Autistic people & empathy: what’s the real story?

Boy and Dog empathy

Helen Wallace-Iles explains different types of empathy and dispels myths about autism and empathy.

By Helen Wallace-Iles

So many of the general public believe that autistic people don’t feel empathy towards others, so this post is designed to help set the record straight.

First of all, what is empathy? Quite simply, empathy is the ability to understand what another person is thinking or feeling; but the truth is that empathy is anything but simple.

Autistic people can definitely struggle with certain aspects of empathy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it at all. Sadly, despite years of campaigning by autism advocates, there’s still a widespread belief that people on the spectrum have no ability to make emotional connections or form meaningful relationships, and this really couldn’t be further from the truth.

Autistic people are often the most kind-hearted, compassionate individuals you’ll ever meet. Deeply committed to their family and friends, with an intense spiritual connection to the world around them, they really are nothing like the stereotypical, emotionless loners they’re sometimes portrayed as in the mainstream media.

However, like all stereotypes, this one has its roots in reality, and has come about as a result of the complex nature of autism, and the equally complex nature of empathy. This post describes the three main aspects of empathy – affective, cognitive and compassionate – and how autistic people can both struggle with and excel at processing and expressing them.

Affective Empathy

This is an unconscious, automatic response allowing you to feel what other people (and other living beings) are feeling, and is absolutely not something autistic people lack.

For example, it’s very common to find people on the spectrum who feel intensely connected to all species of animals, birds, insects etc. and the bonds they form – with creatures who live free from the endless restrictions of human social rules – can be quite extraordinary.

In the case of affective empathy, rather than having too little, autistic people can often have way too much – a condition known as ‘hyper-empathy.’

Hyper-empathic people find that even the thought of anyone or anything suffering causes them intense emotional, psychological and often physical pain. They can be highly sensitive to any changes in atmospheres, picking up on the slightest tension between people, and becoming more and more upset as they anticipate things escalating.

Since processing these powerful feelings can be really hard for them, they’ll often withdraw or go into meltdown over something that’s perfectly valid to them, yet a complete mystery to those around them.

Another way this shows itself is in the extreme personification of objects: forming deep emotional bonds with everyday items like pencils or rubber bands.

There are many examples of personification in the language we use every day (time waits for no-one/the camera loves her etc.) and also in our culture, with films such as Beauty and the Beast being very much enhanced by its singing, dancing, emoting kitchenware, but what I’m describing here is something much more overwhelming. Autistic people can become extremely upset if they feel, for example, that a specific crayon or hairbrush isn’t being used as often as the others, because it might be feeling left out. I can imagine how that sounds to anyone who’s unfamiliar with autism, but believe me, to many, many autistic people, this really does make perfect sense.

Cognitive Empathy

This is the largely conscious ability to work out what other people are thinking or feeling, and because human beings are so endlessly complex, If you’re not naturally wired to understand the process, it can be really, really difficult to learn. Cognitive empathy is an intricate thought process allowing you to grasp what people really mean when they say something vague, or which emotions they’re feeling when they behave in a way you find confusing. It’s something most neurotypical people pick up very quickly, and most autistic people have to work really hard at.

Anyone who lives with autism (whether they’re autistic themselves or are in close contact with an autistic person) will recognise how difficult it can be for people on the spectrum to guess other people’s behaviours and intentions without very precise instructions. In other words, it really helps to say exactly what you mean when you talk to autistic people, because they just don’t get the concept of ‘implied.’

A perfect example of this happened in here recently, when my youngest son’s girlfriend told him ‘I’ve just left work; meet me at the end of the road.’ Now, it was clearly implied that since she’d just stepped out of the office, she wanted to meet him at the end of the road she works on, but since Aidan doesn’t do ‘implied,’ there she stood, more than twenty minutes later, still waiting for him to arrive.

Aidan, meanwhile, was waiting at the end of the road where she lives, which seemed to him to be the most logical road to meet on, since they’d met there several times before. Not specifying a particular road when talking to an autistic person is what we call in here a ‘rookie mistake!’

Dr. Spock

There are a couple of terms relating to this that you’ve probably come across if you’re part of the autism community: The ability to consciously recognise what other people are thinking and feeling is known as ‘the Theory of Mind’ (usually abbreviated to ToM); while being unable to do this is known as ‘Mind-blindness’. Mind-blindness is one of the most common traits a health professional will look for during an autism diagnosis, and its effects very much work both ways.

Autistic people will often assume everyone has the same views and understanding of the world as they do, as well as the same passions and interests. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the seemingly endless discussions about special interests which are a direct result of this trait.

They’ll also believe that if they’re aware of something, other people must be too, and this can lead to all kinds of problems. When my son Dominic was young he almost died of acute double pneumonia because he didn’t tell us he was in agonising pain whenever he coughed. Devastated, I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned it to me, and he said simply ‘I thought you knew.’

Compassionate Empathy

This is both the understanding of another being’s situation, and the motivation to help them if they’re in some sort of trouble. Once again, autistic people have no shortage of this kind of empathy, even though they can sometimes struggle when it comes to offering the right kind of help.

Many people on the spectrum are hugely motivated when standing up against what they consider to be injustice, and you’ll find some of the most passionate voices in the struggle for equality, animal rights and a cleaner environment are the autistic ones.

Autistic people see far less boundaries than neurotypical people do, which is a really positive trait when it’s applied to finding new solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Conversely there are many challenges for autistic people to master when it comes to giving and receiving emotional support, as they tend to struggle quite a lot with social boundaries.

Autistic people often don’t like to hug, or they hug too tightly, which is a natural way for neurotypical people to show empathy towards each other, and this definitely adds to the misconception that they’re unfeeling and lack the capacity to love. Putting your arm around someone’s shoulder or your hand on their arm when they’re sad are both automatic gestures for neurotypical people to make, but can be incredibly confusing for autistic people who have difficulty picking up social cues about how much physical contact is appropriate in each particular situation.

When you’re autistic, joyous occasions such as birthday parties and weddings can be just as difficult to navigate as the more emotionally draining events like funerals. Understanding why it’s important to ‘say the right thing at the right time’ can be very confusing, leading to all sorts of mix-ups, but autistic people really do care, and are genuinely trying their best to be supportive, even when they get things wrong.

Socially Appropriate

So those are the basics of empathy, and some of the struggles autistic people can have with them. I’ll leave you with a real-life example of one man’s version of compassionate empathy which I’m sure many wives of autistic husbands will recognise.

For several years I’d been dogged by some very serious injuries and illness, and had put on quite a bit of weight as a result. We were going out for the day so I squeezed myself into a pair of jeans I hadn’t worn for a really long time. They just about fitted but to be honest I wasn’t too sure about wearing them in public. I told my husband I felt a bit uncomfortable about how my legs looked, and rather than the standard ‘You always look beautiful to me, darling’ reply I’d expected, he spent way too long staring at my thighs and came out with the ever-so-helpful statement ‘Yes, they are pretty big. I know! Just wear a long coat.’

Yes, thank you for that, darling; problem solved. Sigh.

Empathy Cartoon


Helen Wallace-Iles

Helen Wallace-Iles has lived with autism all her life and is now the very proud mother of four remarkable children on the spectrum. She is a fully qualified hypnotherapist and psychotherapist who has supported hundreds of families through the difficulties of living with this complex and intriguing condition.

Helen now works full time running the charity she founded in 2010, Autism All Stars Foundation UK, where she promotes a positive, proactive approach to life and particularly to living with autism, something which shines through in her hugely popular book ‘The Ringmaster’s Tale: Autism, Asperger’s, Anarchy!’ – available here:

12 replies on “Autistic people & empathy: what’s the real story?”
  1. says: David Goren

    Dear Helen Wallace-Iles,

    I have never seen such a brilliant, exact and concise description.

    The gap is indeed not in the feeling, definitely not in compassion.
    It is in the brain which is overwhelmed by these, and therefore tries to understand them
    with its own intrinsic limited way.

    It is not that we are more limited –
    Every human brain is limited exactly in the same way.

    It is that we do not compromise the understanding.

    ❤️ David Goren (Dahdee)

  2. says: Vanessa

    Thank you so much Helen. I was discussing this very topic with a friend today and as always found it near on impossible to explain. I am autistic myself as well as my husband and two grown up children. My friends even Googled empathy vs compassion and we still struggled to make sense of it. So tonight, I sat here Googling myself and came across this amazing article. It explains it so well and in ways I could never do. I will keep a copy with me so that when it inevitably comes up again in the future I will be ready.

  3. says: steve staniek


    I deeply appreciate the heart-driven care you’ve taken to: study, discern, and understand our behavioural differences. Each of us operates a little differently, but we seem to share many traits.
    As a war refugee in Belgium just after WWII, my childhood silence for example was driven by fear. Indeed, I would say that we are all hyper-empaths, and we shutdown just as we should be starting to open up to the world, in order to protect ourselves from overload. We may sense subtle warning feelings (signals), or changes in patterns from our parents and siblings, that things just aren’t right with this world somehow (ugly details are not required), and it’s just not safe to come out yet. Some of us chose to remain in what can be interpreted as an altered state of fearful isolation. It feels safer to stay hidden than to come out into a scary and uncertain world, where ANYTHING could happen. It feels safer to stay inside my shell, and I will decide when its safe to come out. I think eye contact works on the same principle.
    You’ve mapped the landscape nicely.
    Thank you, and please continue…

  4. says: Mike

    This just made my throat tighten and my eyes all leaky; what is going on with me?! Ok, I’m (only half) joking. Thank you for writing this. It is a beautiful explanation of what I haven’t been able to put into words since my ASD diagnosis at 39 years old. I was literally just sharing my lunch with a squirrel on campus last week and I said to her, “I can empathize with you enough to know that you want me to share ,y dried apricots and almonds. Why doesn’t my husband believe I can empathize with him?” I’m not at all joking there; 100% true story. I will be saving and sharing this page and look forward to reading more from you. Again, many thanks!

  5. says: Sway

    How can a person get ALL 4 kids with this disorder? Unbelievable. Not determined to be genetic by any stretch of the imagination. Makes one ponder nature vs nurture here.

    1. says: Heath Wilder

      The parents could get tested for either a) being autistic or b) being the actual parent. But yes, unfortunately we can’t all be autistic. Lucky those of that are have enough empathy for the NTs.

  6. says: Bob

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been wrestling with hyper-empathy for a long time. I’ve never seen my internal self reflected in any form of media until I read this article and I am deeply moved. Thank ypu.

  7. says: CC

    It seems to me that empathy requires common ground and, while I often understand why people get upset, and can easily empathize with that, what I don’t understand is why they STAY upset. Often obsessing about something that’s long gone and over. I don’t understand that. I’m happy when something horrible is over. But I’m in my sixties so I wasn’t raised as “autistic”. I was encouraged to explore my interests by an autodidact, inventor father I’m sure was also on the spectrum and that might have something to do with my lack of understanding. I don’t understand why people get upset about some things and also don’t understand why they DON’T get upset about others.

    In many ways, the world seems backwards to me.

    With regard to melting down – I’m a generally happy person so it doesn’t take much. I don’t melt down right away but if an intolerable situation goes beyond a few moments and I can’t walk away for some reason…I will put a stop to it any way I can. I don’t understand why people continue with some sort of behavior or interaction when the other obviously wants it to stop. I am well aware of how annoying I am and do my best to keep interactions as short and quick as possible. When that’s not possible, between their annoyance and my own burning desire to not annoy and get away from them, things go downhill very quickly. Which is horrible when it’s happening but, after – when it’s over – I feel like I’m flying! The over-ness of such exchanges is awesome!

    And with regard to the “eye contact” thing I, personally, think I avoid it because it seems to be perceived as an invitation to social interaction which, to me, is sort of like lying because I don’t want to interact. Writing is enough interaction for me. Working together with regard to a shared interest and “social interaction” are two profoundly different things. I can work on and converse about an interest all day long but if the other person’s attention is on me, personally, rather than the topic – no. Just no. And I don’t understand why people talk about personal stuff. I don’t want to know such things about people. It’s like gossiping about yourself – and gossip makes my skin crawl and all I can think about is how I’m going to escape.

  8. says: Mary

    Thank you for this clear, kind, informative look at Empathy and ASD. I have been dating someone I care deeply about but struggle to understand. He has mild ASD. Often, that little bit of difference feels huge and overwhelming. The language and specificity of your article help me understand so much about the challenges in our relationship.

  9. Same as my son. Unique apart from this is strong like wrestler in meltdowns. Also severe read souls protects me and lost his brothers. They blame him life struggle so on. Birth lady I except but these words the world needs to hear like a covid 19 ..face mask narcissistics. I’m high level empath. Strong no autism. Will show n tell others therapist so on. For this xx.

  10. says: Cheeky Sharp

    With regard to empathy – NTs are taught to be manipulative from the very cradle and fully expect others to take over for mommy and continue their little slave game for the rest of their lives.

    Newsflash: Not spending one’s life trying to appease people who, not only refuse to grow up but can’t even BE appeased for more than 5 minutes at a time, isn’t a “defect”.

    So – how does that feel? Good, right? After all, I’m only trying to “help”. Isn’t that what NTs claim?

    The very desire to force/manipulate/re-educate others into doing or being what you think they should is a condemnation of who they are. So, why is the fact that NTs don’t understand that not considered a defect? Because NTs make society’s rules, I suppose.

    Here’s my rule: 1) Don’t feed the NTs.

    I don’t know what “the point of life” is but I’m pretty sure it’s not the constant struggle of trying to soothe and appease insatiable NTs.

    Here’s a tip – if you’re going to setup manipulative, NT traps for your husband, put big “TRAP” signs on them because without a signal, he won’t know he’s supposed to lie/sacrifice a foot to appease you. And an apology wouldn’t go amiss. That way he won’t waste the rest of his life in PTSD mode, trying to figure out what is and isn’t a trap.

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