• MJ

Autism and Empathy

This week, I'm going to talk about autism and empathy. There's a lot of misinformation swirling around about this topic, which largely seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the scientific literature. In this feature I hope I can clear that up, and give you a better idea of the strengths and difficulties that many autistic people have in this area.

Firstly, please let go of the idea that autistic people don't feel empathy. We're not cold or careless. We're not devoid of emotion. Some of us experience empathy the way non-autistic people do. Some experience it differently. But we don't lack empathy. What a number of autistic people do lack is something called Theory of Mind (often abbreviated to ToM). ToM is defined as the ability to understand the beliefs, desires, and intentions of others, which in turn can help us to understand and predict their actions.

Theory of Mind is demonstrated clearly in the following image. The autistic person on the right is asked by the person on the phone “What are you doing?”, to which they respond “Playing with this”. This shows that the autistic person has not understood that the person on the other end of the phone cannot see the toy, and so does not know what 'this' is.

To understand how this fits into the broader concept of empathy, it's important to first note that there are multiple facets to empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand other people's thoughts and perspective. Affective empathy is the ability to understand another person's emotions and feelings. And compassionate empathy is the ability to understand another person's predicament and want to help.

It is cognitive empathy that relates to Theory of Mind, and this is the main area that many autistics seem to struggle with. I have theorised that there may be a good reason for this. Research into neurodivergence is beginning to support the idea that autism and similar conditions are actually part of a spectrum of neurotypes, of which neurotypicality is just one. This is why you will often hear autistic describe themselves as being 'wired differently' to their non-autistic peers. There's a growing body of evidence that suggests that our cognitive processes, our neurological structures and thus our subjective experiences are quite different from those of people who do not have autism. If this is true, then it would explain why we struggle to empathise with the thoughts and perspectives of non-autistics; we simply don't think the way they do, and so it is difficult for us to imagine how they might think in any given situation.

It is important to note that research also suggests that this difficulty of cognitive empathy is not observed between autistics. A recent study has shown that in a conversation between two people with differing neurotypes - i.e. an autistic person and a non-autistic person - there was a notable level of misunderstanding of the other, and that this was similar on both sides of the conversation. However, when the experiment was repeated with pairs who had the same neurotype - i.e. a pair of autistic people, or a pair of non-autistic people - the level of interpersonal understanding was higher, and that this was the same across both neurotypes. This suggests that, rather than having an impaired ability to understand the perspectives of others generally, that autistics may not experience the same difficulties understanding other autistics, as their neurotypes are more compatible. Rather, autistics may simply converse in a different 'social language' than the one used by non-autistics, and this may be responsible for instances of miscommunication or misunderstanding.

A person holds up their hands in a shrug gesture, with a confused expression.

Despite these difficulties of cognitive empathy, and contrary to popular belief, many autistic people do not experience impairments of their affective or compassionate emapthy. In fact, many autistics report experiencing affective and compassionate empathy very intensely, often more so than their non-autistic counterparts. Many autistics are able to empathise deeply with the emotions of those around them, sometimes to the extent of feeling the emotions of others as their own. Many also report being overwhelmed by a desire to help when seeing others in difficulty, to the extent that witnessing another's pain is incredibly distressing to them. For many autistics, this experience of empathy extends beyond barriers of species, which may explain why many of us have such deep and close connections with the animals in our lives.

The gap between an autistic person's abilities in these different forms of empathy can contribute greatly to the confusion they experience when attempting to read social cues, especially from non-autistic people. For example, I have very strong affective empathy; I can read other people's feelings relatively easily. However, I struggle with cognitive empathy. This often leads to me knowing what someone is feeling but not knowing why, e.g. I can tell they're angry, but not what caused it. This can often cause misunderstandings, for example, if I assume they're angry with me and become upset, or if I don't realise they're angry with me and don't apologise. It can be distressing to detect a negative emotion but not know how to respond to it, especially if the other person does not understand my autism, or is unwilling to acknowledge their feeling verbally so that I can better understand. Here, mutual understanding is key. As an autistic person, I need to recognise that my friend is not accustomed to having to explain this and verbally express my need for more information. As a non-autistic person, my friend needs to recognise that this lack of understanding does not come from a lack of compassion or intelligence and communicate openly.

A doll's hand extends from off-screen. Around the wrist is tied with a blue piece of yarn, threaded with beads with letters on them, which spell "Help".
If you can see we're struggling, help us to understand.

This is good practice in any situation where you communicate with an autistic person, but it can be particularly helpful in situations like these which are emotionally charged. If you know someone with autism who isn't showing empathy in the way you expect, don't assume they can't. Be clear about how you feel, and about what you expect from them. This may help to clear up any conflict or misunderstanding. As ever, the key with autism is not to assume. Autistic brains do not always think in the way you expect. Be clear with us. Say what you mean, and say everything you mean. Ask and give us the chance to explain in our own way. We're not wilfully misunderstanding you, and we do genuinely experience compassion and emotional empathy for you. We're just less able to understand how that relates to your mindset and to understand the thought process behind it, and it's this bit we're most likely to need your help with.

I hope this feature is helpful in explaining the complexity of empathy and autism. If you have any insights, comments or questions, please comment below!

Thanks for reading!

MJ x

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