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.