The rule book has been rewritten of late regarding us autistic types and empathy. The theory used to be that we usually lacked it and particularly in the more extreme cases. The new trend is towards saying we not only are capable of empathy, we feel it more deeply than most.
As usual I will be taking the view that the truth lies somewhere in between and using personal experience to try and back up my point.
THE NO EMPATHY THEORY: Perhaps this is used less for us Aspies than for the more extreme forms of autism. But my own condition did have more extreme manifestations in my early years. According to both dearly departed parents I “treated people like objects”. I guess that means I shoved past people or gave unwelcome hugs or something. But I do remember getting a kick out of watching reactions – it pains me to think of an event at my nursery where everyone’s parents but mine seemed to be there and I had no understanding of what was going on and decided to get kicks by shoving toddlers over and watching them burst into tears. The teacher told me very politely to be careful but I knew my own maliciousness and it’s not a memory I’m proud of. I have sent prayers up that in adulthood those former toddlers would be healed of any emotional scars remaining but it shows that empathy can develop over the years if nothing else.
THE EXTREME EMPATHY THEORY: Flash forward a few years and I’m at an independent primary school on the continent (English speaking). Looking at my first report (aged five) it mentions a few pronounced eccentricities but also says that Christopher “cannot bear to see another child in distress and tries in his own way to comfort them” or somesuch.
Crying. Witnessing someone cry is the easy end of empathy (though I have heard of autistic husbands failing to comfort their wives when in distress). We’ve all cried. We all know something of the emotion that leads to us bursting into tears even from our early years when the experience of something like a bumped head is more of a shock to the system than it would be in adulthood. We know, unless we’re the kind of autistic who hates physical contact (which I’m not), how we appreciate the comfort of having an arm slipped around us, whatever has caused the distress. There is a feeling of not finding it easy to witness someone else’s distress but there is also what our own experience has taught us.
But that’s the easy bit. That’s where we don’t have the subtleties to cope with. Where the rubber hits the road is in terms of understanding the feelings of others when not explicitly stated. This is the classic autistic thing – not understanding what is communicated in less than obvious terms with the assumption that we will put two and two together, join up the dots or whatever.
There is also a struggle, for myself at least, with remembering, in more impatient moments to consider my reaction and think “How would I like to be on the receiving end of this?” One only knows how to be oneself. I hate when the person in front of me in the queue at the local store, bus stop, train station etc takes ages getting hold of what they want and find it nigh impossible at times to contain the groans. But when my own order takes more time than usual to process, I have to remember that were someone behind me to start groaning Autistic Hermit style, I would struggle to hear what the (wo)man at the counter was saying and probably have a meltdown myself. I only know how unbearable my own feelings are at any given time – it takes mental effort to consider the other person and keep patient. I can’t handle being interrupted in conversation but I also know what it is to feel so grossly misunderstood or talked into a corner that I cannot hold my peace and make an interjection myself.
So my conclusion?
- Empathy can, in less extreme cases of autism, be learned even if it does not come automatically.
- Empathy lacks most in more subtle situations where we do not always realise how our words and actions will be taken.
- Empathy is an ongoing issue for us, either we have more of it than we can handle or we just can’t muster it up – it’s feast or famine.
AFTERTHOUGHT: And what about you lucky neurotypical types? Are you all A1 when it comes to empathy? When it comes to relating to the Aspie, the answer is probably not the one you want to hear. Those who get a kick out of our extreme reactions to distress or parade our weaknesses like they were something we took for granted rather than something we were keen to overcome are not our idea of good friends, regardless of any generosity or kindness they show us in other ways. In this instance, who lacks the empathy? Doesn’t take long to guess, does it.