I have an untested hypothesis about shame and neurological differences. I use the word “hypothesis” because this is a notion I’d like to test at some point in the future.
My hypothesis is that typically developing (aka “neurotypical”) people feel shame differently than people with autism. A typically developing person uses theory of mind skills to make assumptions about what others are thinking, feeling and intending. I believe this awareness of others’ minds may make typically developing people particularly vulnerable to feeling intense shame and embarrassment.
A typically developing person will be aware of others possible beliefs and opinions about the self and my be prone to feeling deep shame when they have done something they believe to be socially irresponsible or wrong and when they believe others will judge them for it.
This can be true whether or not they really have done something “wrong.” Just the sense that others will believe they have is enough to elicit “shame.”
I do not believe shame is a useful feeling. It gets in the way of voice and empowerment and promotes silence. Many typically developing partners remain silent about their stories because they know just how devastating and powerful their senses of shame can be.
And, sadly, shame is often used against typically developing spouses by partners with autism. It happens all the time. It is common for partners with autism to seek out alliances among family members, communities and friends and then to tell their typically developing spouses that others are judging and are on the partner with autism’s “side” in a conflict.
This often serves to further silence the typically developing partner.
Typically developing people can overcome shame by realizing that they are not bad people, regardless of what their spouses with autism may say. They can overcome shame by coming to this realization even when they have done something wrong. No one is perfect.
And typically developing people can overcome shame by becoming aware that their sense of shame may be related to just how fantastic they are at seeing other people’s perspectives.
And shame can be overcome by learning to have voice.
Tell your stories. They are REAL and there is nothing to be ashamed of.
On a related but different note, I know that people with autism also feel shame. I hypothesize that when typically developing people use the word “shame” to describe their subjective experiences, they may be using it to describe different subjective experiences than are felt by people with autism using the word “shame” to describe their own subjective experiences.
I say this because it makes sense to me that a person with theory of mind skills will have a different experience with shame than will a person without theory of mind skills.
This is just one of the many examples of the difficulties of mixed-neurological communication. Typically developing people will use the word “shame” to describe a feeling they believe people with autism also experience without realizing that “shame” may be a very different experience for people with autism than it is for typically developing people.
People with autism will observe the reaction of typically developing people to shame but will not have a lived awareness of what that experience of shame is like from a typically developing perspective.
It is difficult to communicate when two people are using the same word to mean very different things.