“Autistic Empath” Is Not a Contradiction
Let’s get one thing straight real quick.
“Autistic Empath” is NOT a contradiction.
Pop culture stereotypes have reduced autistic people to a robotic caricature, devoid of both emotion and empathy, and that is simply not true. Like other people, we range from normal levels of empathy to highly empathic. It just depends on what kind of “empathy” you’re talking about.
“Empathy” is actually an umbrella term that includes two different things: cognitive empathy and affective empathy.
Think about how we teach small children empathy. We start by asking a preschooler “How would you feel if X happened to you?” – asking them to imagine their own feelings. Then, we ask “How do you think they feel when X happens to them?” – asking them to imagine someone else’s feelings. This is how children learn cognitive empathy, which is the conscious process of imagining another person’s feelings and understanding how your actions may affect them.
If you read that last paragraph and said “You don’t have to teach empathy, it’s an innate human trait!”, you’re completely right – but you’re talking about affective empathy. Affective empathy is what makes you upset when your friend is crying over being dumped or makes you happy for your brother’s new promotion. Rather than imagining someone’s feelings, affective empathy is feeling with someone. It’s the basis of compassion, when your heart hurts for the suffering of others and you’re moved to help. Autistic people have plenty of that and sometimes more than we can handle.
Cognitive empathy requires picking up on facial expressions and other emotional tells; it takes a lot of information to reason your way through the process of working out someone else’s thoughts and feelings. All children have to learn how to do this, which is why Sesame Street has done sketches like “Furry Happy Monsters” and “Elmo Shows Emotions” – to teach preschool-age children to identify emotions. (There’s even a sketch about empathy with Mark Ruffalo!)
Autistics have more difficulty reading those tells, and we sometimes assume that others know everything we know, including our intentions. So we start from a faulty premise and our reasoning is off, and therefore our cognitive empathy suffers. To NTs, we appear inconsiderate and cold. To us, people are unpredictable and baffling, never responding the way we expect despite our best logic.
Affective empathy, on the other hand, is what most people really mean when they talk about empathy: the innate, unconscious ability to feel what others are feeling. Autistics are so good at affective empathy that we often extend it to any living thing or even inanimate objects. This is why my plants have names and I talk to them to encourage them to grow. Some people might feel the need to spend equal time with each of their pets or make sure all their markers get used evenly so that no animal or color feels left out. Overkill? Maybe. But since many of us relate to animals or objects more than people, we don’t reserve our empathy just for other humans.
Some autistic people are so highly empathic, it becomes hard to process. We can be hypersensitive to others’ emotions, picking up on tiny indications of tension or frustration that are more feelings than observable signs. Small changes in the emotional climate, which others might not even notice, can distress some of us to the point of meltdown.
It’s especially important to remember this when working with autistic children. Make no mistake, whether they can communicate or not, autistic children know when people are angry or frustrated, especially at them. Never assume they can’t understand you.
So Why Do We Seem So Uncaring?
Because we’re different. We don’t operate like NTs. Just as we have difficulty reading NTs’ emotions, they have trouble reading us. Our faces may be less expressive, our voices may lack some inflection, so you may not recognize when we’re showing emotion. Social communication confounds us – we never know “the right thing to say” – so we come off as boorish and rude, even when we intend to be kind or comforting. Some of us don’t like to be touched, so you might not get a hug when you expect it.
We understand the idea of “treat others as you would have them treat you”. We even attempt to live by it. But our brains work differently and the way we’d like to be treated doesn’t usually include social niceties that we don’t understand.
The bottom line is that autistic people do have feelings and we know that others do, too. We may not understand exactly what you’re feeling until you tell us, but once we know, we care. We might not realize that our words or tone hurt your feelings, but once you point that out, we feel terrible about it! Autistics are just as human as anyone else, and therefore capable of just as much empathy, even if we show it differently.
Have you ever had to explain to someone that you did actually feel empathy? Do you think you lack empathy? Does your experience as an autistic contradict my points here?