E is for… Empathy

There is a harmful myth that autistic people all lack empathy. This is a persistent view and even clinicians sometimes hold it. There are reasons for this myth, mostly due to ‘cultural’ type differences between the ways autistic and neurotypical / allistic folks communicate. 

Put an autistic person in a group of allistic people and they will communicate differently. This can be misinterpreted in a range of ways, including as a lack of empathy. In fact it works the other way too – an allistic person in a group of autistics is likely to be perceived by the autistics as lacking empathy due to their different communication types. Allistic people often think autistic people have no empathy for them but the other way is also true – autistic people often feel that allistic people lack empathy for us! It can be a matter of perspective. 

In reality autistic people tend to have a fair amount of empathy. Many autistics are highly empathetic. Some of us – the author of this post included – have something called hyper empathy. For me this means I pick up on the emotions of those around me as if by osmosis. If someone I am near is feeling sad or angry then I will take on that emotion. I had a colleague who was a very angry person a few years ago and I could feel her anger as she walked up the corridor to her desk. I could feel this person’s anger before I could see her! I was in the psychiatric ward a couple of years back. There was a young woman there who was really depressed. Every time I saw her having a hard time I would also feel the depression. I remember saying to my psychiatrist that I would rather feel miserable at home with Mr Kitty and without experiencing all the negative emotions of my peers in hospital! It can be very challenging having hyper empathy and it needs to be better understood. 

Some autistic people demonstrate their empathy in atypical ways. They may be extremely thoughtful and respectful. Autistic children in particular can be very kind and thoughtful and want to make sure everyone is feeing OK. This may relate to hyper empathy as well. 

One thing to note in this space is that some autistic people – and some allistics ones too – do in fact lack empathy or have low empathy. This is OK as well. The problem is not that everyone should have a similar level of empathy. The issue is that there is – to my mind – probably not a link between low or no empathy and autism – despite what the stereotypes may say and the view that we lack empathy is based in a misinterpretation of the facts rather than being a fact.

So it is OK to have empathy, hyper empathy, low or no empathy but stereotypes in this space are really unhelpful. 

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