Dispelling the empathy myth – hyper-empathy and autism

I am often correcting people who believe the myth that autistic people lack empathy. One of the many things I say to refute this myth is that many Autistic people possess something called hyper empathy. Hyper empathy is where a person can experience the emotions of those in the vicinity almost as if by osmosis. It is very common amongst autistic people. 

I have a number of experiences of hyper empathy from my own life which illustrate the phenomenon.

When I was a child I had a friend whose father passed away. I found it unbearable to be close to her as I would experience her raw grief. I thought I must be a monster for not wanting to be near my friend when she was grieving. I believed it meant that I lacked empathy when in fact quite the opposite was true. Often Autistic children (and adults) will distance themselves from a friend or relative who is going through a tough time as a kind of self protection. If they are near a person in pain they feel the pain themselves and it can be unbearable.  

My hyper empathy has not lessened in adult life. I had a work colleague a few years ago who was extremely angry and unpleasant. I could feel her anger coming up the corridor long before she was in view from my desk. Her anger was like a tangible thing invading my mind. I liked that I got some time to prepare before she turned up and directed that anger at me – which she often did! I have an Autistic friend who accompanied me to a large event I was speaking at a few years ago. The audience was around 1300 people. I mentioned hyper empathy and being aware of the emotions of those around us to my friend and she told me she could feel that a person in the middle of the audience was having a really hard time and was very sad. So far from the stereotype of emotionally dead people who all lack empathy, Autistic people are in fact often extremely perceptive and aware of the emotions of others.

As many of my regular readers know, I have a mental illness which results in the need for hospital stays from time to time. I have said to my psychiatrist that I would prefer to be miserable at home with just Mr Kitty as company than be miserable among a ward full of other miserable people. Hospital is horrific for me and one of the main reasons for that is that in clinical settings I pick up on all the sadness, confusion, fear and anxiety of those around me. I am also a very caring person so I get a double whammy – I worry about the welfare of my fellow patients and I feel their misery when they are having a hard time. It results in me being very stressed in inpatient settings.

Allistic people don’t often understand hyper empathy which can mean that they dismiss it. I see it as part of what forms autistic culture – a mostly autistic experience which fellow autistics are more likely to relate to and allistics might not quite ‘get.’ I always find it telling when someone says to a room full of autistics that we lack empathy. The response is usually pretty emphatic and they are set right, but the empathy myth is a prevalent one and one we need to refute whenever it comes up. The empathy myth goes to ideas of autistics being somehow less human than others and as such is a very dangerous thing. The experience of hyper empathy is a good way to refute the empathy myth but not many people know it is a ‘thing.’ I often mention hyper empathy to other autistics and they tell me they have never heard of it – and then usually go on to tell me that it describes them! We need to get information out there on these topics and dispel that myth that we lack empathy once and for all as it is harmful and invalidating to Autistic people and our experiences.

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

14 thoughts on “Dispelling the empathy myth – hyper-empathy and autism

  1. I agree we should raise more awareness about hyperempathy, but I don’t appreciate the idea that autistic people lacking empathy is entirely a myth. And *especially* not the idea that it’s a dangerous myth. It’s not nice to generalise about a whole group of people from something that only SOME of them experience, no, but you could say the same about “autistic people flap their hands” and I don’t see anyone calling that a dangerous myth.

    I’m autistic and I don’t experience empathy. I literally thought empathy was made up and no one REALLY experienced it – because the concept was just *that* foreign to me – up until I was a preteen, at which point I learned that apparently this “empathy” thing is indeed real. (It continues to puzzle me to this day… how does feeling someone else’s emotions even work?? I respect those of you who experience it but it just seems so weird to me.)

    I am particularly distressed by your claim that “the empathy myth goes to ideas of autistics being somehow less human than others and as such is a very dangerous thing”. I’m not less human. The problem is not ‘allistic people think autistic people don’t have empathy but actually we do, therefore we are deserving of respect’ as you and many others have tried to frame it. The problem is that allistic people – and sadly, many autistic people too – think that lacking empathy makes someone less human. No, hang on, let me rephrase that: they think that a disability which those who have it cannot help makes them less human. Do you see the problem now?

    Similarly, your comment associating low empathy with being “emotionally dead” is upsetting. I don’t understand feelings very well – not others’ feelings and not my own either. (I’m not “very perceptive and aware of the emotions of others”. I can’t recognise someone’s emotions unless they’re very obvious. e.g. I can tell they’re sad if they’re crying, but if they just seem ‘off’ I likely won’t notice.) I’m still not emotionally dead.

    I can be kind, I have a moral compass. These things are a choice. Empathy is not. There have to be ways to talk about hyperempathy without throwing those who do lack empathy under the bus, don’t there?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. um literally all that i said was finally. (did you mean to respond to someone else?) i do like a lot of what you are saying and i totes feel every single part! when you see one person with autism you see one person with autism. i have spent my whole entire life being a barometer for other peoples emotions. i have also spent my whole entire life being misunderstood and called ‘monster’ and such by teachers because i react differently in social settings. i do not stem anymore…so anyhoo, thats why i said ‘finally’
      also P.S> i totes feel your sense of frustration my friend!

      Like

  2. Very interesting. Could you clarify an important point about hyper-empathy? Is it a supernatural ability to pick up on the emotions of others, or just greater discomfort associated with the same signs everyone else sees?

    Like

    1. I am not sure if it is a supernatural ability but it is an attribute where people can pick up on things others miss. I am not sure of the processes at play and what triggers the hyper empathy response – whether it is the same signals others have been seen with more sensitivity or something completely beyond the capability of others. Interesting ideas though. I have not seen academic research on this topic but will have a dig around and see if there is anything which relates to your query.

      Like

  3. My partner is undiagnosed Autistic, and he both appear’s to have no empathy (very difficult to live with as an empath myself)..AND feels things so deeply that for years and still now he won’t watch all the traumatic or real life like films I do, as it would upset him too much.

    My 11 year old autistic daughter has begun to register empathetic feelings, particularly for how I might be feeling. She is so beautiful and although still does confuse some emotions, we are helping her by being very explicit with our language and tone so she knows what we are feeling and she doesn’t internalise any misunderstood cues etc.

    I on the other hand DO experience some form of Hyper empathy and use it in my role as Mentor/Social support worker to adolescents with various mental health/neurological impairment/life struggles/trauma. I have a sense for other people’s struggles and am not afraid of normalising and supporting with respect and care. It’s almost as if I thrive on trauma (but in a positive way!). I don’t yet know what this means! Very interesting topic and I’ll dig deeper for research too!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s