I watched a great video today featuring John Elder Robison that touched on the subject of Empathy and Autism. There is a popular opinion that people with autism do not have empathy. I am not sure if this true.
I think I am a very empathetic person, but I am not completely sure that I am empathetic in the way that other people are. Sometimes, when I see someone who is sad, I feel sad too. If it is someone very close to me, I can feel their sadness like it is my own. Sometimes even worse. I think this is similar how most people experience empathy. On other occasions, I think I can not experience empathy in the common way due to not always understanding the way the general population thinks and feels.
There have been many times in my life where I have found myself being stared at in exasperation by someone because I do not understand what they are feeling or why they would be feeling a certain way. Sometimes, I can look back and understand what I had done wrong, but other times, it remains a mystery.
One thing I really have a hard time with are social conventions and expectations having to do with clothing. I will never understand why it is acceptable to wear uncomfortable clothes (that may possibly even endanger your life if you have to run from someone!), but wearing clothing that has been aged to soft perfection is looked down upon if it is beat up looking or has holes.
Over the years, I have learned that it is sometimes embarrassing for people to be seen with me because they are concerned about what other people will think about them, about me, or both. I accept that as a fact and often try to not put people into this uncomfortable position. The conflict comes when I do not have the energy to go along with this and/or am very upset by it for some reason, like entering a situation that is terribly uncomfortable and having the added stress of not wearing familiar and comfortable clothing. I realize that I am much more sensitive about clothing than most people, but it is not something I can change, and therefore, always something I have to deal with.
Even though the situation above is only about clothing, it can cause strong feelings of anger, disappointment, and sadness. I can not always empathize with someone who is feeling a lot of anger or sadness because of the way I dress, even if I completely understand why they are feeling the way they do. There are plenty of other situations where this applies that have nothing at all to do with clothing.
I have often been labeled “non-compliant” or “anti-social” and perceived as a person that does not care about anyone or anything, including myself. Lack of empathy is just the tip of that iceberg. School officials, medical professionals, and even sometimes people who are close to me have believed that I don’t care and/or don’t understand what they are thinking or feeling.
It is true that often I have not understood. Over the years, I understand more and more. It has never been true that I don’t care even if I acted like it. Does not understanding and thereby not being able to feel what I “should” be able to mean that I am not empathetic? I think it might.
In the Apple widget dictionary, empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” If I don’t understand why someone is feeling something, even if it is a feeling that most people would instinctively understand, by definition I can not empathize with them.
As usual, this is getting rambly and I have ended up with more questions than answers. John Elder Robison is taking part in some studies that may someday figure out these mysteries and I am very curious what becomes of them. Does anyone else have thoughts about the experience and/or non-experience of empathy in autistic people?