I really hate how everyone believes that people with autism lack empathy. As someone of the spectrum, I haven’t always been able to read the cues that give away emotions, but I’ve always deeply felt the emotions of others. If I see a person do something embarrassing, even if I don’t know them, I can still feel their embarrassment radiating off of them. Emotions just radiate from others and become my own; most of the time, I don’t know the reason for their feelings. I just feel them. Through comparison of what I’ve felt and what I’ve seen, I was able to get better at reading body language.
My biggest problem, and the reason why people think that I’m not empathetic, is because I’m really terrible at expressing empathy. When my grandma died, my mother was really upset — not just because her mother had died, but because she thought that I didn’t care. How could anyone not care if their grandma died? I do understand why she felt the way she did because I didn’t express my sadness the way I should have. I avoided my mom because I was upset enough that I didn’t need to feel her sadness on top of my own. I also have major problems when it comes to hugging because it makes me feel a little claustrophobic. Now, my mother understands, thanks to her blogging friends.
Expressing empathy isn’t something that is easily learned. There are just too many different situations with too many variables to know exactly how to react. I used to play video game like My Sims where you talk to random people, and you’re given options of how to respond: do you want to hug them, give them a gift, etc. If you choose the wrong option, the sim gets angry. Let’s just say a lot of them were angry at me. I worry about unintentionally offending people, so I don’t do much to express empathy, which is how I can see that I may come off as not being empathetic.
I think that not knowing how to express empathy is the main reason why people on the spectrum don’t appear to be empathetic. It’s not that they don’t have empathy; it’s just that they don’t know how to show it.
About the Author: Miranda is a teenager with Asperger’s who blogs at From Inside the Heart. Possessing But Not Expressing was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.