Autistic People Don’t Lack Empathy
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.
Now, I don’t know about you, but most of the autistic people I know definitely have “theory of mind.” If my child is crying next to a cup of spilled chocolate milk, I can figure out what happened and how she feels about it. I don’t lack the ability to put myself in her shoes. I can also feel deeply that she’s lost her chocolate milk and want to help her feel better. I’m a mother; I’ve got empathy to spare.
So, it’s not that I and other autistics lack empathy. We have a similar range of empathy to neurotypical people. What we can lack, though, is the ability to consistently and accurately interact with people in social situations that rely on understanding their emotions and thoughts, or what their expectations are based on facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal cues alone.
Autistic people often have trouble reading faces and understanding nonverbal cues. Therefore, we do often misunderstand people’s emotions if they don’t state them explicitly. I am good enough at social situations (after many years of practice) that I can “pass” as neurotypical for a short time, but eventually I will miss an important nonverbal cue and be excluded from the social group, almost always without understanding why or what I missed.
If I’m not “out” about my autism, that same group of neurotypical people, who were so insistent that I don’t “look” autistic, will ostracize me as soon as I miss a social cue or some other nonverbal communication, out of the assumption that I’m doing it on purpose.
Because of our trouble with nonverbal cues, autistic people also misjudge politeness norms and expectations pretty often, and can come off as rude when we don’t mean to. Many of us also can’t consistently pick up on cues to change topic or tone in conversations. It can be easy for a neurotypical person to dismiss these misjudgments as intentional rudeness or uncaring behavior.
We have developed a higher level of empathy over time to try to help us compensate for our disabilities.
On the surface, we autistics may seem to lack empathy. But, most autistic people are at least as empathetic as average people, if not more. We know we can’t fool you into thinking we’re neurotypical for long, even if we want to, but we want to be accepted just like everybody else. So, we often end up having higher social anxiety, and thus higher sensitivity, to how people act. We have developed a higher level of empathy over time to try to help us compensate for our disabilities.
We know we don’t understand your social cues. We work overtime to try to pick up what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling so we can respond appropriately. We autistics are plenty empathetic. But are you?
If you’re a neurotypical person, think about the people you know who are just a little different in their communication styles than you. Do you know someone who talks for slightly too long, is occasionally rude and seems surprised when pointed out, responds a little too slowly, or doesn’t change topic when everyone else does?
Maybe they’re autistic, maybe not. But having a little patience and empathy toward them wouldn’t hurt, right?