Why I disagree with the theory that autistic people lack empathy

Written in 2019

There are two main types of empathy. Affective empathy is when you feel the emotions of the person in distress and instinctively know what they are feeling – you relate to their emotions and experience. Cognitive empathy is when you think about how someone will feel in a certain situation, and is more of a conscious process. Generally speaking, autistic people struggle with affective empathy, but are able to engage in cognitive empathy more easily, especially when we can understand the situation and there is clarity about the emotions being experienced. Affective empathy can be a little harder, but there's also a discussion around women on the spectrum and their (often more advanced) ability to effectively affectively empathise with other people.

Today I saw a woman crying in a car park. I went over, sat down next to her and asked if she was OK. She said she was, but I knew (from personal experience if nothing else) that crying in a car park is sure sign that things aren't OK. It's not my place to say what was wrong, but I sat next to her, gave her a hug, and asked her about things, trying to say the right thing and make her feel less alone. I say that mainly because of the nature of her problem at that point and also because I know crying on your own is a very isolating experience. I don't actually like crying in front of people, so even though I do (most of) my crying alone, I also know that crying is horrid, and most people want some human comfort when they do. We sat for maybe 5 minutes, and she left to go home (she lived close by), and I am still trying to deal with a heavy knot in my thorax.


So would this be affective or cognitive empathy?


You could see this two ways. First, my take. I'm seeing a woman, on her own, crying. I know she's upset because she's come to a car park to cry. Those things signify that something is wrong. There's no one else around and I don't know what's upset her. I do know that it's not right to walk past someone who is crying, or otherwise upset/not OK. I could walk past her, but that just seems wrong when she's obviously not OK and I'm not the sort of person who can just walk past someone who's obviously in distress. I would worry that I could have helped, but didn't, and potentially carry that with me for a long time, wondering if she was OK, could I have helped? Did I do the right thing?


I realised pretty quickly that I was out of my depth in terms of what to do or say, after all, I've sat down next to a crying person I don't know. Once she had told me what was wrong I said “you need a hug” and gave her a hug. I hope it was what she needed, because that's the last thing I want anyone doing to me when I'm upset. I know most people want or need some human contact, they want a hug when they're upset so I do this. I really don't want to disclose what was wrong because it's not my place to do so but I tried to dig out the right things to say from my little file of “things to say to people you don't know when they are upset”. I went into the situation knowing I was going to be working blind so I prepped myself to access the “concerned stranger” persona I know works (I had seen her well before I got to her so I had a bit of time to decide to help her and to prepare). I hope I helped, but I don't really know if I did. Some of those phrases in the file of “things to say to people you don't know when they are upset” seem so trite in my head and when I hear myself say them out loud that I never know if they actually work – they never do on me.


Why did I feel compelled to talk to her and try to help? This is where you could consider things to be affective empathy; a deep rooted sense that one of my species is upset therefore compelling me to help. Is that what affective empathy really is though? Is it something you can describe and observe without it being a conscious process and then act on? If she hadn't been visibly crying (head in hands) would I have stopped to check she was OK? Would I even have known? I think the obvious signs of her not being OK compelled me to stop and check, and try to help.


From a neurotypical perspective, would that interaction have been read as me having empathy and therefore not possibly being autistic? Is this another one of those things where people say “oh, well we all do that” or are these examples of me intervening when someone's obviously not OK just proof that autism doesn't preclude empathy (feeling/displaying) and that when we access it and do it in ways we're comfortably with then empathy is something autistic people have, albeit from a different angle?


One theory around autistics and empathy is that we actually have too much; we can't cope with the emotional burden of others and can come across as blunt or unfeeling simply because we don't have the processing space to deal with other people's big life problems. I know I've felt this about some people who I want to help, and I know need help, but I don't think it's a good idea for me to take on that extra emotional burden because of my tendency to then neglect my own emotional needs to put others first. I've done a lot of work on that tendency in the last few years, mostly before I was diagnosed, so I've learned to create some boundaries for the sake of self preservation.

At other times we can appear to lack empathy totally, and it's possible for both these behaviours to appear in the same person, sometimes on the same day (well, at least it is with me). The sort of stuff I appear to lack empathy over is big stuff that affects me which I need time to process. I need less time to process and respond to information that isn't directly related to me. I could be watching a TV programme about someone's terrible tragedy and feel quite moved, and want to help them, and then hours later get some bad news about something which is related to me and appear completely unconcerned. It's a hard one to explain because people in general equate a lack of externally expressed empathy as a sign that you're dead inside, and that you don't have feelings. Maybe that's one of the reasons people think it's OK to take advantage of us?


This became a lot longer than I intended, and there's certainly more to say, but for now I will leave this topic and revisit it in the future.

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