It is a common misconception that autistic people cannot empathize. There are even theories related to it, such as “theory of mind” which theorizes that autistic people have a difficult time imagining what someone else is feeling or thinking in their mind. This theory is often offered as one of the reasons that autistic people aren’t empathetic.
In my experience, nothing is farther from the truth. I’m an autistic therapist who specializes in autistic adults. I get to deeply know far more autistic people than the average human. What I’ve seen is incredible depths of emotion and care for others. In fact, most are hyper-aware of others.
Many autistics experienced emotional hardships of their own. They know what it is like to suffer and feel misunderstood, unseen, and unheard. They do not wish that experience on anyone.
Many times in therapy, our conversations focus on how an autistic person can honor their own needs. Frequently, my clients are concerned about hurting others in the process of honoring their own needs. I often have to work very hard to help autistics know they are not responsible for other’s emotional reactions to them.
So autistics care. We care a lot. It may just be that our way of caring isn’t always the standard neurotypical way.
For example, in conversations I ask a lot of questions. I ask because I care and I want to understand. I also ask because in our neurotypical society, people often hide how they’re actually feeling. I ask questions to get to the bottom of things. My questions may come off as intrusive, but I ask because I care and I want to connect on a real level.
In other instances, I replay conversations in my head as I try to figure out why my friend was so sad or feeling some other emotion. I do this because I care about my friend and I want to better understand her and help. I know many other autistics who also think deeply about the people in their lives.
I may not always be able to articulate my feelings well in the present or in standard neurotypical fashion, but I often try to follow up in a way that shows my love and concern. For example, I might call them later to check in or make them a piece of art.
I’ve also seen my autistic clients’ empathy, love, and care extend to animals, the environment, and the well-being of populations in general.
It may also be that autistics are seen as “unempathetic” because we are uncomfortable with unhealthy neurotypical standards of empathy. The socially acceptable way to show empathy is to offer verbal agreement or condolences such as, “I’m so sorry” or “That’s awful” or “I cannot believe that happened.” We are expected to immediately side with the person. However, I’m not willing to offer my empathy if I do not know the full story or do not agree with a person’s actions.
In our neurotypical society, a lot of unhealthy behaviors are normalized. For example, if someone is turning themselves into a victim in a situation where they were clearly the perpetrator of harm, I don’t want to offer empathy. I don’t want to condone behavior that is harmful.
In these instances, I usually remain quiet. This could be misinterpreted as unempathetic. Instead, my silence is a choice that comes from a place of empathy. I know this person is seeking approval, and I cannot offer it. While I could express my concerns and why I’m not offering support, I know this individual is not in an emotional place to receive such information. I’ve used my empathy to know that silence is the best choice that honors their needs and my values.
I think the misconception about empathy is similar to many of my qualms about the medical model of autism: it focuses on the negative external behaviors that differ from neurotypical behavior. When we begin to look at the internal landscape of autistic individuals, we understand far more about what autism actually looks like. From that perspective, we can see that autistics are deeply empathetic.
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