The Expression of Empathy

by Ginger Kennell

In my research on the experience of people on the spectrum, I have heard a consistent theme: people with autism lack empathy, the ability to understand what another person is feeling and share the moment with them either in excitement or consolation. A great deal of energy is put into teaching the autistic person to develop empathy and learn how to demonstrate it in social interactions. I think this idea is oversimplified, and it is built on the assumption that if you don’t behave as though you have empathy, it means you don’t have it.

Most of us are born with a set of skills that I often describe as “mind-reading.” It’s the ability to gather all of the information being transmitted from a person: energy level, body posture, gestures, facial expression, words spoken, tone of voice, the expression of emotion, and many other subtleties, and put them together to make a really good guess about what the other person is thinking and feeling.

Horses and other animals have what autistic author Temple Grandin refers to as “extreme perception.” In her book Animals in Translation, she states that “their sensory worlds are so much richer than ours it’s almost as if we [humans] are deaf and blind.” She goes on to explain how autistic people are a lot like animals in this way. Instead of gathering the more obvious information and synthesizing it into what we call the “big picture” like most people do, they perceive every detail. This is where the barriers between horses and those with autism begin to fade: in the ways they perceive the world around them.

Horses have tremendous emotional intuition, which is what makes them so effective in working with people with autism. Like those on the spectrum, horses easily pick up all the subtleties of an interaction, including the emotional field. The horse experiences emotions in a very compartmentalized way, without the complexity or confusing meanings that most people place on them.  Consequently, their only way of processing that information is to assimilate it, or feel it themselves, and reflect it back to the person from whom it originated. This means that when we observe horses acting out in an emotional way, it is likely that they are simply “mirroring” the emotion in their environment as a means of processing that information. In extreme circumstances, a horse may fight or flee in response to an intense emotional field.

I have experienced interactions with people on the spectrum who demonstrate this “extreme perception” that Temple talks about, and are able to intuit the emotions of a horse or another person with startling accuracy. Like a horse, their struggle is not in perceiving the emotion, but in making meaning out of it. The autistic person who picks up on another person’s fear of a situation, now feels overwhelmed and does not know what caused that emotion, how to make meaning of it, or how to respond to it. Because of this, the person may respond to emotion in a self-protective way, instead of an empathetic one.  These attempts at self-preservation may seem to others as irrational expressions of anger, panic, disassociation, or shutdown, because the emotional field is so overwhelming they must handle it much like a horse does, by absorbing it and reflecting it back to their environment, running from it, or protecting themselves.

It is important for all of us who regularly interact with those on the spectrum to recognize that the person’s inability to respond to an emotional situation in a socially appropriate way is not evidence of a deficit, disorder, or pathology. It is evidence that they possess a gift that the rest of us have not developed in the same way. Their emotional and intuitive connection with others and their environment is beyond our capacity to imagine it. They just don’t know what to do with the information. We can help them figure out what to do with the massive amounts of emotional stimulus in their environment: how to respond, how to take care of themselves. We can help them learn to make peace with their gifts, and how to put them into practice in a world where they are not understood.

It is clear to me that those on the spectrum are unique in their ability to perceive the world around them. This brings up many questions for me as I consider the implications of a growing population of such perceptive human beings. I wonder if humans are in the process of evolution. Are we moving toward a future where our intuition is more greatly needed? Are our most practiced methods for making meaning of emotion still serving us? Are those with autism leading the way to such a future? What do we have to learn from those on the spectrum? What do they have to teach us? And, how are those on the spectrum a “mirror” for our social culture as a whole? How are they acting as walking “barometers” for the intensity and pace of our lives?

I invite you to respond to these questions, and pose your own. Welcome to the conversation.

About the Author: Ginger Kennell has nearly 30 years of horse experience and has taught horsemanship to children and adults for over 16 years. She is trained in the discipline of Natural Horsemanship, an approach that emphasizes a process of learning the non-verbal and energetic language that horses speak with one another,  in order to create a trusting relationship based on clear communication, mutual understanding, and compassionate leadership. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Washington, and holds memberships in the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and the Northwest Behavioral Health Independent Provider Association. She has worked as a counselor, teacher, and facilitator in a wide variety of settings.  One of her interests is the remarkable ways in which horses can teach us to understand, communicate, and connect more deeply with those with autism.

The Expression of Empathy first appeared on the Interplay Academy website and is reprinted here by permission.


4 thoughts on “The Expression of Empathy

  1. Alienhippy says:

    I totally loved this post,

    “We can help them learn to make peace with their gifts, and how to put them into practice in a world where they are not understood.”

    These words brought me to tears, I have waited my whole life to hear this and it is something I am teaching my kids. That they are Wonderfully Wired, my friend taught me this.
    I have always related better to animals than people. I have even written a post myself about how I learned from my cats as a child.
    Bless you for writing this.
    Love and hugs.
    Lisa. xx 🙂

  2. Tracy K. Mahaffey says:

    Darby, my daughter, is considered severely autistic as she cannot talk well. Darby was able to comfort me when my best friend died this summer. She was the most compassionate out of all the neurotypicals. Darby is 16 and has trouble being around her family most of the time. When I was telling her about my friend passing she put her arm around me and patted my back. Something she has never done before. I had told her I was sad and would be sad for awhile. When I started to cry I knew I had to hold it together as she would have to leave. I did cry quietly and she comforted me for a while. Very special moment for me. One I will never forget.

  3. I agree. I wanted to say something like this, but you said it better than I could have.

    My son picked up and carried my emotions. I had to be careful to try to control my nervousness, anxiety. How much more empathetic can you be? He didn’t feel for me, but with me.

    I worked at a ABA school. The single hardest thing for me to learn was to deal with behavior problems unemotionally, as the kids would pick it up. If you got upset, they did, too.

    So simple…

    Cricket was the horse my son rode at age 3. He began communicating after a lesson. He had never used the pronoun I, never answered a question directly.

    “Where do you want to go now, Ben?”
    “I want to go to a movie.”

    Once he figured out the power of “I want” things started moving forward. Some things you never forget, like the beginning of shared communication, and the name of the horse at the therapeutic horseback-riding lessons.

    Thank you….SINCERELY!!!!!!!


  4. […] the opposite – I subscribe pretty heavily to the Intense World theory of autism, and think this page captures my autistic experience of empathy exactly. I feel other people’s (and […]

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