There seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding regarding if, and how people on the autism spectrum experience empathy. Simon Baron Cohen (author of The Essential Difference) describes autism as an ‘empathy disorder’. Baron Cohen suggests a general lack of theory of mind/interest in interacting with others is a big indication of autism, a disorder he views as an example of the extreme male brain. Interestingly, I scored 26 out of 36 in his ‘Reading the Eyes in the Mind’ test, which shows several photographs of people’s eyes and asks you to guess what they’re feeling. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a young age, so my results on this test suggest that high functioning autistics may not be as bad at emotion reading and empathy as people think. Indeed, my career supporting autistic children and adults has shown me they can be very empathic at times.
Baron Cohen’s tests alone cannot be seen as an accurate way to determine how much theory of mind a person has. Interpreting emotions based on a person’s eyes, when you are alone in your home and can take as much time as you need is very different from doing so in the real world, where you only have a split second to guess someone’s feelings and all sorts of contradictory thoughts, emotions and sensory disturbances are there to distract you. Recently, several online bloggers have speculated that high functioning autistics experience a huge amount of empathy. But this huge surge of emotion overwhelms our system, preventing us from responding to the situation appropriately and making us appear distant and uncaring. You can read Seventhvoice’s article here:
Anna Berry, an autistic artist, recently spoke out about how she experiences empathy in Your Autism Magazine:
‘Empathy is a big problem for me. Just not in the way you think. When I read about the baby dolphin [who was accidentally killed by tourists] I lay awake crying most of the night, consumed by the nightmare that is my experience of empathy. I could “feel” the rough hands of people passing me about. I could “feel” not being able to move in the air like in the water. I could “feel” the agony of not being with my mum.’ (Berry)
When it comes to a hurt animal, it’s clear that Berry is able to empathise very strongly. However, I think it’s important to note that this example shows someone empathising on a sensory level, rather than an emotional level. Personally, I think that autistic people are brilliant at sensory empathy rather but can struggle with emotional empathy. If someone is in pain because they are ill, have broken their leg or are just too warm then I understand that pain, can identify it pretty easily and (usually) know the appropriate response. However, if someone is in pain because their boyfriend broke up with them or they’re behind on their mortgage… well, I’d have no idea how to comfort them. The subtle ways someone might convey that kind of emotional pain would also be easy for me to miss.
I think this ability to empathise on a sensory level, rather than an emotional level, is why so many people with autism love animals. Temple Grandin has spoken extensively about her ability to empathise with animals on a sensory level, and how this has helped further her career:
‘I have a sensory-based empathy with animals and can really relate to animal welfare issues when it comes to housing. One form of restrictive animal housing that must be changed is sow gestation stalls. It would be like living in an airline seat and never being allowed to walk in the aisle. I can feel the muscle cramps I would get if I could not move around.’ (Grandin)
However, she struggles to interpret people’s emotions based on their facial expressions and empathise on an emotional level. I think a lot of autistic people (myself included) prefer being with animals to people because they have fewer facial expressions, are non-judgemental and do not require the use of a complex language to communicate- all you have to do is stoke their fur. A few weeks ago I was (jokingly) criticised by a friend who had thought I was coming to say hi to her, but I walked past her completely and went straight to the dog behind her. In hindsight this was very rude. But at the time I was overwhelmed by the prospect of social interaction and didn’t want to communicate on a complex, emotional level. I just wanted the simple, sensory comfort of a dog.
Many people on the autism spectrum are comforted by the presence of animals. In A Friend Like Henry, Nuala Gardener describes how the addition of a pet dog to their family bought autistic children Dale and Amy out of their shell, helping them develop empathy and encouraging them to interact with others. In some countries, service dogs are even used to treat the more difficult behavioural aspects of autism. YouTube features some fantastic, enlightening footage of autistic woman Daniel Jacobs and her service dog. In the video Jacobs has a meltdown, bursts into tears and forcefully smacks herself in the face and chest. Undaunted, her dog reaches up and parries the blows with its paws, gently nudging her with its snout as if to reassure her she is not alone. Jacobs soon succumbs to the dogs comforting presence, stops self-injuring and cuddles with her service dog instead. While the meltdown clearly isn’t over, there no longer seems to be any risk of injury. You can watch the footage here:
Not everybody with autism is a dog lover. I’ve worked with plenty of autistic adults who hate animals, and one autistic child who experienced a fight or flight response every time he saw a dog, causing him to run into busy roads and put himself in all kinds of danger to avoid them. However, I hope the above examples show how some people with autism can form a real bond with dogs and other animals. And this bond only exists because we have the ability to empathise on a sensory level.
Anna Berry, Temple Grandin, Dale Gardner, the autistic children who did their best to comfort me when I’d been attacked by one of their peers and the autistic adults who always check how I’m doing at work… all these people have shown a strong ability to empathise at times. In my current job staff aren’t even allowed to inform the autistic adults we support when someone’s off sick. When I asked why this policy is in place, I was told that service users have gotten very upset when they found out a staff member was ill and often tried to involve themselves in the situation (asking invasive questions, offering to bring them soup etcetera).
Despite all this, despite so much evidence to the contrary, so many “experts” still insist autism is characterised by a lack of empathy. There’s no denying that autistic people can find it difficult to interpret facial expressions or behave appropriately when someone’s in emotional distress. But when someone experiences physical, sensory distress… when an animal is being kept in cruel conditions or a support worker has a bad cold or a broken ankle… we can understand how that feels. We can empathise. And we really, really want to help.