Autistic people tend not to show emotions the way “normal” or “neuro-typical” people do. This leads to the idea they lack empathy, the ability to empathize, to feel empathetic, and in the extreme lack of feelings altogether. This simply is not true; they just do not tend to share their feelings with you.
What is Empathy?
Before determining whether or not autistic people experience empathy, we first must understand what empathy means. It is commonly described as “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” This description is problematic for the literal-minded autistic with difficulty with metaphoric language. If you “put yourself in someone’s shoes,” you try to understand what his/her situation is like, thinking about it as if you are in the same situation. The literal-minded autistic person will look for a more concrete definition. Dictionary.com offers these two definitions: “Empathy (noun) 1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. 2. The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.”
Autism and Empathy
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), published and in effect since May of 2013, one of the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder is a marked deficit “in social-emotional reciprocity; ranging from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back and forth conversation through reduced sharing of interests, emotions, and affect and response to total lack of initiation of social interaction.” Its predecessor, the DSM-IV, simply lists a “lack of social or emotional reciprocity. This lack of reciprocity, reduced sharing of emotions, and affect and response leads to the belief that autistic people lack empathy. However, listening to autistic people, reading their accounts, and understand the true meaning of empathy may lead you to a different conclusion.
Understanding Definition of Empathy
The first portion of the definition begins with “intellectual identification,” this is the way people with autism identify with everything—through rote learning, using their intellect to figures things out. In this instance, you are “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” and trying to figure out (with your intellect) how they are feeling. Have you ever been in an emotionally charged room—where people are fighting and negative, or joyous and positive for an occasion—and the feeling was “catching?” This is an aspect of vicariously experiencing feelings and attitudes of others, which autistic people have reported experiencing to an extreme—even needing to remove themselves from the situations. The second portion of the definition says, “imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.” Can autistic people see themselves in other’s art, or writing? Absolutely. Have you ever read a book, article, poem, or blog post, and thought, wow…that is me! You are imaginatively ascribing feelings or attitudes present in yourself to that writing—that work of art. For a person with autism, this ascribing is not any different. What is different, however, is that you may never know that they have empathized with a piece of writing because they tend not to spontaneously share interests or emotions. A person with autism feels empathy, although it may not always appear to be so.
Appearing to Lack Empathy
It may appear that the autistic person does not empathize due to a few factors: inappropriate affect, the lack of sharing emotions, and emotion or physical withdrawal. Inappropriate affect is an expression disharmonious in quality or intensity with the person, event, or idea that provoked it; when a person is saying one thing with their words but their facial expressions, or body language is conveying a different story. A person who laughs at hearing sad news, or smiles and appears unperturbed while describing being raped, or shows no expression at all is displaying an inappropriate affect. It is commonly seen in people with autism and is thought to be a product of anxiety. This can be one reason an autistic person may not “appear” empathetic. A lack of sharing of emotions and back and forth conversation is a hallmark of autism. The person with autism may be empathetic; however, they may not feel the need to share their feelings with you. And social interaction can be overwhelmingly taxing the sensory system to the autistic person. When something particularly emotionally charged is being discussed or happening, they feel the need to withdraw from the situation, either physically or emotionally to avoid sensory overload.
People with autism may actually over-empathize with those around them, which contributes to the exhaustion felt after social gatherings, and the need to withdraw from people. Many autistic traits mask these empathic feelings, but that does not mean they do not exist. There is a difference between not showing emotion on the outside, or so it is “expected,” and not feeling those emotions.