Empathy is a controversial topic among autistic people. Most professional opinions say that we lack empathy. But a lot of autistic people argue that they actually have an excess, while others say they just express it differently, and still others agree that they have less empathy than neurotypical people.
What the hell is empathy anyway?
Honestly, I don’t think I can answer this question (I seem to start a lot of my posts like that) According to Google dictionary, empathy is:
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
But the definition is really much broader than that. The meaning of the word ’empathy’ varies so much depending on the context that it’s become almost useless. These are just some uses of the word empathy that I’ve seen:
- Involuntarily taking on the emotions of another person.
- Identifying the emotions of another person.
- Caring for another person.
- Feeling desire to help another person.
- Understanding the reasons for another person’s emotions.
- Choosing to share someone else’s emotions.
…and lots more. So how are we supposed to figure out whether autistic people have more, less, or different empathy – when no-one seems to be able to agree on what empathy is?! I’m going to break down some separate elements and talk about them, to try and avoid having to use a word with such a fuzzy definition.
Absorbing other’s emotions
This is something I definitely experience, and I know a lot of autistic people have described it too. When I am around other people, I involuntarily pick up on their strong emotions. This isn’t in the ‘neurotypical empathy’ sense of thinking “That person seems sad and I care about them so I am sad for them”. It’s more like “Why am I suddenly sad? Did something bad happen to me? Oh, right, I guess someone nearby must be sad. *confused face*”
I guess some people might find it hard to imagine being able to absorb another person’s emotion independently of recognising or understanding that emotion. But that frequently happens to me. And I don’t have any kind of ‘volume meter’, either. If someone has a slightly Bad feeling, I get just as stressed as if they have a very Bad feeling. It can be very jarring when I realised I’ve picked up on someone’s negative emotion, and then find that they have suddenly cheered up (because they weren’t feeling that negative in the first place) – but I’m still left feeling negative for no actual reason.
For this reason, I can get very defensive when other people are emotional around me. Not defensive in the sense of trying to avoid criticism, but in the sense of trying to protect myself from an actual threat. When someone is upset, my automatic response isn’t “try to cheer them up”, it’s “get away from the bad feeling”.
Recognising other’s emotions
This often happens at the same time as, or after, the section above. I can fairly instinctively recognise whether someone is feeling broadly negative or positive. It’s identifying the subtleties that takes more conscious effort. I don’t really know how to tell the difference between ‘angry’ and ‘sad’ if there aren’t contextual cues (e.g., a family member just died = more likely to be sad). I can score well on those ‘eye reading’ tests because they involve extremely exaggerated (and generally unrealistic) facial expressions. I know that a frowny face looks different to a sad face. But most of the time when someone’s angry or upset, they aren’t doing much with their face (at least not much that I can see!).
So I guess I sometimes have trouble with recognising other people’s emotions. I use context and reason to work them out, so without that I can get pretty stuck. This means I usually ask a lot of questions like “Are you angry?” or “Why are you stressed?”. My default response to not understanding something is to try and obtain enough information to understand it. Apparently some people find this irritating, though.
Understanding other’s emotions
This usually comes together with recognising. I use context to work out what someone is feeling, because the context tells me why they are feeling something. So if I can’t tell what their emotion is, I probably don’t understand why they’re feeling it either.
This is another area where I ask a lot of questions to compensate. “Why would you be annoyed about that?” “Why is this a problem?” “Is that a bad thing?”. Again, it irritates people sometimes.
Responding to other’s emotions
Because of my aforementioned ’emotional defensiveness’, I’m likely to want to avoid someone if they are being emotional. I know that when I’m upset or angry about something I generally don’t want anyone to do anything. Being upset is an internal thing that just needs to be over with so things can carry on as normal. Once the emotion is finished, then the underlying problem (if there is one) can be fixed logically.
If I manage to overcome my urge to escape the emotional person, then my next response is to go straight to the logical fixing step. Find out exactly what is wrong so that I can find a way to fix it. Fixing it will make the other person happy (which is good if I care about them because I want them to be happy), and also remove the threatening negative emotion that’s attacking me. What is there to lose?
But I think a lot of people disagree with that, too. I guess some people find the emotion itself an important experience, rather than just an inconvenience. I find that pretty hard to understand. I find it especially hard to understand when they find the emotion an important social experience. What are you supposed to do when someone is upset and they don’t want you to fix the problem? What else is there to do? It just seems awkward, like sitting next to someone while they’re on the toilet – It’s not like you can help out.
Theory of mind
I guess in conclusion, I’d say that my experience of empathy is just different to NT people. I wouldn’t say that I have more or less, because it doesn’t seem like a measurable quantity to me.
I think that pretty much everyone starts off assuming that everyone thinks the same way as them. We all start off life not even understanding the concept of other people as separate beings, so it makes sense that we have to gradually learn it. And the logical place to start learning is from our own experiences.
Most neurotypical people find that most people around them think in the same way. So they grow up learning that “assume they think like me” is a fairly good bet to understand another person.
In contrast, I am wired differently to most people I meet. So I’ve spent my life learning that “assume they think like me” is not particularly reliable. I’ve learned ways of compensating (like my incessant asking of questions), but they aren’t perfect (turns out that people wired differently to me often aren’t keen on incessant questions!).
I don’t think that autistic people lack empathy. I think we have a different kind of empathy – an autistic kind. But because we’re generally in the minority, our kind of empathy gets ignored or misunderstood or pathologised. Maybe it’s time that neurotypical people start trying to learn our type of empathy, instead of insisting we learn theirs.