Autism: Autistic Empathy is Different

I used to think empathy was about finding something in common with another person, something we can both relate to– and talking about that. That’s how it looks like to me when I observe empathy in the general population. This is a bit like how the “Golden Rule” works- treating others how you wish to be treated.

It’s a risky assumption to make, and if taken literally could lead to me ‘helping’ someone by not speaking to them, definitely not hugging them when they are upset, and probably turning the lights out so they have less overwhelming sensory information to process.

Personally, I’d love that type of empathy, but I have learned that many others don’t!

If I opt for the ‘things in common’ type of empathy, it could feel very invalidating for the other person, and is as if I am hijacking their emotional situation, or attention seeking, or making it all about me. I try and avoid that, but it is a difficult balancing act that I frequently get wrong.

For the people who know me, it doesn’t matter. They understand that my intentions are good, and about being caring, but my actions may appear random, blunt, or insensitive.

It’s no big deal to them, but it holds me back from interacting more with others because of my fear of getting it wrong and being misunderstood. Empathy is extremely complex and difficult to get correct.

So how does empathy work for me?

Lots of people have written about autism and empathy – and far better than I can attempt to. You may have heard that autistic people don’t have empathy because they lack theory of mind and can’t imagine how another person thinks and feels; you may have heard that autistic people have too much empathy because they feel absolutely everything.

There are different types of empathy anyway – emotional, cognitive, and compassionate, for instance. There is no universal definition of how empathy works for autistic or non-autistic people.

Some friends of mine are autistic and feel other people’s emotions so strongly and intuitively they find it overwhelming. They can feel the emotions that others are experiencing in their own bodies and souls. This is not how my empathy works. We’re all autistic so why are we so different?

It comes down to sensory processing, and in particular the sense of interoception. When I was at school, I learned about our five senses – taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight.

In more recent years, people recognised the importance of proprioception (knowing where our bodies are in relation to themselves – things like our ability to close our eyes and touch our nose accurately) and our vestibular system (how our bodies respond to gravity and movement and why things like rocking or swinging on a playground swing can be regulating or nauseating depending on our own particular hyper or hypo sensitivities).

My sensory processing is very different from a typical person’s. I hear, smell, and see things intensely and notice the details that others miss; in fact, I can’t filter any of this out which makes it tough to concentrate or relax. I flinch and jump at a light touch on the arm or an annoying label in my underwear, but don’t notice I’ve left half my meal on my face!

I need to walk and do strong physical activities so that I know where my body is and what it is doing or I’ll bump into things and trip over endlessly. It is frightening and disorientating to feel so detached from my body at times.

Internally, my interoception is such that I have attempted to “walk off” a dislocated knee, and I’ve been away at a camp with a broken arm all week. I may not notice I am coming down with a virus, but I will feel unbelievably depressed instead for no (apparent) reason, and then suddenly when the illness kicks in at full force I feel less depressed and notice my physical symptoms.

I can give the impression of not being affected by bereavement or tragedy as I may feel no emotion whatsoever at the time– but then it hits me later, and I appear to be dwelling on it, not letting it go, and attention seeking, and surely, “I should be over it by now.”

I don’t have a great sense of what I am feeling, and what I do feel is not necessarily accurate or accurate to the source of discomfort– so I do not trust my “gut feeling.” In fact, I may not even have one!

The No-Empathy Misnomer

This is why I believe many autistic people are stereotyped as having no empathy. If they are like me, rather than my friends who feel so much, then it is likely that they share my perspective. If I have no idea what I am feeling, then how on earth am I going to know how you are feeling?

I learn through observation– and with my incredible senses, I am an excellent observer! I read widely and have never had any interest in whether a particular topic was appropriate or not. I’ll devour books on quantum physics, religion, trees and goat husbandry!

My professional career has included working in social care, and I have been able to observe and learn through working alongside some amazing people. My colleagues have included professionals who have explained how and why people act like they do, and how to successfully communicate with them.

Whilst I don’t have a ‘feeling’ type of empathy, I have developed a huge bank of knowledge about what people do; some of the potential reasons why; and what an appropriate response should be.

I’ve learned to interact in a meaningful way with people who are really distressed and struggling with communication. My own lack of feelings– at least those that I can immediately recognize– can be very useful when supporting people who are experiencing distress because my reactions don’t tend to trigger them or escalate the situation.

I care passionately about how other people feel and how they are treated.

People Call This Integrity

My belief system has developed out of a sense of doing the right thing, in being kind, and empowering people to be themselves so long as they are causing no harm. I am absolutely solid and unwavering in my beliefs.

People call this integrity. This is what causes me to be the person speaking out against injustice. It means that I can regulate my own behaviour and act in a fair and consistent way towards other people because I have no ulterior motive, and I’m not doing it just to conform or fit in, or because I’m frightened of getting into trouble if I don’t.

I have considered various religions, philosophies, and ideologies, and whilst I share many of my values with other individuals or groups, I don’t follow any particular way of life other than my own. It’s the only way I can guarantee that I do the right thing!

There is a place for the ‘things we’ve got in common’ aspect of empathy and I respectfully ask that if you are not autistic, you don’t assume that because we have things in common we must all be a little bit on the spectrum.

An autism diagnosis involves identifying a lifetime of characteristics and experiences of the world that are radically different to those typically experienced by neurotypical people.

My partner has backache at the moment and is feeling exhausted, he is not however pregnant. Or even a ‘bit’ pregnant!

The important message I would like to share is that fundamentally there is one thing we have in common regardless of our neurology– and that is our humanity.

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6 Responses

  1. Ah, yes. The “sharing and relating” way of showing empathy. Boy, does that get us in trouble sometimes! Also, I really resonated with that first part. I would also leave people alone in the dark when they were upset because it’s exactly what I would have wanted. I thought I was being loving, they thought I was being cold.

  2. this issue of empathy in people on the Spectrum has interested me for a long time. I am 84 and was diagnosed AS some 20 years back. I cant say I am madly impressed with the different ‘types’ of empathy which are detailed by Baron-Cohen and others. it seems to me that what is often described as empathy is more accurately to be termed as Sympathy. sure, I like many of our number ‘feel’ deeply WHAT WE SEE or what we THINK we see in other people’s emotions. I have read passionate comments by proud mothers about the deep empathy that their young children display. Well, surely a lot of that is simply emotional reactions based on fear and uncertainty when they observe their parent in tears or agitated? my cat gets deeply disturbed if I am upset, but I don’t call that empathy. this is surely better called Resonance, like one violin string vibrating in sympathy with another one.
    none of us wants a doctor or priest or counsellor to react with weeping or intense distress when they see or hear our feelings. in true empathy, as has been well described, is certainly a feeling ‘with’ the other person, but NOT an echoing of the feeling. it is A KNOWLEDGE essentially of what is happening inside that other. Notice how the ’empathy’ of the autistic tends mainly to be manifested only at obvious negative emotions. true empathy observes and registers fluctuations in ALL the other party’s emotions and styles whether sad, angry or happy. This genuine empathy will take note at changes of mood, restraints in self expression, lies, enthusiasm etc. O’Connell gives this insight, – that in Sympathy, the other person becomes me. While in Empathy, I become the other person.
    As I have experienced and observed it, the lack in true empathy in the Asperger is often made up for by Compassion, Respect, Insight, Patience, Thoughtfulness and Kindness; and sure, these can often give the impression of Empathy. But they ARE SIMPLY NOT EMPATHY. We can miss insight, we can lack discrimination in our application of these virtues, and can fail to properly discern just when to apply them, especially since we can be fooled or manipulated by the wrong people.
    reference – ‘Mindreading’ a book by Sanjida O’Connell. published by Heinemann in 1997 – chapter ‘Someone Else’s Shoes’.
    My own book is Confessions of an Unashamed Asperger, published by Chipmunkapublishing, London.

  3. I was curious about why the author does not have their last name cited. I would love to know for citation purposes!

  4. Going by my own experience, autistic people have heightened cognitive empathy as well. Unfortunately, this is negatively impacted by our perceiving everything so intensely, making it difficult for us to look directly at those with whom we share the most empathy (other humans), and thus reducing our ability to pick up on how they feel through ‘silent clues’ such as body language. This explains the apparent paradox where an autistic child who ‘cannot empathise’ with their parents can nevertheless empathise with the family cat. Does this make sense?

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