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What is empathy? Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. According to the latest neuroscience research, 98% of humanity have the ability to empathise wired into their brains – an in-built capacity for stepping into the shoes of others and understanding their feelings and perspectives. The problem is that most don’t tap into their full empathic potential in everyday life.

That being said, there is a persistent stereotype that autistic people are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. It’s true that many autistic people don’t show emotions in ways that the neurotypical would recognize. But the notion that autistic people generally lack empathy and cannot recognize feelings is incorrect. Holding such a view can distort the perception of autistic individuals and cause a myriad of other problems.

Unfortunately, this stereotype has been confounded by the messages and themes in the media. Nearly all of the autistic people represented in films and tv programmes are presented as having no or little empathy. This stems from a general misunderstanding about the difference between “cognitive empathy” and “affective empathy.” Worse yet, we’re often presented as being little more than robots. Many autistic people do feel frustrated by this because often (with these myths) it seems as if neurotypical people are not showing empathy towards autistic people. Ironic, isn’t it?

Sometimes autistic people, myself included, experience a kind of hyper-empathy. This hyper empathy is ‘the increased ability to share others’ emotions and experience them as your own.’ Due to the myths that exist surrounding autism and empathy, it can be difficult for autistic people to understand and know what we are experiencing (when we experience hyper-empathy) as well as how to cope with it. Unfortunately, too many of us believe the myths.

For example, an autistic person may see someone who is upset and as a result, take on their emotions. Afterwards, it may be difficult for us to identify which emotions are our own and which emotions are someone else’s. This can have both positive and negative outcomes. When it comes to intimacy as an adult, this can result in an almost tantric experience. When it comes to being exposed to violence and trauma, symptoms of PTSD can often result.

Confounding the issue, it can be difficult for autistics to identify specific emotions due to alexithymia. Alexithymia is diagnosed when someone (not just autistic people) struggles to identify their emotions. This can extend to struggling to identify the emotions that we have ‘picked up’ from other people due to our hyper-empathy. We may, for example, know that we have picked up a deep, heavy feeling but not be able to identify that as sad or angry. This is something particularly relevant for me as an autistic person who is hyper-empathic, has issues with alexithymia, and works as a Special Education teacher. I must be particularly careful to try and identify when things are getting out of control inside of me lest meltdowns occur (yes, we adult autistics still meltdown / shutdown). Needless to say, the special education classroom can be a maelstrom of emotions.

Hyper empathy can also extend to autistic people having strong feelings/emotions towards objects, animals, and even fictional characters. For example, autistic people may feel empathy for objects and may struggle with throwing certain objects away, even if these objects seem to be worthless to others. I say this as someone who still has my quilt and a few stuffed animals from when I was a child. These objects have travelled the world with me for over 40 years. When they’re not with me, I feel the loss deeply. 

Hyper empathy can involve collecting/retaining objects too. The internet is quite full of autistic people showing off their collections of all manner of things that are precious to them. Communities can and have been built around such shared affections.

Nevertheless, there are different theories as to why people experience hyper-empathy. Some suggest that autistic people develop hyper-empathy in response to needing to recognise other people’s emotions and anticipate their actions to cope or even to survive. This can be an adaptation to trauma. Sometimes being autistic in a neurotypical world can be traumatic. Many of us have experienced bullying or hostility in response to our autistic traits. 

Other people suggest that autistic people often experience hyper-empathy because of having more affective empathy and less cognitive empathy. If we have more affective empathy, we’ll have a deeper state of feeling with someone – of deeply feeling the feelings of others as if they were our own. If this state is combined with having less cognitive empathy, and the ability to read another person’s emotional state, we can enter into a sort of Alexithymia-like state. In this case, it’s not so much the problem of not being able to label emotions as it is in segregating them – which are mine and which belong to the others.

Another place where this imbalance of empathy types can be seen is in the “inappropriate responses” that often happen when conversing with autistic people. We often fail to understand why someone feels the way that they do and how they wish for us to respond to them. We struggle because we often don’t know why we ourselves feel the way that we do. Feelings and emotions can be so overwhelming that when combined with Alexithymia, confusion sets in and blank stares result – not to mention the internal states of panic and anxiety as the clock ticks on and the appropriate response fails to materialize.

In concluding this article, I’d like to circle back to something I briefly touched upon above. Quite often, autistic people experience burnout due to the way we experience empathy. Our own emotions can be confusing and overwhelming. When we’re in close proximity to others, regardless of context, we will invariably soak up their emotions. If we don’t have healthy strategies in off-loading, or the space in which to engage in the off-loading, burnout will occur. There are warning signs that burnout is coming – meltdowns are but one.

If you’d like more information about this topic, contact the professionals at Autism360 who can connect you with the appropriate resources.

About the author: Jim Hoerricks, PhD is a non-verbal autistic researcher, lecturer, presenter, best-selling author, elected official, and credentialled special education teacher who resides in a small mountain community north of Los Angeles, California.

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