I have been thinking a lot about the popular premise that autistic people ‘lack empathy’. I guess the first thing to say before exploring this is that I am not actually autistic. I have autistic family members and my son is autistic and this post will be based largely upon the experiences of dealings with my son and supporting his emotional growth as parents do. It is not meant to come across as a sweeping generalisation and I hope it doesn’t, it is just my personal observations and a staring point for discussion.
My observation is that the autistic people I have met or known lack do not empathy at all, it is the natural ability to make the expected socially appropriate but disingenuous social remarks that may not be forth coming.
I would suggested (based on my understanding of the two words) that the autistic people I know best are generally incredibly empathetic but maybe not so good at appearing sympathetic. To Clarify here is a screen shot of the two words and their meaning (largely as I understand them) side by side:
I will be honest and say that at times I have been hurt by my sons apparent disinterest in my problems, feelings or concerns. We talk and share a lot about many things including feelings to help him build on his skills of recognising and identifying feelings in himself and others. What I have discovered is that if my son has experienced a similar situation himself he can be hugely empathetic.
In the beginning when he was younger I would explain to him how someone was feeling by reminding him of a very similar event he had experienced. That made those feelings relatable to him. As he got older he was able to do this for himself as long as the two situations were directly comparable. As time as gone on those comparisons can now be more general e.g. you lost something once, they have lost something rather than you lost your favourite toy, they lost their favourite toy. He has on occasion cried on behalf on another because he has related (empathised) so much.
The other day he floored me by being able to be more abstract (which he was previously unable to do). Talking about the loss of a sister he became upset and said, “I love my sister if she died I would be so sad, I would never stop being sad. That must make them so sad.” He had been able to put himself into the shoes of another person in a situation he had not experienced or only partially experienced. This is truly empathetic, he was feeling a feeling on the other persons behalf.
I think where the mix up occurs is sympathy. Sympathy meaning ‘acknowledging another persons emotional hardships and providing comfort and reassurance’ is really empathys poorer little brother. It is about saying the ‘right things’ at the ‘right time’ without the same shared feelings or experience behind the words. Sympathy is often hollow and much more part of social convention.
Some examples are:
‘I am sorry for your loss, let me know if I can do anything’
‘Sorry you didn’t get the job, how disappointing for you’
‘Sorry to hear you have broken up with your girlfriend that must be tough’
These are ways humans acknowledge that the person has had a hardship, they don’t really mean anything, they often don’t have any great understanding or feeling behind them. Something I admire greatly in my autistic family members is that there is rarely any flim flam. If they care they say it, if they don’t they don’t. I have always liked people who say it like it is or don’t bother commenting, because then you know that when they do it is real.
I am not for a second saying that autistic people never say these things or use sympathy in the this way but I would suggest that those that do may have learnt that it is expected and that the majority of NT’s do it as a natural thing as part of NT social bonding, so they can feel they have done something by offering a few words.
This is similar to my sons use of please and thank you which he views on the whole (unless it is truly something to be thankful for) as a waste of breath but does it none the less because it is a social rule he has learnt to follow.
I remember buying thank you cards with him for his teachers and he asked if we could leave one out as she had made it clear she did not like him and not been helpful. This made me cringe but at the same time I admired that the thank yous he did chose to give were real and authentic.
After some thought I decided to respect his wishes to not write a personal card to the teacher in question and I sent her a card thanking her for her time instead and signed by only me. I couldn’t quite kick the social niceties even though I agreed with him on her lack of effort to create a bond with him.
I have gone rather off track here but I think what I am trying to get at is that in my limited experience, looking in from an NT (neurotypical ie not autisic) perspective is that the autistic people in my life at least do not lack empathy in fact the quite the reverse. I feel NT’s are mixing up being true and authentic to our feelings with social nicities in this case.
I would love to hear others views on the subject especially from autistic adults so do feel free to comment, discuss and challenge.