Autism Dad: Hell is other people

Editor’s Note: Also available on Facebook at:!/pages/Autism-Dad/160327080653310


I never took a philosophy course in college. Back then, my great philosophical inquiry was, “Who’s buying the next round?”  So it may surprise you that recently I began investigating the French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. I don’t know what prompted this journey or what answers I was hoping to find.

At one point I took a pen and carefully underlined a four-word sentence that was ridiculously and deliciously provocative. 

Hell is other people.  

It’s from Sartre’s play No Exit and, I found later, among his most notable and quotable lines.

It appears to say that our interactions with other people are invariably hellish, but this is actually a misreading. Here he is in his own words:

My self-confidence, my sense that I really exist, depends on my intentions being received by others. But that can happen only if those others are real for me; I can exist only if I recognize others. So there’s always a tension, an on-going contradiction we have to live with, between our need to assert ourselves as individuals and our need to belong to the community in which we can be recognized as individuals. Growing up is a matter of learning to balance these two imperative needs: asserting one’s own will and recognizing the will of others.

Hell is the awareness that we depend on Other People to validate our own existence. Hell is the burden of Other People who watch us, judge us, shape us, and define us. It reminds me of something I wrote in Zoning Out:

I want to believe that Ben’s limitations are also liberating: to turn on or off as he pleases, to simply ignore that which doesn’t interest him, to not feel burdened by the need for approval and affirmation or by the pressure to follow the herd.

To my surprise, reading Sartre helped me in my journey to better understand Ben, his mind and his consciousness. It was like connecting the dots. From Sartre I hopped over to the Theory of Mind, a concept I had only a vague understanding of. Here’s what I learned:

Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own. (Source: Wikipedia)

Many kids with autism are said to have theory of mind deficits. It’s why I get over-the-top excited when Ben attempts humor or shows empathy for a crying baby. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about bullying, and how to address it. It’s a particularly worrisome situation when the boy has autism. I wish I could shield Ben from the sometimes cruel world that he, sooner rather than later, will encounter. I worry about the hell that awaits him: the stranger who judges him, the kid who teases him, the bully who badgers him. I hope, like the vegetables I tried to serve him last night, that Ben simply ignores them. Here the Theory of Mind deficit becomes an advantage. Tune out the bullies like the background noise they are, sort of the way my grandma turned down her hearing aide if you bored her. Like I said, limitations can be liberating.

It all depends on your perspective.


This entry was posted in December 2010, November 2010 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Autism Dad: Hell is other people

  1. Jean Nicol says:

    I like your perspective. I think I might be ready to read Sartre now.

  2. Pie Maker says:

    I had this same thought about my gal a few years ago. I’m sad to say she’s beginning to notice now. I hope for Ben he can remain blissfully oblivious and I hope we can find our way back to that place but with purpose.

  3. Shivon says:

    I love this! Maybe it is time to read Sartre

  4. Pingback: Hell is Other People | Autism Dad

  5. cassiejean says:

    Interesting thoughts – thanks for sharing 🙂 On a related note, I have often been jealous of my autistic brother because of this. Not about being oblivious to teasing, but not being aware of social norms – which allows him to walk up to strangers, put his hand on their arm, and tell them he likes their watch. Or where I would avoid seeing people I barely know, he would start chatting them up. And I can see it on their faces, these people find him cute, charming… & refreshing. And it IS refreshing, when most days are filled with social expectations of giving space to strangers / acquaintances; most of us comfortable only with quick smiles and hellos. (However, when he comes up, grabs their arm, repeating a joke for the 30th time, not aware that they have no idea what he’s talking about….. Well, that’s a different story. He remains unaware, but I become frustrated, wanting to tell the people, “He’s not weird – He just has autism!” But, of course, I don’t say anything…)

  6. Autism Dad says:

    I really get it! Ben will approach complete strangers and although he doesn’t have the words to start a conversation, he will just stand face to face gazing at them. Most people don’t take offense, just smile awkwardly, as he is not threatening at all. Ben is without the armor or censors — or as you say, social norms — that we use to regulate our behavior. His behavior may cause strangers to do a double-take, but arguably it’s a more honest way of existing. Thanks again, Cassie, for your great comment!

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