One of the oldest, most prevailing, and most infuriating stereotypes autistic people face is the idea that we don’t experience empathy. The ludicrous notion that we’re all sociopathic, ubër logical geniuses has been debunked by scores of neurodivergent writers, so I won’t rehash their arguments.
Instead, let’s focus on the underlying implications of this stereotype. First though, we must explain what exactly is empathy and how do people express it?
The proper expressions of empathy are social performances, ones that are never outright taught.
What is Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This is opposed to sympathy, which is defined as: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
Think of empathy as: I know how you feel, and sympathy as: damn dude, sucks to be you! One experience is shared, while the other is wholly separate.
There are approximately three types of empathy (depending on who you ask). They are:
Emotional empathy is what most people mean when they refer to empathy. It’s the ability to feel someone else’s (usually negative) emotions and respond in a socially appropriate way. (I.E. responding “I’m sorry for your loss” when someone tells you one of their loved ones has passed away).
Cognitive Empathy is the comprehension of someone else’s mental state, even if it differs from your own. (I.E. understanding your neighbor’s political ideals, despite them running counter to yours).
Somatic empathy is the experience of another’s physical pain. (I.E. doubling over after watching another man get kicked in the testicles by a donkey).
Empathy Is A Performance
Almost all autistics present—to some extent—a lack of social wherewithal. While, “I’m sorry for your loss” is the expected response to an admission that a loved one has passed away, an autistic person might not know this or they might not understand why they are expected to give their condolences.
The proper expressions of empathy are social performances, ones that are never outright taught. As neurotypical children develop socially, they sort of just catch on to certain social behaviors. Many autistic children do not.
We are sorry for your loss. We are sad your partner cheated on you. We are angry that the crappy football team you support continues to play like a crappy football team. However, we might not show our sorrow, sadness, and anger in socially acceptable ways. In fact, we might struggle to identify and process our own feelings. Experiencing someone else’s can be overwhelming.
We’re Not So Different
Some autistics do display a lack of cognitive empathy, the act of putting oneself in another’s shoes. But humans in general struggle with this, especially when we form into groups. Autistic people’s struggles are simply a reflection of society at-large.
Here’s a lighthearted example: Let’s say you’re at a soccer game, and the team you root for wins in dramatic fashion. You’re ecstatic. The opposing team’s fans are distraught. Do you feel their pain? Are you cognisant of their point of view, that for them, this is a somber occasion?
Of course not! You’re relishing in their pain. Time to jeer the opposing fanbase, get fantastically drunk, then shamble into work the next morning fifteen shades of hungover!
There are certain scenarios where showing empathy is actively discouraged, (sports, warfare, politics, etc.). One thing these events have in common is the pitting of one homogeneous group against another.
Humans perform cognitive empathy by drawing on similar life experiences. “Hey, your grandma died? I’m so sorry. I know how you feel. My grandpa died a couple of years back.” It is more difficult to find similar life experiences within a large, oppositional group.
Young children can’t perform cognitive empathy because they’re too young to have lived through many experiences at all. Autistic people struggle with cognitive empathy because we often feel like aliens walking amongst you.
Implications For Autistic People
The “lack of empathy” stereotype is uniquely insidious because empathy—however one feels and expresses it—is a humanizing experience. By accusing us of not having it, society is also claiming we are sub-human, defective.
As a society, we must stop equating different forms of communication, behavior, and emotional expression as inherently wrong or offensive.