The empathy myth

When I was diagnosed as autistic in 1994 I was told autistic people lacked empathy. Apparently we were cold emotionless robots and unable  to connect to other people. This was very early on in the history of autism so I guess this view might be seen as understandable, albeit wrong. What horrifies me is that 25 years later this view is still around and apparently thriving. 

There is a whole history to the ‘autistics lack empathy’ myth.  It is a very harmful view which sets back the cause of autistic acceptance and pride and perpetuates unhelpful views which harm autistic people. 

There is a clinical theory which justified this view. Thinking which has since been largely debunked around the idea of autistics being unable to form attachments with people. I am not an academic so cannot provide more than a high level refutation to that view but what I can do is share what I know as an autistic person, and as an autistic person who has met and knows vast numbers of other autistic people. My experience as well as others’ demonstrates that the empathy myth is just that.

One of the issues is that autistic people and allistic people tend to have different experiences of empathy. Autistics often experience hyper empathy where we pick up on the emotions of those around us almost as if by osmosis. When I stand near someone who is very sad I often feel their sadness. I once worked with a colleague who was very angry and I could feel their anger coming up the corridor well before I laid eyes on them.  I can tell if there are people in a room with a closed door as I can feel their emotions. These experiences are common to many other autistic people too. You may have a child who is very keen for everyone to enjoy their birthday party. This child may be afraid of picking up on others’ emotions if they are having a hard time and it ruining their experience of the party because people are sad. This kind of intuitive empathy, despite being very common, is not widely known about. I often mention it to other autistic people and they immediately relate even though this is not a concept anyone has told them about before. It can be a really difficult thing to experience the emotions of others around us. I have a mental illness and sometimes have to go to hospital. There is nothing worse when I’m unwell than to be in a building full of people experiencing misery and crisis and hospital is so counterproductive that I now tell my psychiatrist that I would rather be miserable at home with Mr kItty than in a building full of sadness and anger.

One issue feeding into the empathy myth is the different way autistic people view things like body language and eye contact. Many of us get little or no meaning from non-verbal communication. For me I cannot tell from non-verbal cues if someone is upset unless they are visibly crying or displaying their emotion in quite an overt way. In the past this has led to people thinking me cruel and heartless which in fact is not at all true. Like so many other autistic people I am kind and thoughtful and want to help people where I can but if I can’t tell that someone is having a tough time I will not know I need to be supportive. This is one of those misunderstandings caused by differences in communication styles between autistic and allistics. 

In a similar vein there is a mismatch between empathy between autistic and allistic. So while we are lumbered with the idea that we lack empathy, a lot of autistic people see allistics as lacking empathy towards us. The pathologising of autism dictates that this mismatch its usually only seen and written about in one direction but autistics frequently complain of a lack of empathy from allistics. I think this goes to the idea that we communicate in different ways, as if we are from different cultures. It is simply an example of a kind of cultural difference. How often are there misunderstandings between people from different countries because one side has made assumptions about the other? Well I suspect that this is what goes on in ‘cross-cultural’ type exchanges between autistic and allistic.

One thing I will say is that I am yet to meet a parent – autistic or allistic – of an autistic child who thinks that their autistic child lacks empathy. Autistic people can be the most thoughtful and considerate people. We so often care about how someone is feeling and want to be helpful. To me that is part of what makes the empathy myth so upsetting. Our good deeds and good intentions are so pathologised that the fact that we care and want to help is eclipsed by that pathology. 

I really hope that the empathy myth becomes a thing of the past as soon as possible. We do care, we are not robots, we just do empathy differently. Another case of different not less. Let’s work to get this myth firmly debunked because it is not helping anyone.

Can we please just ditch the myth that autistc people lack empathy?

3 thoughts on “The empathy myth

  1. My autistic grandson is extremely affected by the emotions of people around him. I am an Empath, so this is something I share with him and understand very well. I have never met an autistic person without empathy. I’ve met many autistic people who had reactions and did things that ‘society’ would deem ‘inappropriate ‘. It’s a lack of understanding on the part of ‘society’. You absolutely hit the nail on the head when you wrote about cultural differences!
    I’m looking forward to the day when the majority of our info about autism comes only from autistic folks or their friends and family. The so called experts have done enough damage.


  2. From my experience, my internal empathy is so strong it can lead to emotions that are hard to deal with. So I have a sort of emotional defensiveness, where I try and switch off my emotions just to get through a situation, or maybe I have to walk away to avoid overwhelm. For instance, if someone is hurting, I might not be able to comfort them because I’ve been hijacked by my own internal distress. From the outside this can look like I don’t care, when actually the problem is that I care too much, and I can’t handle it. So I think the empathy myth must have been based on observation of external behaviours without true understanding of the issue.


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