Empathy, or lack of. This is one of those stereotypes about autistic people, that usually sits alongside the claim that we are emotionless.

There are so many reasons for this, it’s hard to know where to begin…I’ll have to work on this over time, when the rest of the glossary is written. My apologies in advance if these posts are sometimes so long they are too daunting to read… 🙂

Let’s plough on, regardless, and start with what the word empathy is describing: the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how this makes them feel. This ability to empathise helps us integrate with others, form social bonds, give appropriate care and support, raise children, have loving relationships, be effective in the workplace – it’s claimed to be a really important aspect of human interaction, and the type of empathy we are expected to give differs depending on the situation. It could be something as simple as enjoying a film or book more because we feel able to empathise with the characters.

That doesn’t sound so hard. So why have we been given this reputation as being short of empathy? The answer to that lies in the history of studies involving autistic children, as with every other negative association, but let’s leave that for another time…

As with every other psychological construct, there are numerous theories which aim to explain the concept of empathy.

One theory, by Daniel Goleman and Paul Eckman, suggested that empathy has three distinct components:

  1. Cognitive empathy – the logical type – we understand what another person is feeling, we can reason why they feel that way but we don’t feel it ourselves.
  2. Emotional empathy – (also known as affective empathy) – the intense emotional type where we share the feeling of that person and feel it deeplyWithout the cognitive element this can really mess with our own emotions, particularly so for autistic people.
  3. Compassionate empathy – we understand, we feel and we are incentivised to offer supportThis is apparently the ideal type of empathy – a mix of controlled and impassioned!

There’s a nicely summarised article on these three theoretical types of empathy on this blog.

This is all rather jargon-heavy, so let me give you a personal example: Some years ago I was training to be a therapist. As part of that training, we used to have to sit in a room with all the other trainees and share really difficult stuff.

One woman decided to share a really traumatic event from her life, she was crying and evidently very upset. Everyone clearly understood the emotions she was experiencing and why she would feel that way (cognitive), they clearly felt distressed by what she was saying, I could tell by their faces (emotional) and when she’d finished they all offered encouraging and supportive feedback and she felt comforted by that (compassionate). So far, so good…

I decided this would be the appropriate moment to share that I had been through a very similar traumatic experience. I delivered the information, I gave the appropriate detail and I mentally concluded that I had fulfilled my obligation to share difficult stuff – tick! The response in the group was unexpected. It was quieter, much quieter. Most markedly different was that the men in the group, having been so supportive of the other woman, confessed that they understood what I was saying (cognitive) but that it ‘didn’t sound authentic’ to them! Can you imagine? I was speechless and confused. I’d followed the rules of engagement and the response was entirely different.

One or two of the women, came to my aid and asked why on earth they would find it inauthentic. The general consensus was that my delivery was too unemotional, no tears whatsoever, just facts. They admitted they they just couldn’t feel anything at all for me – they felt no emotional empathy. I was mortified. I wanted to explain that I am not a crier, particularly when under pressure to perform. I wanted to explain that the only way I could deliver this horrific aspect of our training was to remain controlled and distant, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to speak. I wanted to explain how intensely I had felt it inside, even though I wasn’t able to provide them with the level of drama they were after.

Instead, I mumbled that it was all a long time ago and therefore I was able to reflect on it without as much emotion involved. Somehow, I made it through to the end of the excruciating session and guess what? I ran from that room, not even stopping when some of them reached out to me. And I never went back. A four year degree course down the drain. My choice, I know. Some time later, when these men had obviously had more training, one of them wrote to me, via our tutor, and apologised. He explained that he now understood that people deal with emotion in different ways, particularly when it relates to trauma. He said he had learned a lot from it – sooooo pleased for him and his new career (I’m not. And there’s proof that autistics can be sarcastic too!).

So, using the theory above, these men were unable to experience emotional empathy towards me and were therefore unable to offer compassionate empathy. All they had available was cognitive empathy. Is it us autistics that lack empathy? I wonder…

And this takes me on to Damian Milton’s excellent theory of the double empathy problemI like that theory so much, it has its own page, so it would probably help to go and read that, if this is an area of interest to you. To summarise, he suggests that it isn’t that autistic people lack empathy for everyone, it isn’t that neurotypicals lack empathy for everyone either, it’s that we just can’t ‘read’ each other effectively because we are wired differently. Just as we are able to empathise more easily with those people we are close to, because we understand them more easily, so we are thought to be able to empathise with those of the same neurotype more easily. We can tie this in to Goleman and Eckman’s theory too, because if both neurotypes don’t understand each other, we lack cognitive empathy for each other. If we lack that, we can’t even hope to reach the compassionate empathy stage.

Other theories suggest that it is the alexithymia, that many of us autistics experience as a co-occurring condition, that has got us labelled as unemotional and lacking empathy. That’s interesting too. In fact, this article, The Limits of empathy, on the BPS website, is a thought provoking (long) read, if you fancy it at some point, it’s been around a few years, so, here’s a more succinct and recent one.

From the ridiculous length of this post, you may believe I’ve infodumped on you, again. I haven’t. This is my version of a ‘snippet’ of a gigantic area of research and debate.

Phew.

As well as those links dotted throughout, you’ll find more related information on the glossary pages for theory of mind and the extreme male brain theory.