Autistic People Don’t Lack Empathy
In fact, we’ve got more than enough
(An audio version of this article is available via the Neurodiverging Podcast, here.)
I’m an autistic woman in my 30s. I’m introverted and a little awkward, but I do enjoy meeting new people and making new friends. However, I have this recurring experience in social settings that I find off-putting.
When I am in a room with a group of people who are neurotypical (that is, people with “typically developing” brains), I am often told that I don’t fit their image of what autism looks like. I am told that I seem too intelligent or too “high-functioning.” I am too verbal. My eye contact is too good. Oftentimes, I hear that I just don’t look like an autistic person.
People mean well by telling me this, but what I really hear during these conversations is how misunderstood autism is, and how much people don’t know about the diversity inherent in the autism spectrum. I assure you, I am an autistic person, thank you very much, and being autistic is a huge part of my identity.
Autism describes a collection of neurological traits, not a “type” of person. Part of dismantling the stereotyped understanding of autism is talking about what autism isn’t, so we can get closer to better understanding what autism is.
One of the most pervasive myths about autism is that it is an empathy disorder. Many researchers used to believe that autistics naturally lack empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a base layer of human social interaction and thus an important part of creating and maintaining all person-to-person relationships.
It is true that many autistic people, myself included, do have trouble understanding other people’s emotions during social interactions. Psychologists used to attribute these social difficulties to a lack of empathy based on the idea of “theory of mind,” which is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine their thoughts and feelings. It was thought that autistic people lacked “theory of mind” completely.
I’m a mother; I’ve got empathy to spare.