On Autism and Empathy

For many generations there has been a terrible notion that people with autism lack empathy. I think this comes from the old way of thinking that people with autism couldn’t feel emotions. Fortunately, that is no longer the most common held belief but still people and even some scientists hold onto the belief that people with autism can’t empathise.

When it comes to a human brain things are just never so straightforward. When we are infants we all do lack the knowledge that children, adolescents and adults all share at the appropriate times. For those of us with a developmental disorder like autism we may lack some but not all of the information. Throughout the years we may have picked up a tidbit here and there and gained further understanding of other people. This is often not picked up intuitively but had to be told to us by another.

So it’s true that people with autism lack empathy in a way but not completely. They are not incapable of it or learning it but may need to be told gently when they seem to disregard a person’s issue why it’s important to feel sorry or some reciprocal emotion towards this person.

Think of it like them having an ability to empathize that is like an incomplete cross word puzzle, even with half of the answers written in. You need to be there to fill in the gaps for them, and usually when you help people answer questions they don’t know it’s not screamed at them or delivered coldly.

The mainstream perception of empathy is a very superficial one too. It’s mainly about caring for others, understanding when and why they are hurting and expressing this verbally and through such loving acts as hugging. Anyone who is seen to do less than this is immediately thought to be a very self-absorbed person and by choice is not thinking about others at all.

There are really three types of empathy: cognitive empathy, affective empathy and expressed empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to read non-verbal body language to get an idea about what is going on in the mind of another person. This is an area people with autism are most deficient in. Research has shown that when a non-autistic person makes eye contact with another person the ‘social area’ of their brain lights up but this does not happen in autistic people, meaning that something different is happening in the brains of autistic people compared to the general population.

People with autism have difficulty reading facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice as well as more subtle hints of a person’s emotional state expressed verbally. Not everyone with autism will have the same level of impairment but there will be some impairment to warrant a diagnosis. They’re also not incapable of eventually learning to read body language and intuitively gouge what a person may be feeling through being told by more socially aware friends or through trial and error.

The second type of empathy is affective empathy which has to do with understanding when someone else is in pain and feeling their pain emotionally. This is probably the type that autistic people have the least trouble in but like I said before each autistic person is at a different level of how much they can empathise.

I can recall being a child and hardly feeling any affective empathy towards anyone, even with my few friends and family members. I barely made any change until my early 20s when I started to work on my own social skills and through the use of ADHD medication. At times I did pick up that I wasn’t thinking about people when others were. I’m a very practical person who has a sometimes irritating way of making connections out of two very unconnected subjects and making it seem like an incredible epiphany every time. Often when overcome with the joy of these ideas I can neglect to think about how my words will affect other people and they will surprise me by either calling me selfish or giving me the impression that what I said was very insulting. If you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory TV show then think back to when Sheldon Cooper revealed to Penny what ‘just fine’ meant; basically he revealed to Penny that her boyfriend Leonard told his friends about their sexual encounter last night, which both parties reacted to rather negatively and Sheldon was left there with the sudden realization that he may have overstepped a line. Sheldon is course an exaggerated character with Asperger’s syndrome.

This brings me to another good point. People with autism are often accused of being horrendously offensive yet will be confused as of why, and the person on the other end, still fuming, will hardly explain this to them. It leaves them confused and angry at the other person for being swept away by their emotions for days while trying to work out how what they said could have led to this type of oversensitive reaction. They are often more systematic practical thinkers rather than reacting with emotions. But it’s not hard for them to feel the emotions of other people – quite the opposite.

The Intense World Theory suggests that instead of feeling little emotion autistic people feel too much and this overloads their brain leading to a very emotionless exterior, while inside they are screaming. Although eventually all this extra stress will result in a brain going into a type of safe mode which stops all the negative feelings from being experienced. It’s like when in depression you end up feeling numb.

To better understand this I need to talk about my own personal reactions to other people’s emotions. Usually when my emotions don’t match a person’s own even if it’s a positive emotion like joy, I will be under distress. I might be annoyed or irritated just by the overload of the person’s loudness and their energy. When they are angry I feel either threatened or frightened even if they are not angry at me. If a voice is raised it is like I am being constantly targeted even if it’s not about me. It’s just the emotion coming out of the person and the way I experience it.

The whole experience makes me fairly poor in face to face confrontation unless I can be louder and more threatening than that person, otherwise I’d just avoid the situation as long as possible. Most of the time I can’t express any personal information about myself verbally, and I have difficulty getting any words out in the right order and not tripping over them.

The third type is expressive empathy which I’ve already sort of gone into. People think that people who will tell you they are concerned for you are the only people that care, but this is not always true especially when it comes to autism. We just have a difficult time knowing what to say even if we’re told what to say. Some of us might be able to do that more than others; it all really has to do with how much emotion we are experiencing from the other person.

For me, I get more of an emotional reaction from the type of word used that people usually use when they are under a lot of stress already. And it’s not simply the meaning of the word but how I personally relate to that word, like if someone called me selfish. That word stretches across my whole spectrum of disorders but not as much as autism. I’ve been told during moments of great stress that I wasn’t thinking of others. I remember calmly explaining to someone that it would take me awhile to deal with this sudden change in plans because it takes me a longer time to adjust to change – and I was of course told I was selfish and need to think of other people more. You would think if I was capable of it on an intuitive level that I would. Another point that is going a bit off topic is that I can control reacting emotionally to people after being hurt by what they said and when communicating online I can take my time to respond calmly and rationally, yet the response I get it often a passive aggressive attitude ot just untethered hostility. I suppose if people think if there’s nothing wrong with their social skills and emotional regulation they wouldn’t have to just as much effort to choose their wording as delicately as I do.

And just because I can’t always express in words how much I care for people when I truly do it doesn’t mean I don’t try to show it in other ways. I will often be first to put my hand up to help people out, even when not asked for it. I give them gifts such as drawings and maybe if I see something in the shop I think they would like I may buy it for them.

I didn’t explain much about my affective empathy. Usually when I’m with one to two or more people (what I call ‘in the moment’) I will not be able to empathise as easily when the situation calls for it, even when everyone else in the group would. I would consciously know I should be but I’m not feeling anything. Eventually, when I‘m left alone and given many hours to days or weeks to think about it suddenly it hits me. Or I might be too preoccupied with my thoughts and interests or under a lot of stress because of symptoms of mental illness and I’ll just overlook people’s feelings and they will make me aware of the fact in a very harsh way, and still lost in self-reflection that I continue to fail to think about them I will erupt with as much anger, and only when I have time alone to rationally think over the situation will I realise my error.

I don’t always need to upset people to become empathetic though. Sometimes it just takes a shift in emotions from low constant thoughts of self-doubt to high states of over confidence and within this I find ways to better empathise, even over empathise with people and take it upon myself to make other people aware of their apparent lack of insight into another person’s situation. But this has nothing to do with autism and is more just a personal thing. Well, it could have something to do with it. It’s very hard to know sometimes.

If I’m in an environment that’s less chaotic and fast paced as most social situations are then I can take my time to see from another’s perception. I get most of my education from TV and film especially the over emotive ones because it’s shown in such an obvious way, sometimes it’s like they are explaining the emotional states of the characters to kindergarteners, or maybe I’m just better at picking up on it now compared to how I was before. But I seem to go for hysterically over emotive storylines in science fiction shows such as Caprica and the Stargate franchise, or TV drama such as Parenthood and even Wonderland, though to be honest some of the NT social issues in that show seem to grate me. I remember when I started to watch Parenthood and I just thought why do these people lie so much – you can plainly see that they want to tell the other person the truth and it’ll be better if they did – so why lie? It relieves me when Max’s parts come up in the show, but then of course his family seems to overreact to the socially inappropriate things he says. What I see is a teenage boy that is willing to share with people and excited to be given the chance to do so, yet he gets shut down because of the content of his subjects and the abrasive way he delivers it.

I do care and empathise with the people that I know really well although I don’t often show it through expressive empathy. I’ve gone out and hung out with people when the environment was particularly uncomfortable to me and the event in question wasn’t very interesting to me. I just wanted to be there for the people I loved. When I’m under too much stress or preoccupied in other ways then I’ll probably not be as willing to go out, but I’ve always done things to please people even when risking my own mental health.

To be honest I get the impression that I still have major impairments in my ability to empathise compared to other people with autism that I talk to online. I often do put my interests and wellbeing in front of people. I often see what I can get out of a social situation without giving the other person much thought, so I suppose I have a lot more training to go through before I can confidently say that I do have about as much affective empathy as most autistic people that are just as high functioning as me.

I think I have good cognitive empathy when it comes to reading facial expression and tone of voice. My ability to look for connections or patterns helps me out a lot when it comes to understanding human social behaviour. There are patterns everywhere and if you follow it you almost have a psychic ability to know what people will do next. I struggle to notice gestures and subtle hints in words though, and sometimes I think they are being used when they haven’t been. When it comes to understanding the mind of others I am pretty hit and miss, I think that means sometimes I guess correctly and other times I guess incorrectly or completely fail to notice that people are having a different opinion or reaction to me at all.

Expressive empathy is where I fail the most. When near people who are under great stress I have flat effect and a blank mind. I use avoidant behaviour to overcome the awkward and distressing feelings. But I do show people I care through doing something practical to help them or at least draw them a picture.

So, there you have it. People with autism do in some ways lack empathy but through life experience and self-training they can build upon their skills. And even when they think they have an average to high skill in it there might be times when they completely fail to empathise at all, and may never quite get the expressive part down. But at least you know now that they still do care.

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4 thoughts on “On Autism and Empathy

  1. I like your distinction between the different kinds of empathy because it’s very important. Unfortunately, they’re also interconnected, so deficits in expressive empathy will make people assume you don’t have affective empathy, and deficits in cognitive empathy will make it harder to get a chance to have affective empathy in the first place.

    Another problem is that whether or not you FEEL empathy for a person doesn’t really matter to them unless you show it in a way they can understand. I’ve finally figured out how to say things like “oh, that sucks” or “I hope you feel better soon” or “I really hate that” and it seems to help them because it shows them I care. Before, they had no idea and probably thought I was a jerk.

    • Yes, you’re right. I never really thought of it that way before. I suppose that’s why I feel blessed having bits and pieces of empathy. Although I would like to have the full amount. As mentioned in my post I cannot force any personal words out of my mouth and make them sound genuine, or even make them come out at all. It’s got more to do with the emotions I feel when I have such thoughts or even hear such news from another person. I do much better in my hyper moods than neutral or low and depressive.
      I’m hoping those people who think I’m being an insensitive jerk read this post. Part of me thinks that they already know it (family members and close friends at least) but never tell me that’s the case themselves.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post judgeroy. For two reasons. 1, it helped me think differently about autism although I still maintain my son doesn’t have it 😉 and 2, you wrote it just like my ADHD son speaks! I hope you don’t take offence as I find it lovely how your brain jumps so quickly and “wordily” around in your explanations. 🙂

    • No, I don’t take offence. Since going off medication it’s becoming harder to make my posts flow from one paragraph onto another, and this post did involve a lot of jumpy thoughts. Yes well, it’s difficult to know who is ADHD or autistic or both because of how similar the symptoms are. I think it’s good you don’t label him and I only wish I could do the same about myself. Literally a few days after I was diagnosed with Asperger’s my social anxiety halved so I think I need the label for a bit longer. However, thanks to mood issues my social anxiety is back.

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