While many scientists and health professionals agree people with autism struggle to empathise, new research suggests things may not be that black and white. Several online bloggers (including Maia Szalavitz) have put forward the theory that “high functioning” autistics and people with Asperger’s Syndrome may have the ability to empathise, but become so overwhelmed with empathy they are forced to shut down their emotions, causing them to come across as cold and uncaring. Whatever the case, it seems that everyone on the autism spectrum processes empathy in a different manner to neurotypicals.

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Essential Difference, has implied that a lack of empathy is essential in order to obtain a diagnosis of autism ‘Autism is an empathy disorder: those with autism have major difficulties in ‘mindreading’ or putting themselves into someone else’s shoes, imagining the world through someone else’s eyes and responding appropriately to someone else’s feelings.’ (Cohen,  p. 137). I disagree with this classification.  During my autism assessments, what health care professionals seemed to be looking for was shyness, poor social understanding and impaired fine and gross motor skills. Empathy was hardly discussed at all.

I’ve always understood autism to be a social awareness and communication disability, with the issue not being the individual’s ability to empathise, but rather their ability to express their empathy coherently without causing offence. For example; when an autistic child I work with wanted to express concern that his carer looked tired, he yelled ‘You look like a zombie! You need to go home now!’ He could obviously empathise with tiredness, but not with the fact that comparing someone to a zombie could cause upset, because in his world looks are irrelevant.

This suggests an ability to empathise on a sensory level, rather than an emotional level. Temple Grandin explores this theory in her book The Way I See It. Grandin’s work on cattle ranches means she must empathise with cows, understanding what makes them afraid and what makes them feel calmer in order to provide a safe environment for the cattle. While this is something Grandin is highly skilled at, she expresses a difficulty in empathising with humans, particularly where more abstract feelings are concerned. ‘I can empathise through my senses rather than in a more emotional abstract manner. When I see cattle in the mud, I can empathise with how cold and miserable they feel’- (Gradin, pp. 170-171) However, some individuals with higher functioning autism may experience a greater need for social/emotional relationships, and therefore develop a slightly better understanding of others feelings.

Personally, I view myself as a self-taught empath. During my childhood I had a very low capacity for empathy, meaning I frequently got into fights with my neurotypical friends, which were difficult to resolve as I struggled to see things from the perspective of others. As social relationships became more and more turbulent for me I realised I was going to have to make a change. I have always loved reading, and while I found it easy to empathise with the fictional characters I came across, I couldn’t seem to apply this skill to the real world.

Perhaps this was because I was reading the wrong kind of books. As an Aspie, I was naturally drawn to novels that featured black and white morality, such as JRR Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, where (with the exception of Gollum and Wormtongue) characters fall neatly into the category of “good” or “evil”. It was easy for me to empathise with characters like Frodo and Aragorn because despite the suffering they endure, they remain good men, resist the power of the ring and don’t have questionable motives. The fact that all Frodo’s bad choices are a result of the corruption of The Ring rather than an internal character flaw made  it easy to see things from his perspective and very hard to condemn his actions. Unfortunately, Tolkien’s black and white morality cannot be applied to reality.

If I was going to learn to empathise with the real world, I had to practice my empathy on well-rounded, realistic book characters with human flaws. Game of Thrones is the obvious choice if you’re looking for adult characters with questionable motives. While I do love A Song of Ice and Fire, I’ve found Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law books more helpful. They’re still part of the fantasy genre, but unlike Tolkien’s tales of beautiful humans fighting nameless, dehumanised monsters, the epic battles they feature are all humans fighting humans. What’s more, Abercrombie includes point of view characters from both sides of the war, meaning there is no clear cut good and evil. Many of his characters make bad decisions, are cruel to others and have personal, questionable motives. However, as a reader I was able to empathise with them because I learned about the life events that made them that way. This is a skill I gradually managed to transfer to the real world.

I don’t just read fantasy. Philippa Gregory’s books on The War of The Roses are also helpful when learning to empathise, because they include point of view characters from both sides of the war, all of whom are based on real historical figures. The speculative fiction of Margret Atwood is also very useful. In Mad Addam you learn that one character has eaten human flesh, but Atwood does not condemn this action as morally wrong and I was able to empathise with the need for self-preservation that led the character to this action. I also find autobiographies and journals useful for developing empathy, particularly the latter, as it offers unique insight into another person’s mind. After reading the journals of Sylvia Plath I was shocked to discover my literary heroine was mildly racist and disgusted by the idea of same sex relationships. My initial response was blind rage. However, I soon remembered Plath was born into a much less tolerant society than today, and I should try to empathise with that.

Carol Grey’s Social Stories might seem like a more obvious choice for developing empathy, as they were designed specifically for improving the social awareness of autistic people. However, I find the idea of social stories a little too on the nose and preachy for my taste. I’m much more likely to learn through using material that relates back to my personal interests (fantasy, horror, and science fiction that features strong, well rounded female characters). I still make mistakes and have a lot to learn, but my understanding of empathy has greatly improved through immersing myself in literature.

So is autism, as Baron-Cohen puts it, an ‘empathy disorder’? No. Autistic people are undoubtedly capable of empathy. However, while most neurotypicals learn to empathise by osmosis, for people with autism, empathy is a skill that must be taught. I’ve found acting and drama therapy exercises to be just as useful as reading where empathy is concerned. Acting forces me to step out of my own world and imagine what it’s like to be someone else. But that’s another article for another time.

When someone with autism learns to empathise, the next major hurdle is learning how to express that empathy. This brings me to Theory of Mind, and Maia Szalavitz’ suggestion that people with Asperger’s Syndrome actually feel too much empathy, and this overwhelming flood of emotion is what prevents us from expressing our empathic feelings coherently:

‘Studies have found that when people are overwhelmed by empathetic feelings, they tend to pull back. When someone else’s pain affects you deeply, it can be hard to reach out rather than turn away. For people with autism spectrum disorder, these empathetic feelings might be so intense that they withdraw in a way that appears cold or uncaring.’ (Szalavitz)

This is something I can currently relate to. I often feel powerless when someone is visibly upset, as I just don’t know how to make it better.  Plenty of neurotypicals find it hard to say the right thing when someone is showing signs of emotional distress. Imagine how difficult that situation is when you have a social awareness and communications disability.

However, this theory of being overwhelmed by empathy may be another black and white generalisation. Autistic people don’t have too much or too little empathy, we just learn to empathise in a different way to neurotypicals. The real difficulty is not in the empathy itself, but in expressing feelings of empathy without causing further insult or upset. Remember the autistic child who expressed empathy for a sleepy adult by saying she looked like a zombie? My life is littered with similar examples where I’ve tried to portray empathy, but used the wrong words and ended up embarrassing myself or offending the person I was trying to comfort.  In these situations I often come across as cold and uncaring, just like I would if I’d made no attempt to comfort or empathise.

This problem is noted by Temple Grandin, and seems to affect a lot of young people with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.

‘There are individuals with HFA/AS who have a few more social emotional circuits connected in their brain, and for them, feelings and emotional connection with others is a bigger part of their functioning. This also, however, produces a greater level of frustration in many parts of their lives, such as friendship and dating’- (Grandin, p. 170)

I believe the ‘frustration’ Temple describes stems from the following problem: while we have enough social and emotional circuits to desire emotional connection, we don’t always have enough to successfully maintain that connection. This can cause people with Asperger’s Syndrome to become socially numb, retreating into their own private world to avoid the pain, embarrassment and misunderstanding that can occur when an autistic mind tries to navigate a neurotypical world.

Ultimately, autism is not an empathy disability. It is a social awareness and communications disorder. Despite coming off as uncaring, emotionless robots, many people with autism spend a significant period of their lives attempting to understand the feelings of others and find a place in the neurotypical world. Just look at all the hours I have put into understanding empathy!

What continues to frustrate me is that all this work is expected to come from autistic people. There are so few neurotypicals out there prepared to try to understand the autistic brain, yet these very people are often furious when I struggle to understand an aspect of how they think, dismissing me as difficult, uncaring or less intelligent than them. Autistic people must work hard in order to understand the neurotypical world. But that gap can never be fully bridged unless neurotypicals also work hard to understand the rich, inner world of the autistic mind.

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One thought

  1. Well said. As someone who knows the writer well (I’m her Mum!) I would never describe her as someone lacking in empathy. Just as those oof us who are “neurotypical” display different levels and understanding of empathy, surely those with ASD do to? Baron Cohen’s assertion is based, in my view on a very neurotypical view of the world. People with ASD may express or communicate empathy differently from neurotypicals, but in my experience it’s certainly not lacking. Wake up people, we all deserve to be respected as individuals 🙂

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