Neither Aloof Nor Detached: the Reality of Autistic Empathy

aut empathy illustration

[Image is a circular light blue face with crying green eyes and frowning pink lips.]

Today, I’ve been reflecting upon empathy and autism. I know that in many cases, the autistic person is believed to be too withdrawn (“in their own little world”) or too aloof (not caring about others, lacking social skills, etc.) to experience empathy. Yet, I know that I am autistic and have empathy, although it may not be the same type of empathy that allistics (non-autistics) experience. To say that autistic people lack empathy is dangerous, because that sort of idea is widespread and is commonly used to dehumanize autistic people, presenting us as robotic or animal-like.

As I wrote this piece, my friend mentioned that certain sugary foods hurt his teeth. Immediately, I think about my own teeth and I imagine (or feel, if you will) the sensations associated with sensitive teeth. What has happened is an experience of pain as if it were my own pain–though we autistics are said to be incapable of comprehending this!

I think back to my childhood and remember the morning that my well-meaning mother made us pancakes for breakfast, in the shape of people. Horrified, I was in tears, unable to eat the “people pancakes” for fear of hurting them.

This memory leads me to another aspect of the phenomenon of autistic empathy, one that I believe is atypical in the allistic world. Those pancakes were objects, and yet, I could not bear to hurt them. In my life, objects have always had feelings. My empathy extends to my stuffed animals, to my dice collection, to Pokemon cards, even to pieces of garbage or to a piece of bubble wrap.

I find it difficult to throw out the garbage. It is much easier to tuck a candy wrapper into my pocket (where it won’t come to harm) than to let go of it and toss it in the trash.

I see everything as my friend, and therefore as something with feelings that I don’t want to hurt.

The news is difficult for me to watch. I empathize with everyone and I want more than anything for them to be okay, for them to be happy, for them to be well. And this desire means that I am easily overwhelmed by sadness and pain when I hear about shootings, bombings, murders, deaths, and violence.

When overwhelmed, yes, I shut down, and it becomes harder for me to process anything–including empathy! So when allistic people say that autistics don’t have empathy, maybe they are judging us based on a state when we are already overwhelmed–too overwhelmed to process things in a way that allistics would recognize. Regardless, to say that autistic people don’t have empathy is to deny a huge amount of evidence to the contrary as well as the statements of autistic people themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Neither Aloof Nor Detached: the Reality of Autistic Empathy

  1. Pingback: List of Current Links & Resources | The Unpuzzled Project

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