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  • Sarah Nannery

ASD and Empathy

Updated: Oct 25, 2019

There is still a lot of misinformation out in the world about Autism, ranging from benign to hurtful to quite dangerous.

One of the misinformed ideas that hovers between "benign" and "hurtful" is the notion that people with Autism have no empathy, and that lack of empathy is one of the defining traits of the ASD brain. This is simply not true.

Empathy is defined as: "The ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Colloquially, empathy is often described as "the ability to walk in another person's shoes."

Many, many people with Autism absolutely have this ability - some perhaps even more acutely than most neurotypical people.

What is often missing - and what I think leads to the misperception that empathy is not present at all - are A) the nonverbal cues that indicate empathy and B) the natural ability to "read another person's mind," and/or to recognize (without prompting) that someone might be thinking or feeling something different than oneself.

The first missing element - nonverbal cues - stems from a common ASD trait of being much less able than neurotypical people to read body language and vocal intonation cues, and therefore also much less able to naturally convey emotions to others via nonverbal cues. The second missing element - realizing that other people might think differently about something - stems from another common ASD trait of lacking "theory of mind." Theory of mind (according to Wikipedia) is the social-cognitive "ability to attribute mental states - beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc. - to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one's own."

For example, my husband could be giving off all manner of nonverbal cues that he is angry: tense shoulders, closed posture (arms more often crossed in front of his body rather than loose at his sides), lowered eye brows, sharper and quicker movements, clipped language, a louder tone of voice than usual, etc. And I might not naturally realize that he is angry, unless I am specifically looking for cues (which I know to do now, and therefore am able to spot the emotion more often). Many times, even though I notice the cues, I might not be able to pinpoint the exact emotion - is it anger, or disappointment, or perhaps he just has a bad headache? Many times, unless I have some inkling of the source of the emotion, it is hard for me to acknowledge the existence of the emotion at all - is he angry with himself, or with me, or with the situation, or maybe he's not even angry at all because I have no idea what reason he might have to be angry and so it must just be a headache...

Ultimately, most often, I end up having to ask him outright. "Are you angry?"

Imagine how that works out... :) If someone is angry, the last thing they want to start doing is answering questions about their own mental and emotional state. How un-empathetic do I appear, not being able to "pick up on" how he is feeling, and react appropriately?

And yet, when he does answer my question and when I do understand what he is feeling - I internalize his emotion to such a degree that it physically hurts.

If he is angry with himself, I remember all of the times in my own life when I was angry with myself, and I feel that pain all over again, and I try to do things for him that would have helped me in those situations: a hand on his shoulder, a hug and affirmation that everything's going to be fine, etc. Then, long after his own emotion has passed and he has moved on, the memories of all my past self-anger still lingers in my blood and it takes hours - perhaps even a day or two - to purge my own emotion.

So you see, it is not a lack of empathy at all - though there are people in the world who do lack empathy, and some of them may also have ASD, but the two are not correlated. Instead, for me, and I think for many others with ASD, it is simply a lack of the natural outward ability to "pick up on" another person's emotions without being explicitly told. If I didn't have that barrier - if I could naturally read and convey emotions via body language, and if I naturally understood what another person was feeling (different to what I was feeling in the moment) without them having to tell me, my empathy would be as obvious as it is for everyone else. Once I understand the emotions involved, my empathy is boundless - perhaps too much so, due to my own heightened sensitivity (another common ASD trait).

So the next time you hear someone spouting the misinformation that people with Autism have no empathy, inform them, please. At the very least, send them here for a real-life account. And together, we will be creating a more informed and therefore accepting world.



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