Empathy


Several adult autistics were discussing "empathy." One person said that empathy is a learned skill, a matter of learning to make a "reasonable guess" about what another person is feeling, and that autistics (despite what the experts say) have no deficit in this area. Another person maintained that many or most autistics do differ substantially in this area, both in that we learn to recognize the feelings of others (and the importance of the feelings of others) much more slowly and in that, for many of us, the response remains unemotional except with respect to the few people with whom we feel most closely related.

I had stated my belief that my form of empathy relies on principle, rather than emotion. Because my world view is based on moral and ethical standards, I am distressed by injustice. As the discussion proceeded, I wrote the following, in response to the person who said that empathy is something learned by non-autistics and autistics alike:

I think you are leaving out an element of empathy that may not be a necessary aspect of the definition of the word but definitely is an important part of the concept as it is used in daily life.

Empathy is supposed to produce an emotional response in the one feeling it. This emotional response, ideally, occurs with no conscious process of "reasonable guess" or anything like that. An "empath" (an especially empathetic person) is one who "picks up on" the emotions of others and immediately feels them her/himself. Those who are only ordinarily empathetic are expected to feel in their own "hearts" the emotions of those with whom they are experiencing empathy. That is why people who are empathetic will cry with people who are sad, for example.

I am not saying that this is the dictionary definition of empathy, but it is the way the word is used. It is how the word is used even by those who study autistics, as far as I can tell. When an autistic explains her/his form of empathy, s/he is seen as "robotic" (i.e., using reason/logic rather than operating on the basis of "pure" emotional response).

In other words, many autistics care deeply about (some) other people (though it may take many of them longer to learn how to experience and/or express this than it takes for non-autistic people), and many autistics care deeply about seeing justice/fairness done to everyone. There are some autistics (perhaps enough to constitute a sub-section) who are extremely sensitive to other people's emotions -- to the extent that they cannot stand to be around people much without being overwhelmed. But the way the connection-between-self-and-others works in autism tends to operate differently in autistics than in non-autistics. That is why the "experts" continue to diagnose us as "lacking in empathy." They are unable to see our caring-about as empathy because we use some other circuitry to experience our feelings of caring and connection.

To deny the difference seems odd to me. It is possible to insist that we (autistics) are capable of caring (it's demonstrably true, after all) without ignoring our differences from the NT majority.



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