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.
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.
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!’
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.’
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.
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.
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: www.tinyurl.com/TheRingmastersTale