07 December 2013

Empathy: Autism and Neurotypical

Empathy, Autism and Neurotypicals


Empathy, in broad terms, is the capacity to understand and relate to the experience of another person. Compassion, having feelings in response to another person's suffering, flows on from empathy.

There is a point of view well and truly entrenched in the mainstream, that autism and a lack of empathy are synonymous.

I'm here to dispute this - in fact I'm going to completely turn it on its head.

It astounds me how the irony of this appears to have been lost on so many thousands of professional people the world over. How is it nobody seems to have realised that saying "Autistic people lack empathy," is in fact an active demonstration of a complete lack of empathy? Within this statement lies acceptance of assumptions made about what the autistic person is thinking and feeling. There is no challenging of those assumptions either, because the autistic person isn't really respected enough to be brought into the conversation. And the assumptions are so far from the truth, all the statement really displays, is a total lack of empathy skills. It's a combination of hypocrisy, ignorance and incompetence.

To broadly state that an entire percentage of humanity lacks empathy, while not taking the time to genuinely walk a mile in the shoes of those very people, smacks more of paternal condescension than it does of understanding, compassion or empathy. It actually only proves that neurotypicals, who have had the privilege of writing these descriptions, have at the very least totally lacked empathy for those they describe.

To say that autistic people lack empathy, simply put, lacks empathy. It is completely offensive, and undeservedly dehumanising. They become something to fear. It relegates autistic people to the fringes of society and makes them seem of lesser value than the rest of humanity. And if we say that autistic people are somehow less than neurotypical people, surely we are getting something wrong?

Neurotypicals make up the vast majority of the human population, thus giving them the privilege and power to assess and describe all groups, including themselves. But is the neurotypical view of itself a delusion? Neurotypicals consider themselves to have the highest order skills in empathy, but is that even true?



Lack of empathy is described in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-5, 2013) under Antisocial Personality Disorder, as "Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another."

  • When we don't take responsibility for our actions or apologise for our wrongdoings, are we being empathic?
  • When people judge how another is dressed, their body type or some aspect of their appearance, does that express empathy?
  • When people leave nasty malicious notes on others' pages on the Internet, encouraging them to go away and kill themselves because they have no worth, does that show empathy?
  • When we see starving African children on our TV screens and change the channel instead of facing their harsh reality, does that display empathy? 
  • Does racism express empathy?
  • When we judge someone for having depression or pain for too long, does that show empathy?
  • When we criticise the decisions of our friends and family, does that show empathy? 
  • When we make rape jokes, does that show empathy?
  • When we ask a rape victim what they were wearing, where they were walking, whether they had been drinking, is that an empathic response?
  • When we say "kids will bounce back, they're resilient," does that show empathy?
  • When we judge a woman for staying in an abusive relationship, does that express empathy?
  • When we make judgements of others in general, does that show empathy? 
  • When we say that gay love isn't real love, does that display empathy?
  • When we get angry about someone's religious choices, is that empathic?
  • When we encourage paparazzi to harass celebrities for our next fix of embarrassing photographs, are we being empathic?
  • When parents of non-verbal autistic children talk about curing them in front of them, or thoughts of murder-suicide, and assume that their child doesn't understand what is being said, is there empathy shown here? 
  • When we tell victims of crime or trauma to "get over it, leave it in the past," are we being empathic? 
  • When we bully people and laugh at their tears, are we showing empathy? 
  • When we shun people for being different, is that empathic?
  • When we pathologise different ways of perceiving the world, is that empathy?
That list could go on endlessly, with the terrible things which are witnessed in the day to day lives of the average person. The big question to ask ourselves is this:

When we expect empathy, but aren't taking the time and energy to understand the person in front of us, isn't something wrong with this picture? 

Just because neurotypicals make up the majority of people, doesn't mean the things we say about ourselves or other groups represent the truth. And the truth is, while we are very capable of empathy, humanity as a whole is also full of moments lacking empathy. Neurotypical people make a pretty widespread habit of not displaying empathy towards others, especially minorities. Neurotypical people though, would be offended to be generally described as lacking empathy. Autistic people, as part of the human race, are bound to have moments like anyone else, when they might not show empathy, but this does not mean that they lack empathy altogether, and it's an offensive and an insensitive thing to generalise such a negative descriptor.


Out of all the people I have met in my life, autistic people have repeatedly proven themselves to be the most empathic and compassionate of all. They are the first to help someone in need, the ones who do the sweetest gestures of love and caring. In my experience, autistic people have a great deal more empathy than the average neurotypical.

Sadly though, neurotypical professionals seem to be so generally incompetent at empathising with autistics, that they don't even notice when empathy is occurring right in front of them.



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3 comments:

  1. Hello,

    I'm late at coming across this, but as a person on the autism spectrum, this resonates strongly with my experience in life.
    It feels like a childish game of unfair blame shifting and you having no say in it whatsoever. In truth, people don't own up to the shit they throw at eachother.
    People with ASS can have difficulty expressing themselves and their emotions verbally. In cases of high-functioning autistics, the main difficulty often is all about processing incoming information and sensitivity to certain external stimuli. Lack of empathy from friends and family could cause an increase in 'stereotyped' symptoms, because the autistic individual doesn't feel understood by the very people who are supposed to support them, but don't seem to know how. This whole 'mainstream vision' of 'autism = lack of empathy' can in fact isolate and traumatise the autistic individual, which then also leads to a whole set of other problems, including: shame, anxiety and depression.

    Things become complicated when people without autism think they're right and know what they're talking about, simply because they're not the ones with the diagnosis. Therefore, whatever the autistic person has to say about things, somehow seems to become invalid or of less 'value'. I dare say I even encountered this very phenomenon in a therapy group I was in last year, which unfortunately left its mark. I would get stuck second-guessing my own experience, which screams 'gaslighting'. Needless to say, it was and still is very confusing and frustrating!

    I couldn't really figure out how to describe it well. But thankfully, you did! So, BIG thanks for writing this, it makes a lot of sense!

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    1. I am really glad this article has been helpful to you! There's another more recent one as well, which attempts to nut out how empathy works across groups. I think you might find it of interest.

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