There’s a misunderstanding still floating around that Autistic people don’t feel empathy. This is inaccurate and misleading. True, some Autistics have difficulty with things like social imagination, theory of mind, and being able to guess what someone might be feeling. Some struggle to understand non-verbal cues and expressions and so might not react in a way that’s socially expected. Some Autistics struggle to express what they are feeling; others have difficulty understanding just what it is they are feeling. Some don’t express themselves verbally. Some may express empathy and feelings in ways others misinterpret or don’t recognize. And some struggle with these more than others. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they lack the ability to empathize.
Just because someone is not responding to something in a way you might expect, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t internalizing it and reacting to it. A reaction may come out later once they have had time to process it. It may come out in behavior later. It may come out subconsciously. Or it may come out in an act that you don’t see as connected or related. It may just stay internalized and bottled up. There are many possibilities, but I don’t believe that lack of empathy is an Autistic trait.
But as always, I can only write from my own perspective about my own experiences and observations. All Autistic people are different just as all neurotypical people are different. I don’t and can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I hope that my words will resonate with people and provide some level of insight.
I’ve been struggling to write this post for over a week now and realized I just have too much to say about empathy so I’ll break the topic up into several posts.
I don’t lack empathy. I feel empathy in a deep, gut-wrenching, fatiguing, and heartbreaking way. Some people might call it being hyper-empathetic, others might call it being an “empath.” All I know is that I feel empathy so strongly that I often have difficulty separating my own feelings from those of someone else. I absorb emotional “energy” to the point that I become absolutely weary from it. I feel other people’s pain so innately that it can be so debilitating I have to try to unplug my feelings and let myself grow cold and unattached to survive. I don’t feel too little; I feel too much.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt this level of empathy. My childhood psychologist noticed how much I struggle with the deluge of emotion in the world and was always saying, “Stop taking on other people’s pain!” She’d have to remind me again and again to let it go and move on–that person would have to deal with their own pain and feelings and I had to let them do that.
As a child and teen I struggled a lot when watching TV or movies until I realized that I was having issues over-empathizing with characters or people on screen. If I’m being honest with myself I still struggle hugely with this, but I’ve learned to be much more selective with what I watch.
Hyper-empathy and “taking on” other people’s emotions are things I still struggle with. I’ll dwell on what others are going through and can’t seem to let it go. In some ways, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. I’ve always been someone that friends come to when they need a listening ear and I truly cherish that role and the trust people place in me. But on the other hand, sometimes empathy can knock me flat on my back for days.
Hyper-empathy isn’t always a bad thing! But that’s a post for another day….
[image description: A green garden with an old statue. The statue is of a woman holding a pot on her shoulder that is spouting water from it. It is cracked and worn by time.]