Empathy Is Hard When You’re Autistic

Everybody knows autistic people are cold and emotionless. That we’re locked away inside our minds, cut off from human contact and feeling.

“Everybody knows.” Everybody except us autistic people, or so it often seems. When parents are first faced with the possibility, and later the certainty–or should that be uncertainty?–of their child being diagnosed as autistic, many of them only know autism as a set of stereotypes.

The child who doesn’t engage with them, who doesn’t seem to respond, who sits and rocks or flaps. They don’t understand, they can’t relate to their own child–can’t understand the experience or empathise.

They want to learn, that’s only natural, but where to look for information? A lot of the books, a lot of the blogs and articles are written by people like doctors and parents who are not themselves autistic, they are allistic. They look at us, at autistic people, and they try to interpret what they see in terms of their own experiences.

They say that men can’t understand women. Well, compared to somebody allistic understanding autistic people that would be a walk in the park! And that is why you end up with the same old stereotypes repeated over and over. Why really clever scientists and researchers get hung up on Theory of Mind and other hypotheses that we autistic people don’t see as fitting with our own experiences.

That is why we keep getting told that we can’t feel empathy, that we don’t have emotions because we don’t often display the same reactions as allistic people. That is why everybody knows autistic people are unemotional.

And yet when you know the signs, when you can recognise the ways that autistic people react to emotion because you react the same way–that is when you know that what “everybody knows” is wrong.

In the title of this blog I said “empathy is hard when you’re autistic”. And it is, but not in the way you probably imagine. Many of us feel a great deal of empathy, we feel it very strongly. Sometimes we are so overwhelmingly aware of someone else’s feelings that we can’t deal with the intensity of it and basically shut down.

I have friends, autistic friends, who have gone through emotional times. I’ve been through them myself. I’ve been there when a friend has opened up about trauma and we have both been in tears, voices breaking with the almost unbearable shared pain. I’ve talked to autistic friends about my suicide attempts in the certain knowledge that they completely understood how I felt and why I felt that way.

So if anybody tries to tell you autistic people don’t feel empathy, that we don’t have emotions, or that we can’t communicate and share those emotions, I can categorically tell you that it is not true. What is hardest about autistic empathy is convincing everybody else that it even exists.

I don’t know much about allistic empathy, but I can tell you without doubt that my autistic friends are some of the most sensitive, empathic and emotionally honest people I know. They really do wear their hearts on their sleeves: you just have to learn how to see them.

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7 thoughts on “Empathy Is Hard When You’re Autistic

  1. I thought this was really interesting…I would say I do empathy very well, but feel like my own emotions are somehow dull or lacking. I don’t know if that’s due to a faulty comparison with what I get off of other people, but my wife and I talk about me being the Spock to her McCoy. I suppose this is another manifestation of “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”—thank you for sharing this; I appreciate being able to compare notes.

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