07 September 2012
Do autistic people have empathy?
I've been saying this for over a decade, so to me it's not radical or new thinking, but it's certainly an idea the neurotypical world has seemingly refused to take on board.
In my opinion, the idea that autistic people have no empathy is a myth. It's a gross generalisation by a group of highly "qualified" people (eg: psychologists/researchers) who are simply guessing at the autistic experience based on outside appearance/behaviours - instead of asking the right questions and hence finding out what it is that an autistic person truly experiences and feels.
I know, right? The irony of that description is not lost on me either.
According to those so-called experts, we're supposed to believe that all autistic people are lacking in empathy. Remember, these experts are primarily neurotypicals who base these assessments on things they can measure in a scientific, observable way, rather than on anecdotal evidence based on the real day to day lives and thoughts of autistic people (and of those who live with/care for someone with an ASD). They assess this skill of empathy based on and in comparison to the behaviours of the neurologically typical person - but of course the autistic person by definition doesn't fit that profile, so as far as I can tell, the assessment criteria are faulty.
Of course I am just the mother/cousin/niece/grand-daughter/friend/educator of autistic people. I don't have a big science degree up on my wall, nor am I a super-duper doctor or psychologist. So, if you feel the need, take my opinion with a grain of salt. But keep in mind that the opinion I express is based on my experiences and observations, plus a dash of common sense, as well as on what I have heard expressed by autistic people about themselves and their own experiences.
In which case, let's get down to what I really think. In my experience, autistic people are the most empathic people I have ever met. They are the first to pick up someone who has fallen down. In my experience they are the first to sacrifice their own needs in order to help another person. (They are frequently exploited due to this tendency.) I have been in many situations where an autistic person seems to be the only one there who cares that I might be having a negative experience. As best I can tell, it seems that autistic people are very high on the empathic scale, extremely high on the compassion scale, and in fact they seem to absorb the feelings of others even more intensely than the average neurotypical.
However, due to challenges reading body language, sometimes an autistic person won't see the signs that empathy is needed. Sometimes very intense feelings will take over when a sense of someone else's distress occurs, but the autistic person won't necessarily recognise or understand the source of these emotions. Instead of realising that they are experiencing empathic feelings, the autistic person takes the feelings on board as their own, internalises what they are experiencing. Then overwhelm kicks in - potentially leading to shutdowns or meltdowns. This is quite clearly not the same as a lack of empathy.
Conversely, it seems to me, neurotypicals lack proper empathy for autistic people, and this is measurable by how often neurotypical people assume they know, instead of asking, what the experience and feelings are of the person with autism.
For further reading, check out http://www.autismandempathy.com/
...and here's the empathy article that triggered me to write this piece: