Autism and Empathy

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?

9 thoughts on “Autism and Empathy”

  1. I think empathy is a lot more complicated than just feeling what other people feel. NTs seem to be so thoroughly anchored in human interactions that they are oblivious of their context in the real world, and they narrow their concept of empathy to social interactions only. This is a mistake. Empathy is more global than that, and I suspect much of true spirituality is a form of empathy with the universe (which ties in with the mystical talent of many on the autism spectrum).

    I don’t have much of the usual sort of “empathy” with humans, usually (though as you say, I do with those I am close to, or sometimes something breaks through with a stranger). I can see them reacting negatively to me and can only figure out why in my mind, not feel why they feel that way, and much of it has to do with my lack of concern about my appearance, as you describe, and much has to do with my inability to read their cues and (as it seems to me) play their games. But at the same time, I have way too much empathy for my own good when it comes to the natural world – animals, trees, ecosystems. This has always put me at odds with my own species because homo sapiens is not typically empathetic with other species (much of their cruelty is unintentional because of their lack of empathy).

    I suspect much of the new interspecies communications work is being pioneered by Aspies and Autistic people (Temple Grandin is just the tip of that iceberg). I am fortunate to have as a friend one such individual who has spent her life communicating with animals and healing them, and over and over the bonds she makes with wild animals start with “I just knew what the [eagle/baby bear/etc.] was feeling.” This is empathy of a high order in my opinion. But most people would marginalize or invalidate this as “empathy” because it challenges their comfort zone, where they live in a place blissfully unaware of the suffering they cause others. I wish I felt more empathy with joy in the natural world than with suffering, because there is joy, too — but whenever I connect with that, it’s followed closely by an awareness of how vulnerable the creature is to big, stupid, unfeeling humans.

    Anyway, in my opinion empathy is way more than just human social interactions and I think it’s unfortunate that psychologists seem to define it that way. But then, they’re NTs and that limited view is normal to them.

  2. I believe that I do feel some empathy, in a manner. When dealing with sadness and the like, I will not often share the emotion but will feel distressed when it’s someone close to me. This spawns a resulting desire to fix, which is usually frowned upon – it seems that those who can immerse themselves in the emotion generally want to wallow in it, and logical reactions are not welcomed. I try to rather distance myself in such cases than confront the situation in which my actions will result in someone offering another “how weird are you” statement.

    • I believe that’s empathy, if you respond and care, even if it takes a different form, like “fixing” instead of “wallowing” in feeling. I tend to want to try to help out by finding ways to fix things too, and didn’t learn until rather late in my life that this isn’t what’s wanted from women, who are supposed to listen sympathetically and, presumably, empathize without taking action. It explained a lot. At the time it was identified as a “male” reaction (the Mars-Venus thing) and I just added it to the list of odd-for-a-woman things about me, like logical/lawyerly thinking; then much later I learned that a lot of AS women do this and that it isn’t Mars-Venus, it’s Another Planet.

      Here’s a question: this discussion is about our empathy. How about the empathy NTs might feel for us? Oddly, last year when I had a devastating injury followed by a serious illness, and needed some empathy (or at least understanding and perhaps sympathy) from my friends for once, two people I thought were “close friends” distanced themselves from me and have never been as friendly since. I wonder if that was some kind of mirror-imaging of my own flawed “empathy” there. (Interestingly, it was people I wasn’t even close to who did step up and offer to help out in various ways when I didn’t even ask for it–I think that was an expression of genuine empathy with my temporarily helpless situation, but it might just have been good manners to a neighbor). But definitely some signals got crossed with people I thought I knew well. I suspect it had to do with empathy – mine and theirs.

      I hope I’m not talking too much; sorry if this is too much.

      • Oh yes, I know the “weird for a girl” statement all too well 🙂 I think that you are right – wanting to fix must be a form of empathy, it is at least some indication that one recognises a need and want to help in some sort of way…

        Regarding NT empathy towards us: I’ve also experienced similar situations where friends or family distanced themselves when I could have used help, and I am fairly sure that it is because I usually seem “cold”, or “strong” (one I hear often) and not in need of any special attention. I dislike being hugged and engaging in typical emotional discussions makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable, so I think that NTs may either be picking up on that discomfort and feeling the same in turn, or they may just not be aware that empathy is required due to a history of looking “strong”?

        • That makes me feel much better about what happened, to hear someone else has had similar experiences with friends and family. That sure seems like empathy on your part, to me – thank you for it. I’m also very uncomfortable with hugging, and even thinking of that or shaking hands makes me cringe, sometimes, though I try to do it because I know it’s meant well. As you say, people must pick up on that. I suspect (in fact I know, in the case of a couple of failed lovers) some people befriend me precisely because they see me as “strong” and therefore (as they see it) not needing anything from them. So maybe it’s a matter of attracting people with an an empathy-deficit themselves. My family weren’t very empathetic, or helpful either – that’s how I learned to be independent. And round and round it goes. At least it helps to identify what’s going on. Thank you for your comments!

  3. I think the challenges you describe are more universal than most people would like to believe. As the parent of three children with autism, I’ve seen people show my children a lack of empathy just as often as I’ve my children show a lack of empathy. I’ve seen the same thing between people of different cultures, different nationalities, different genders, and different religions.

    Empathy relies on understanding. By asking and listening, you can come to understand people who are different from you. But you have to be open to the experience and be willing to appreciate differences as being okay.

    A lot of people struggle with this, not just people with autism. In fact, I would say that the assumption that people with autism don’t experience empathy reflects the lack of empathy non-autistic people have for autistic people moreso than it reflects the lack of empathy of autistic people.

  4. It is a comfort to me to see something arguing against the notion that autistic people have no empathy.
    I hope to find out more about autism. It is so hard to research it I can help but get angry — when it seems that everywhere I look, autism is repeatedly described as “a lack of empathy”.

    I agree that it seems like at least a small lack of empathy towards people who have autism to say that autistic people completely lack empathy. My brother has autism, and I can certainly say from my experience and the experience of my parents that many find it hard to empathize with people who have autism in their family, and can’t understand why certain things are the way they are.

    I enjoyed reading about your experiences, because it is very interesting to me. I would argue that your inability to understand why people like uncomfortable, fancy, dangerous clothing better than your worn-in, comfortable, ratty clothes does not prove that you lack empathy in an abnormal way. After all, empathy is the ability to see someone else’s point of view (presumably this point of view is DIFFERENT). But most people only “empathize” with others who like uncomfortable clothing because they see things the same way already. They don’t need to see things from a different point of view, because they already see things that way themselves.
    So in a way, yes, you cannot see their point of view, but this is not abnormal — unless all the men who were appalled by the way the Native Americans dressed abnormally lacked empathy as well. It only means that you feel a different way about clothing than others.

    Thank you for this little encouragement that there are people out there who agree that those who are autistic do not lack empathy more than anyone else.


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