Autistic Hero Micah Fletcher Shows Us The True Meaning Of Empathy

Unsplash/Samuel Zeller
The only definitively autistic person connected with a mass murder wasn’t the perpetrator. He was the hero.

A s official statements and social media posts of grief and solidarity started spreading across the world in the wake the London terror attacks, neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen added his own tweet to the sombre mix: “Our sympathy for the victims in London today, and their families. Terrorists have zero degrees of empathy. We all stand together for peace.”

Out of context, this probably seems like a beautifully innocuous sentiment. If you happen to know anything about Baron-Cohen’s work, though, you may know that the cognitive neuroscientist’s theories have often done more to perpetuate harmful autism stereotypes than to shed light on our neurology and lives. You might also know that one his books that touches on the topic is called Zero Degrees of Empathy. In this context, the sentiment becomes a little murkier: At best, an increasingly polarizing autism expert used a deadly attack to plug his work. At worst, the implication is darker. Autistic people regularly have to fight the notion that we lack empathy, and even the implication (or outright statement) that our neurotype makes us more likely to commit murders like this. Seeing someone of Baron-Cohen’s stature and background ascribe terrorism to a lack of empathy feels like tacit endorsement of the idea that autistics are dangerously immune to human feelings.

Autistic people regularly have to fight the implication (or outright statement) that our neurotype makes us more likely to commit murders.

As an autistic person, moments like this have become a part of my grieving process when this kind of tragedy happens, from Norway to Newton to Oregon to London. It’s the same cycle every time: Hear the news. Try to process and express the pain/sadness/frustration/fear that you’re experiencing at a time when even non-autistic people, who are supposed to be such naturals at this kind of stuff, are struggling to get it right. Try not to get too overwhelmed as you witness everyone else’s compounding pain/sadness/frustration/fear pour out online and in person in the days that follow. Watch someone try to suggest that the murderer or murderers might have been autistic, and then try to turn another example of unspeakable horror into a referendum on your humanity and basic decency.

In addition to putting an already vulnerable population at further risk by foisting more suspicion and discrimination on us, the desire to blame heartless killings on autism is completely unfounded. There’s no proof that autistic people are somehow more likely to commit mass murder. Like all disabled people, we are, in fact, more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

But after the recent tragedy in Portland, where three men were knifed and two killed for standing up to a white supremacist, the conversation was — or, at least, should have been — different. Because this time, someone involved in the incident really was autistic, and he wasn’t just the victim of the attack. He was the hero.

This time, someone involved in the incident really was autistic, and he wasn’t just the victim of the attack. He was the hero.

Micah Fletcher, a local poet and performer, was on his way to work at a pizza place after class at Portland State when he saw a Muslim girl and a black girl being verbally assaulted by a white supremacist on a light rail train. Fletcher, who is passionate about social justice and has denounced Islamophobia in his work, stood up to the perpetrator, who slashed him in the neck. Two other men, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, also defended the girls, and were stabbed to death. “In my mind, things are very black and white when it comes to people and being safe and ensuring they have a future,” Fletcher later told KOIN 6 news of his motives. “You don’t let people stop that. Period.”

Of course, I was horrified by the attacks, and believe — as Fletcher himself has pointed out — that the girls who were originally targeted deserve the bulk of our attention and compassion. (Though I have plenty to spare for the grieving families of the other two men.) But I was also both proud and relieved to see an autistic person receive positive attention for his heroic actions and for his beliefs — in short, for the kindness of his heart, both in thought and deed. Fletcher’s ability to understand those girls’ feelings and his unerring efforts to do what was best for them — in other words, his empathy — are things that I see in my community every single day, despite the widespread misconception that we somehow lack this capacity. We might not express it the same way that allistics (non-autistics) do, but many autistics feel very deeply for other other people. Some of us actually struggle with feeling too much — we call it hyperempathy — and can be overwhelmed by other people’s emotions. (This is definitely an issue for me. I’m Canadian, but I actually had to take a break from Twitter after the American election because the fear and anger I was seeing from people’s tweets was starting to endanger my mental health.) And even those of us who don’t reflect the emotions of others are hardly without feeling or compassion. Morality, a sense of justice, a belief in wanting to help others, and many other positive human attributes don’t necessarily require empathy.

Fletcher’s empathy is something I see in my community every single day, despite the widespread misconception that we somehow lack this capacity.

As autistic disability rights advocate Ari Ne’eman wrote for NOS Magazine, Fletcher should be celebrated as an individual for his heroism that day, but his autism is also significant to our community, especially given the way in which we’re usually discussed in the media: “The honor Micah deserves for putting his body in the path of violent prejudice is his and his alone. But we should also acknowledge Micah as an Autistic man, because in doing so we can help to dispel the myths and stigma that challenged him and all of us in growing up in a world that is too willing to define Autistic life in terms of fear or pity and never in terms of virtue.”

Science writer Emily Willingham also touched on these ideas for Forbes. “Fletcher is a poet and an autistic man who wrote about standing up for people who need defending,” she wrote. “When it came to the moment, he put his words into actions and his life on the line. With his marked example and the thousands of other smaller acts of empathy autistic people express every day, as people do, surely we can put to rest the neurotypical misinterpretation that autistic people lack empathy and don’t care about other people. Fletcher clearly exemplifies what autistic people have often said themselves: It is possible to care so much that it hurts.”

There’s a popular saying in the autism community that if you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person. Fletcher is one autistic person. His actions and beliefs don’t expressly represent every single person on the spectrum, any more a theoretically violent individual’s behavior would. But his example shows that we are as capable of being beacons of empathy and humanity as anyone else, and that the connection between autism and empathy is not simple or consistent.

Morality, a sense of justice, a belief in wanting to help others, and other positive human attributes don’t necessarily require empathy.

If you spend any time interacting with actually autistic people or reading our work, you’ll quickly discover that our experiences with empathy exist on a spectrum, ranging from people (like me) who struggle with an overabundance of empathy to those who don’t experience empathy in the traditional sense but still believe in morality, fairness, and justice. There’s also a number of less well-meaning people in the mix, because autistic people are imperfect human beings just like the rest of the population and autism doesn’t prevent you from being an asshole any more than it makes you an asshole. This isn’t just my experience; it’s backed up by research on the topic of autism and empathy. But it tends to be forgotten in post-tragedy analyses that conflate autism with heartlessness or amorality.

What’s also lost in this discussion is that allistic empathy is equally complex. There are ongoing debates among researchers about what empathy actually is, how it differs from sympathy, and whether it is beneficial to making sound moral decisions at all, but it’s clear that simply not having autism doesn’t guarantee a robust ability to understand others’ emotions or care about their needs. Far from some natural talent that ostensibly “normal” people immediately grasp and subsequently wield, empathy takes work. It takes constant effort and commitment to actually see past your own perspective and privileges and understand — or at least try to understand — what someone else is feeling. It’s even more challenging to act on that in a truly meaningful way.

Like Ne’eman and Willingham, I believe we should continue to celebrate Fletcher for his choices — both his actions when he saw a white supremacist verbally abusing two girls of color, and his statements in the weeks that have followed, as he’s continued to center those girls and their well-being while calling out Portland’s “white savior complex.” Fletcher is a role model to autistics and allistics alike. The challenges he has faced in choosing whether or not to stand up to prejudice are, in fact, fairly universal. Regardless of neurotype, we all have hard choices to make about what we can do and what we are willing to do in the face of evil.

We all have hard choices to make about what we can do and what we are willing to do in the face of evil.

But it’s also important to acknowledge that his beliefs are far from unique in the autism community. In the past few years, particularly in the wake of Trump’s election last November, I’ve watched my fellow autistics work hard to manage their empathy while being overwhelmed by concern for other people who will be even more endangered by the current political climate. I’ve watched us put superhuman amounts of effort into juggling self-care we require as a result of that empathy with our desire to do more for social justice. I’ve watched us organize and participate in whatever efforts are within our capacity to make this world a less shitty place not just for ourselves, but for everyone.

While allistics continue to debate whether or not autism and/or a lack of empathy is a factor in violent attacks (an argument that, in of itself, demonstrates a glaring lack of empathy for both autistic people and for the actual victims of these attacks that have been turned into platforms for this nonsense), I hope that they also remember Micah Fletcher, the only actual autistic to be publicly aligned with any of these mass murders. His beliefs reflect our humanity. His actions are our true potential.

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