On a number of occasions, I’ve come across the view that autistic people lack empathy. This is a popular view in mainstream therapeutic circles and the media and one that many families seem to absorb. Being autistic means some kind of problem empathizing. I’ve heard parents of autistic children comment that their child ‘didn’t grieve’ when a loved one died or that they ‘don’t care about other people’s feelings’ or that they ‘don’t understand emotions’.
I can see how this view took hold. From the outside looking in, it may seem that an autistic person doesn’t experience emotions in the same way that non-autistic people do. The truth is that although they might not express emotions the same, the feelings are all there. New research is backing up what autistic adults have long been saying, that rather than feel a lack of empathy and emotion, autistic people may feel more than non-autistic people. The ‘Intense World Theory’ suggests that neuronal circuits in autistic brains show hyper-reactivity. Which is a fancy way of saying that autistics feel a lot and can be overwhelmed by these feelings.
In our house, our small son seems to attend more to what is unspoken, the feelings in the house, rather than what is spoken. In your family, this may look like a 3 year old becoming non-verbal when there is underlying tension in the household. Or a 5 year old shutting down and not expressing grief when a family member dies, only to develop a range of repetitive behaviors as a reaction. Or perhaps a 10 year old needing to go over every little detail of a conversation in a friendship group, to figure out what the motivations of others were and how to develop a strategy for coping with so many different feelings.
As an autistic adult, I’ve had an interesting journey with empathy. I share it here in the hope that my experiences might in some way help you to better understand your autistic child. As a child, my feelings leaked out of me. They felt uncontrollable and scary. Hurt people or animals brought me to a stand still; their pain became my pain. In the company of others, their feelings, spoken or unspoken, felt as though they were being directly fed to me, like a stream of data that I was unable to deflect. Not much of this would have been observable from the outside as my strategy for coping was to develop an internal world where only I existed.
As a young adult who didn’t yet understand the way my neurology worked, I lived in emotional chaos. I suffered depression and anxiety as my empathy for the horrors in the world and the difficulties of those I loved incapacitated me. Like many autistic women, I gravitated towards a helping career in an effort to do something about the pain I saw and felt in the world. Only I found that sitting in front of someone in the midst of emotional turmoil was too much. I felt what they felt. I continued to feel it at 3am. I had no safe boundaries.
As an adult who has experienced the real pain that comes from some of life’s major hurdles, it has meant developing an armor that allows me to shut down when my feelings become too much. From the outside, this shut down can look a lot like not caring or even coldness. For a time, I worried about this, wondering if my ability to disconnect was some kind of pathology. The reality is that it’s a survival strategy that kicks in when the sensory inputs coming in have reached capacity and I need to block out incoming feelings from others so that I can process what’s going on. The downside of my armor is that it puts a distance between others and me. I’ve found that it takes a patient and understanding person to allow me the space needed and to understand my need for it.
Processing feelings for me involves distance running, meditation, yoga, writing and sleep. It sometimes involves halting incoming information so that I can pause long enough to recognize, accept and investigate the emotions inside me. From this process, I’ve learnt where in my body I feel anger, vulnerability and fear. This is helpful information that helps ground me in my body when it feels as though my mind is in free fall. For my autistic husband, it involves hard exercise, gaming and drawing. It’s only in our 30s and 40s that both of us have begun to understand this. It’s a gift and a
motivation for helping our son to develop his own methods of filtering and processing.
I invite you to move beyond the outdated view that autistics are not empathetic. It’s a view that is inaccurate and also potentially harmful, as many children may miss the opportunity to know themselves better if they are not diagnosed because ‘they can’t be autistic, they show empathy’.
I ask you to see beyond the external behaviors of your child to explore their inner emotional world. To give them time to process what they are feeling. They’ll need your understanding if they are to develop strategies to survive the at times overwhelming emotional realities that they experience. In practice, this might look like focusing less on approaches to change behaviors and more on attending to the underlying feelings that inform them. For example, rather than create a ‘reward’ chart in an attempt to get rid of a challenging behavior, you might like to make changes to your environment for a while to see if reducing the incoming stressors leads to changes in outward behavior. Changes might include altering sensory inputs like sound or light, avoiding contact with people or places that raise anxiety levels, or protecting the family from additional stress.
So spread the word. Autistic people are empaths. The better this is understood, the more respect we can be afforded.