Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Empathy Myth

The most common and hurtful autism myth is that autistic people have no empathy. We go through the world blinkered, unconscious of others’ emotions. This perceived lack of empathy can feel very hurtful to friends and loved ones, thinking that an important person in their life doesn’t care for them.

But I promise you, we do care. Most autistic people suffer from – and I choose the word suffer deliberately – a crippling surfeit of empathy.

For many autistic people, coming into contact with another person’s pain or misery or depression is like submerging in a pool of water. If you open your eyes your sight is blurred. If you open your mouth your lungs fill with water. We are so conscious of the other person’s feelings that the only available option is to shut down, because how can you function when you are drowning?

The world is full of situations that demand empathy. The people around you have their own problems and issues, from simple frustration at not being able to find something, through falling down and grazing a knee, to deep depression or grief. The frustration or anger spikes inside you like little darts of fire. The grazed knee makes you grieve for your child’s pain. The depression enters you and swells inside you until you can hardly breathe. And then you scroll through social media and one friend is traumatised, another is anxious, another is in debt. All in pain and all often out of reach for any meaningful way to help. In between the personal peaks of empathy are the impersonal ones. The cats in the high-kill shelter that need homes before they’re put to sleep. The dogs being skinned alive in China. The person being deported because of world panic over terrorism. The Muslim who has had their house set on fire. The gay men in Chechnya who are being beaten to death.

Perhaps some people can fine tune their responses to these things. Perhaps they can choose what to empathise with and what to dismiss. But if you are autistic you scroll through the page and you are feeling one person’s crushing depression, you are anxious about the other person’s ability to buy food for their children. You imagine yourself lying on the ground as boots slam into you because of who you love. You look out through the bars of the animal shelter cage. We can’t always fine tune, and it’s just too much.

The only option is to shut down, and that’s where the myth begins. We might seem as if we’re not listening. We might seem as if we don’t care. But submerge a person in a pool of water with a pair of tweezers and tell them to extract seven specific H2O molecules and only pay attention to them. Tell them to do it before they drown.

We don’t always know what to do with our empathy. We don’t know how to give the right monosyllabic sounds of reassurance. We want to help practically – to fix the situation instead of giving what seems like meaningless comfort, even if ‘meaningless’ comfort is what the person really needs. So often there isn’t anything practical that can be done, and we feel as though we were drowning, so we get out of the water and try to breathe again.

When you think we aren’t caring, perhaps we are just trying to breathe.


  1. I agree with much of what you have written. Personally, I only feel emotionally overwhelmed or frozen with the larger issues. I am very passionate about a lot of social justice issues, but sometimes, it can be too much and I have to take a media break to reset myself because I feel almost like I am drowning iI feel great empathy, but I feel like I am drowning in all of the emotional reactions I have to how poorly others are treated.

    On an individual level -I believe I don't always express empathy in a way that neurotypical people can relate to. I think they often desire the superficial platitudes "There, there. It will all work out." I don't do that. I feel like that isn't empathy at all. It's a cheap way to get out of actually *feeling* something and *doing* something for the peyrson who is hurting.

    My logical aspie brain immediately wants to go into problem solving mode to see how I can make the situation better for the person. Not just the moment. Sometimes my focus on solving the problem instead of handing out empty words with no weight can be perceived as a lack of empathy when in fact, it is the exact opposite. I care so much that I want to make things better.

    1. I agree with you so much about the problem solving mode. I get so frustrated sometimes online when what I just want is some reassurance, and everyone tries to solve my problem, but when someone else has a problem I just want to fix it for them.

    2. Often the person with the problem wants neither a superficial platitude nor a solution to their problem. All they want is for someone to just listen to them and validate their feelings. You can just say something like, "I can see that you are struggling with a really difficult problem right now." Or, "It can be annoying when things don't work out as you planned." Or, "I know you'll be glad when your exams are over." A woman I know was sick and tired of her mother-in-law's constant complaining. Her usual responses--"Oh, I don't think it's that bad" or "You're lucky you don't have a broken hip like your friend"--usually just caused further complaining. Round and round they went. One day this woman was driving her mother-in-law to the dentist. The older woman began complaining about all the trouble she'd had all her life with her teeth. This time my friend did something different. She said, "I can see you're worried about your appointment today." Silence from the back seat. She looked in the rearview mirror. Her mother-in-law was actually beaming. It's worth a try.