Just a few months ago, I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum by a very experienced psychiatrist who specializes in autism. I am also an empath — an extreme empath, at that.
But wait. Autism and empathy — the two just don’t go together at all, do they!? Autistic people are cold, robotic, and uncaring; like psychopaths, they are simply unable to feel for another, incapable of empathy. Right?
Wrong. For years, I believed that I couldn’t possibly be on the autism spectrum because of damaging stereotypes like these. Despite having many symptoms of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I thought that couldn’t be autistic because I am exceptionally empathic. I began to question this stereotype after communicating with autistic people on the Internet. Some of these people were uncannily similar to myself. Since my diagnosis, I have discovered many others like me, both men and women, who are extraordinarily sensitive to the pain and feelings of others, and a percentage of them also struggle to cope with having very little sense of self. At last, current research is revealing that autistic people can possess high levels of empathy.
I have read various theories and studies that say that people who hyper-empathize have overactive mirror neurons and an extreme female brain, and are much more likely to be diagnosed with a personality disorder or some sort of psychosis. Prior to being diagnosed with an ASD, I was told I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). There is much debate about what BPD is and isn’t, so I won’t be talking about it here, except to say that I am very impulsive, not at all logical, and operate on a different plane through emotion. I am also very analytical and solitary, and fit the classic presentation of how ASD manifests in females. Yet autistic people supposedly have an extreme male brain, lack of empathy, and are highly systematic. Many do fit the stereotype, but many others, myself included, do not. Clearly, the reality is far more complex.
I cannot speak for everyone, but I was born super-sensitive. I lack any emotional skin. Everything hurts me. It is like walking around with your nerve endings exposed. Raw, agonizing, and torturous are words that describe how I feel on an almost continuous basis. I have co-morbid conditions, and I also am a rare personality type. I believe my personality does not have strong definition to it; I have more elastic boundaries, so I soak up others’ pain and emotions like a sponge. I feel that one of the reasons I am so intense and prone to extremes of mood is because I have great difficulty in separating my pain and emotions from those of others. And when I say others, I mean not only humans, but also animals, trees, plants — all living things, in fact. It is extremely distressing and difficult to live with this hyper-sensitivity. It is almost impossible for anyone who is not this way to be able to comprehend it.
There have been a few times that I have witnessed a person being hurt, or an animal killed or injured. As it was happening, I merged with and absorbed all the shock and pain. I had to hibernate for days afterward to recuperate. As a young child, I would try to save all the flies that had been caught on the sticky fly tape trap; I couldn’t stand to hear their desperate buzzing as they slowly died. I picked worms up off the road before they got squashed by cars or people, or got eaten by birds, or died in the sun. I vividly remember one of the family dogs running straight through a barbed-wire fence and being badly injured. The look of horror and pain on his sweet face, his frightened yowl — it still makes me cry to think about it.
Being a deeply intuitive, hyper-sensitive person, I’ve always felt as though I walk the line between the physical world and the veiled spiritual world, and I can sense things without knowing how. I cannot read people’s facial expressions well at all, but this slightly psychic sense is what I use to navigate this frightening world of people I cannot relate to. Whenever I come into contact with people, I get a sense of whether they are genuine or not. I pick up on vibes from people, and I get strange sensations in my body, like a tingling/fluttering sensation, or a pins-and-needles feeling, as I sense the essence of their souls. I can feel ill when I sense the true underlying blackness behind an individual’s “nice” exterior. I can usually detect the slightest hint of malice in a person, though there have been times that I did not listen to my intuition and paid the price.
I cannot stand to see anyone hurt or humiliated in any way. I am disgusted by “jokes” at someone else’s expense; I hate ridicule and barely concealed spite disguised as “humor.” Many times I have been told I am too intense, that I need to lighten up, and that I can’t take a “joke.”
I just cannot stand injustice. There is so much unnecessary nastiness, hatred, jealousy, competitiveness, and aggression in the world. It repels me. In the past, I have hated people for it, hated those who deliberately inflict cruelty on others. I now realize that this is an error — that I will self destruct if I perpetuate the cycle of hate. I don’t want to end up sour, bitter, and cynical, and there have been periods of my life when my extreme anxiety and mental torment have been impossible to bear. Nowadays, I try to turn all the powerful feelings I have towards trying to make my little corner of the world a happy one.
I feel passionately about the vulnerable — animals, children, the disabled, the misfits, the outcasts, the underdogs, and the rejects of society. Despite being hyper-emotional and empathic, I do not relate to most neurotypical people at all (with a few exceptions) and am nothing like them. This does not mean that I do not like them or respect them; many are kind and good people. I just cannot quite fathom the way they think and operate. Essentially, I am a loner, but I often get along great with various types of people who are atypical in one way or another.
I often alternate between feeling extremes of emotion or being numb, depersonalized, and disconnected. There is no in-between. There have been times that it is just too much to bear. I’ve spent years of my life completely numb and barely feeling anything at all. I simply switched off, shut down, and went into auto-pilot in order to survive. It was like being in a trance state. I often say “I don’t care” in response to things when the truth is that I really do care — too much, in fact — but feel unable to deal with it and the pain it would cause me. I think that this is my mind’s way of shielding myself from a barrage of emotions that are overwhelming and exhausting — a form of self-protection.
Just a few days ago, my husband, who has classic Asperger’s Syndrome, finally admitted the same things about himself. Since I’ve known him, he has always denied caring about anything, and appears very aloof to others. Nonetheless, I’ve always sensed that he was deeply sensitive underneath the icy, hard exterior, but wasn’t sure what degree of empathy he possessed. He said that he, too, had switched his empathy off in order to cope. Sadly, years of being misunderstood, along with harsh judgments from others, have taken their toll on him.
After many years in which I’ve felt as though I were wandering in the wilderness, I feel as though my true core is slowly waking up again. I see extreme empathy as both an ability and a disability. I am currently trying very hard to master it and use it. I realize that I cannot take the weight of the world on my shoulders, and that I need to shield myself and look after myself in order to be of any use to others. I have a few minor coping mechanisms: I need a lot of solitude and silence to regenerate and reflect; I find it essential to be around animals and in nature; and I have to limit and to be careful of what I watch on TV, as the news and graphic violence are unbearable to me.
Despite being so empathic, I am unable to express empathy in a way that appears genuine to others. I come across to some people (so I’ve been told) as aloof, cold, distant, and uncaring — none of which I feel inside at all. My facial expressions rarely reflect what I am truly feeling. I’ve been startled in the past when I have been accused of looking morose or hostile when I was, in fact, feeling quite happy. Other times, I have felt terrified, and yet I appeared to be quite serene, with a smile on my face. I am only affectionate with my child and my husband — no one else. I am very uncomfortable with touching and hugging adults. I’ve been told that hugging me is like hugging a plank of wood. I can never think of the right words to say, or I attempt to say something, and it comes out wrong. So, usually, I say nothing. I am irked by the assumption that if you show empathy (such as hugging someone who is upset), that means you care. I have witnessed how insincere such shows of empathy can be.
It is almost impossible to explain the way I am to others. The few times I have tried, I have been accused of arrogance, or simply told that I am way too sensitive and need to “toughen up.” Yet those people wouldn’t like it if I told them how insensitive they are. Before I knew about how extremely empathic I am, I believed the things I was told. I attempted to toughen myself up, to be “strong.” I forced myself to watch the news and graphic films, and to try and be like everyone else. It didn’t work. It was agonizing going against who and what I am, and it resulted in my feeling confused, conflicted, and suicidal. Knowledge of self has helped me gain much insight, and I will not go against my empathy again.
About the Author: Nikki is a woman with Asperger’s who blogs at Ethereal Aspie. Empath Not Psychpath was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.