On the Subject of Empathy

by Fiona Wallace

…because nearly everyone else seems to be writing about it.

At the age of three or four, I had a meltdown watching a Punch and Judy show. This was the seventies; Punch and Judy was ‘traditional’ back then, that is, Mr Punch had a stick nearly as big as himself, which he used to beat Mrs Punch and their baby, and the policeman, and anyone else with the temerity to tell him he was wrong.

I can remember the puppet Punch, with its hooked nose (antisemitism, much?) beating its wife while shrieking That’s the way to do it! That’s the way to do it!

I started screaming.

Around me several dozen children were laughing so much the tent seemed to shake and billow around me. They saw Mr Punch hitting and hitting, and to them it was the funniest thing imaginable. You know what small children are like when they find something enormously funny; they jump out of their seats, they wave their hands, they shout encouragement.

And I kept screaming.

The next thing I remember I was outside, with my parents apologising to other adults for the fuss and laughing at how I’d got so worked up over a puppet show.

[I hate puppets. So often they’re used to portray behaviour that would never be acceptable under any other circumstances.]

And until I was diagnosed, I had no explanation for why thirty children found that violence acceptable and I did not.

When Punch hit his wife, he was hitting me. I could feel the blows land. When he hit the baby I felt its pain, its helplessness. I was three or four years old, at an age where most autistic children, even the high-functioning ones, are regarded as having not yet developed a theory of mind. And yet I immediately identified with the pain and distress of being the object of violence, while around me the NT children wept with laughter.

I still cannot work out how Punch and Judy shows were ever considered funny. Most have now been altered, to reflect our ‘modern’ sensibilities – which means in effect that the horrifying portrayal of what is essentially domestic violence has been removed. But how could any adult view the beating of a baby with a large wooden stick as remotely amusing? How could anyone in their right mind think this was appropriate entertainment for children?

And how could they treat the one child who saw this as unfettered, terrifying violence as inappropriate and oversensitive?

Oversensitive.

That was a word my parents used a lot about me, when they thought I wasn’t listening. Because they never asked how I actually saw the world, they never knew how from my perspective it was full of violence and fear. I knew how, as with Mr Punch, the violence came out of nowhere, was disproportionate and unstoppable.

I didn’t want to hurt anything, ever. My theory of mind ran out of control. Everything had an independent existence; a picture of a cat could feel pain when torn just as a real cat felt pain. The knives and forks in the drawer got upset and hurt if they were put in the wrong places. Books felt abandoned if I forgot them. Every object in my world had feelings, and it was overwhelming. But no one else seemed to feel like this, and I quickly learnt that to mention it was childish, inappropriate.

Now, of course, I have it (mostly) under control. And as I write that sentence I realise that by control, I mean ‘still feel it but stop myself from exhibiting the distress that NTs find unacceptable’. When I break a mug (as I did last month) I want to cry for its pain and my loss, but I don’t. I still struggle at throwing away pictures of animals – I know they’re not ‘real’, my logical mind understands that, but I feel sick doing it. I wonder, sometimes, if this is the foundation of hoarding. NTs wouldn’t even begin to comprehend this kind of attachment, of distress, and explaining it to them is likely to invite laughter, disdain or dismissal. It’s not part of their understanding, so it’s not important.

This kind of distress also prompts withdrawal. The easiest way to reduce the pain you cause to inanimate objects around you is to control your environment such that things can rarely be damaged or destroyed. You can’t share your life with an NT, because they are likely to find you ridiculous, and to embark on horrible plans to force you to confront your stupidity in order to cure you of it.

I suspect that the only way to cure me of this would be to crush all compassion and empathy permanently. And then you can point and say ‘Look! she has no empathy! She must be a real autistic!”

Edit: This is a great post about identifying with the trauma of broken things: http://www.kitaiskasandwich.com/2011/03/13/putting-the-pieces-together/

About the Author: Fiona Wallace is a writer and artist on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog, Lyssa and Me, and is reprinted here by permission.

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5 thoughts on “On the Subject of Empathy

  1. Tracy says:

    I had no idea anyone else felt this, too. I thought I was the only one.

  2. Ashmire says:

    Yep. Not much more I can say to it than that. We get horrified into paralysis over cruelties that they don’t blink at, and somehow we’re the cold and cruel monsters every time we point it out.

  3. Julia says:

    “Oversensitive.

    That was a word my parents used a lot about me…”
    Me too, for example, when my father crushed a spider running up the wall I through a fit. 40 Years later I still could not bring myself to kill a large black widow in its web on a chair my mother might use in the future. At the same time I could not lie to my father that I had done so so I could protect her, *and* at the same time I was too squeamish to transport her away from the patio. That is a sensitivity trap I find myself in from time to time. One that paralyses me in times I could do something helpful. Later, I scold myself for not doing *something* –so, I conclude, “I do not want to leave my room today” [or most days]. Who knows what sin of commission or omission I may find myself trapped in?

  4. Lucy says:

    My own neurotypical experiences growing up were similar — and my adult present. It’s a surfeit of empathy, and I think you’re onto something with your observation that empathy is not in fact highly valued in the neurotypical world. I wonder how much of our energies go into trying to suppress it. I’ve long since learned not to read holocaust novels or attend to certain news stories (a defense mechanism that serves me well) but beyond that one has to control the response to some extent, or die of despair.

  5. I hated the Three Stooges for the same reason.

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