
You see, my brain doesn’t filter things the way most peoples’ brains do. Once I become aware of something, I have no way of turning it off. I essentially take in everything all at once, all the time. I feel everything all at once, all the time. For me, everyday life is often neurologically traumatic.
While certainly exhausting and challenging, I believe this aspect of my neurology eventually led me to a better understanding of the disconnect many people have when it comes to non-human animals. As well as the resistance many people have to going vegan. Truly confronting what sentient beings are subjected to for our dietary choices is itself traumatic. It’s ripping off the blinders and seeing what you can never unsee.
As someone who has no ability to filter, I understand how extremely painful it is to suddenly be overwhelmed by the suffering all around you—in every glass of milk, cut of meat, and carton of eggs. And I understand why someone would resist that pain of awareness. Eventually, rather than viewing non-vegan resistance as willful blindness, ignorance or uncaring, I began to see the majority as springing from understandable self-preservation.
Recognizing the obvious emotionality of non-human animals is often criticized as anthropomorphizing—attributing human emotions and intentions to non-human animals. But there is a stark difference between personifying animals and striving to see from their perspective.
We humans have a tendency to define everything through our own lens of reference. This is understandable in many ways given it’s the only lens we’ve ever seen through. However, it’s a highly problematic approach that invalidates the experiences of everyone unlike ourselves.
An example of this within our own species is the history of our understanding of Autism. I want to note that the complex and ever-developing field of Autism research is well beyond the scope of this article—so please know that what I’m touching on cannot help but be a gross oversimplification and is by no means meant to be comprehensive. Please see the further resources in the linked citation for more thorough information.5
Autism has long been viewed as a “defect,” characterized by cognitive deficits,6 affecting areas such as social skills, executive functioning, communication, and—what I find most objectionable—empathy.7
Autistics were—and often still are—ranked by levels of functioning, with non-verbal Autistics generally labeled as “low-functioning.” This is a perfect illustration of assessing the Autistic person through a non-Autistic lens: just because someone is non-verbal doesn’t mean they cannot or are not communicating. Of course, if a non-verbal Autistic puts things into an accepted format, like the written word, suddenly their level of functioning and validity of experience is reconsidered.
In a similar manner, we are consistently astounded by non-human animals’ emotional capacities. Every now and again there’s a new article or study expounding upon the amazing possibility that animals experience complex emotions, or are far more intelligent than we once thought.
Yet somehow, despite this happening time and again, we don’t take these revelations to their ultimate conclusion: that animals obviously possess multifaceted inner lives that we are not privy to. They have been thinking and feeling long before we were able to “prove” it within our own framework of understanding.
The same, unfortunately, holds true for pain perception. Humans have long carried out horrific experiments to determine if animals feel pain. I have an entire video and article on whether fish feel pain that delves into this in more depth. But the takeaway is: for the centuries that humans have been hurting animals to prove for ourselves that they could feel, they were feeling.
So, why not assume that they do feel? Why not assume that they do emote? Why should they have to suffer to prove to us within our own limited understanding that they are sentient beings?
I’ve really struggled with putting this article together. There is so very much I wanted to convey that I’m simply unable to. While I am verbal, the process it takes for me to put things into words is extremely difficult. And honestly, words can’t help but fail to fully capture what I’m meaning to express. This is especially true when I’m attempting to describe my Autistic experience. The dominant means of human communication are limiting, and profoundly challenging to navigate.
While I think my experience of feeling more at ease with non-human animals is hardly unique, I do believe that animals—in many ways—have helped me survive being Autistic in a non-Autistic world. And I cannot help but try to advocate for them. Not to be their voice, nor speak for them. They have voices all their own. They communicate quite effectively. We just don’t listen.
While this article hasn’t been everything I wanted it to be, I hope at the very least that sharing how I see the world differently may help others begin to think differently.
— Emily Moran Barwick