One of the worst, most damaging, most incredibly false stereotypes of people on the autism spectrum is that they lack empathy. This is absolutely untrue in the sense that most people mean it; most people on the spectrum are at least as empathetic as neurotypical people, if not more so. We just don’t know how to express it in ways that most people understand. Scientists measure our ability to manifest emotion in socially appropriate ways and, even knowing that difficulties in learning social cues is one of the major signs of the disorder, assume that a lack of social cues implies a lack of emotion. And then to add insult to injury, scientists dismiss out of hand the testimony and critique of people who actually have an autism spectrum disorder. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg does an excellent job of refuting the stereotype and explaining her own empathy/emotional responses as a person with Autism. I highly recommend it: go read!
My own experience is similar. I am highly empathetic. Part of my job is to visit people who are ill or injured. Obviously, you have to connect with them, but my supervisor says I get too emotionally affected by/invested in them.
This is true in other places in my life, too. For example, I don’t enjoy watching comedies, because I empathize too much with the characters. I can’t separate myself from them, gain emotional distance. So much comedy is based on uncomfortable or embarrassing things happening to a character and the audience being expected to laugh at it. I can’t; I feel as if I were the person in that predicament. It’s not funny to me, because I empathize too much with the characters.
But expressing that empathy has always been a problem for me, although not so much any more. My natural body language doesn’t express my emotions in ways people not on the spectrum might expect. For example, you know how teenagers are so emotional? The world’s horrible one day, their life is ending, and the next life is awesome? Yeah, that happened to me, but when I was having horrible days no one noticed, and on days when everything was fine, I occasionally had teachers coming up to me to ask me what was wrong. My physical and facial responses to emotion didn’t match what they were looking for. This is a problem when it comes to showing empathy: people don’t always (often don’t, actually) notice the things people on the spectrum do to show empathy, so they assume they don’t feel it.
I remember one incident in particular in high school where a friend of mine was going through a bad breakup, had problems at home, and one day it all came out as we were eating lunch together in the cafeteria. She was crying, sobbing her eyes out. I felt so bad for her, I felt her pain. What did I do? I sat there eating my french fries for a few minutes while I tried to figure out how to comfort her in a way that she would understand, how to express my emotional response to her pain in a way that would support her. It took me a few minutes to figure out that what I needed to do was get out of my chair, walk around the table, and give her a hug. From the outside, I’m sure it looked like I was completely heartless: there my friend was, right across from me, crying her eyes out, and I sat eating french fries. But it wasn’t that I didn’t empathize with her. The problem was simply that I didn’t know how to express that empathy.
In the years since high school, I’ve learned to read social cues a lot better. And I’ve learned to project body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice that match my emotional state and are socially appropriate. Those are skills I can learn. I didn’t have to learn the emotions. Those have always been a part of me.
And people buy into the stereotype, and assume I’m cold and unfeeling.
About the Author: A self-described “grammar geek,” beatrice_otter is a fiction writer on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog, Otter’s Rock, and is reprinted here by permission.