The Empathy Fallacy

Even if you know very little about autism, I’m sure you have heard that one of the main symptoms is a marked lack of empathy.

If you take just one thing from my blog, let it be this: the lack of empathy thing is complete and utter BULLSHIT.

Autistic people have trouble understanding facial expressions, body language, and other forms of nonverbal communication that make up a lot of how neurotypical humans relate to one another.  However, this does not mean that we do not understand, experience, or care about the emotions and thoughts of others.  All of the autistic people I have ever known were extremely kind, fair, loyal, and caring individuals.  How could one possess those traits without having any empathy for their fellow man?

Autistic adults describe, time and time again, how they experience a sort of hyper-empathy.  They sense the emotions of those around them and it can be extremely overwhelming.  Personally, I have recently been diagnosed with mild Autism Spectrum Disorder (aka Asperger’s) and I consider myself an empath (this means someone who takes on the emotions of others as if they were his/her own).  As a child, I was always described as “highly sensitive.”  If I am in a room with lots of people, I pick up on everyone’s emotional states, or what I think of as their “vibes.”  These emotions come rushing in at me from all angles, and I don’t always have time to fully interpret them.  I might sense that someone feels angry, and misinterpret it as anger toward me.  Milder emotions such as slight annoyance feel HUGE and stifling and scary to me.  At the same time that I am trying to filter through and process all of the “vibes,” I am also trying my hardest to act “normal.”  I struggle through small talk (“OMG what am I supposed to say?  What was that person’s name again?  Is it my turn to talk?  Oh shit, I just interrupted her!  Am I supposed to keep looking at her while I talk to her?  Maybe I should just look down….but she’s still looking at me.  Why is she looking at me like that?  Do I have something on my face?  Oh crap, what were we talking about?!”)  Basically, 90% of the time that I am interacting socially, I am terrified and completely overwhelmed and trying very hard to act like that is not the case.  Even minor social interactions, such as making a phone call to schedule an appointment, require a lot of mental preparation and “scripting” in my head beforehand, and also a lot of recovery downtime afterward.  Only when I am alone can I exist with only my own thoughts and feelings.

I am never unaware or uncaring of other people’s emotions.  I am TOO aware, and care TOO much.  And this experience is not exclusive to me.  Autistic people continually describe similar experiences of hyper-empathy.  Just because we experience the emotions of others differently – by somehow sensing them or absorbing them into our own emotional realm, rather than inferring them based on eye contact, tone, or body language – does not mean we are not empathetic.  A common slogan for autism awareness is “different, not less” and I’d say that definitely applies when it comes to empathy: we simply experience a different form of empathy (one that is more intense, confusing, and overwhelming), not less empathy.

I’ll give you an example of an autistic child showing his amazing capacity for empathy:

My youngest, eighteen month old Baby Roland, recently got very sick with croup.  He was having a lot of difficulty breathing, so we decided to take him to the Emergency Room on a Sunday night.  My oldest, seven year old Lennon, insisted on coming along.  We were in the ER for five hours, and Baby Roland had to get a steroid shot and a nebulizer treatment, which he screamed at the top of his lungs through.  Poor Lennon was pretty freaked out, and basically cowered in the corner through the whole nebulizer ordeal.

On the way home, we had a talk.  Lennon and I have our best conversations in the car while I am driving.  I think it’s because there’s no pressure to maintain eye contact with me or attempt to decipher my facial expressions.  He can just look out the window and think things over at his leisure.  We have had some really fantastic discussions while driving, and this one was no exception.

We started talking about how glad we were that Roland was feeling better (as he snoozed in his carseat behind me, his inaudible breathing like music to my ears).  I mentioned how the nebulizer had helped him so much, even though he had cried and fought me on it.  Lennon hesitated, then said, “that was scary, Mom.”  I nodded in agreement.  “Yes, it was.  I was scared too.”  Lennon interjected, “But – Baby Roland was the most scared…”

I told him that he was absolutely right.  Baby Roland was the most scared.  And he was counting on me – his mother – to be in control and to help him through it….even though I was scared as well.  Being a parent is a big responsibility.  Lennon reflected on that for a moment, then said, “that must be really hard for you.”

Again, he was absolutely correct.  And again, I was blown away by the sensitivity, empathy, and insight of a small boy.

I told him how some of the scariest moments of parenting, for me, have been when my babies were sick or hurt.  I described what happened when Lennon was born, how he’d had collapsed lungs and was rushed to the NICU.  For four days, I watched my baby struggling to breathe, hooked up to oxygen and wires and big, scary, beeping machines, feeling so afraid and helpless.  He was my first baby, my special baby boy that I had wished for.  And he was STRONG.  He was a fighter.  He got better quickly, and in four days, he was ready to go home and be with his family.

Lennon listened to my story, gazing out the window, reflecting.  He murmured softly, “Mom….I’m sorry I did that to you….”

Tears sprang into my eyes.  “My son….you didn’t do anything to me!  This was not your fault.  It was just something that happened.  We helped you through it.”

He said, “That’s what family is all about.”

Yes, it is.

Yes, it is.

Now…..tell me again how autistic people don’t feel empathy?

{ Image is a photo of Lennon and Roland in the Emergency Room.  Lennon is smiling and leaning toward Roland.  Roland looks very sick. }



4 thoughts on “The Empathy Fallacy

  1. So glad your little man is OK!

    And nice post, too.
    I don’t know whether this is ASD or just me, but I always had the problem of being so hyperempathic that I would feel for inanimate objects. For example, if I were eating at a buffet, and there was a particular plate of food that nobody was eating, I would take some of that dish, even if I didn’t want it, to rescue it from feeling rejected.


  2. Love this article. Describes my 10 year old to a T. He dies at the thought of his new born brother getting shots, going to the dr, hurting mom or dads feelings, leaving grandmas house, etc. he is so overwhelmed with emotion when having you make decisions and it’s hard for others to understand


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