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Autistic Empathy

I find it very hurtful.

Perhaps one of the most hurtful and misunderstood subjects in the debate that's going on about autism. Empathy. A lack of empathy to be exact.

For some reason autism has become the equivalent of a lack of empathy. You cannot have one without the other, apparently.

To be labeled as autistic is one thing, but to also be inadvertently stamped and determined as empathically incapable is like a blow to the heart. Especially considering how hard most of us autistics try to adjust to others and try to keep up with all the social expectations that accompany daily life.

It feels so unfair to me personally. I'm sure there are autistic people out there who really struggle with feeling empathic to others, just as there are neurotypicals who experience the same. A lack of empathy is not simply restricted to autism, and it's actually quite common in many disorders such as narcissism, borderline, depression, and so on. So, to attribute a lack of empathy as one of the main characteristics of autism, it's just not right.

Also, some people are just assholes...

I'd like to pick apart the idea that autistics lack empathy by demonstrating we are often denied the chance to show our empathy, because empathy, ostensibly, needs to be expressed according to a certain guideline and standards. If not, it's considered as not really empathetic.

To correctly demonstrate empathy according to the generally accepted social standards, one must:

1) Be fully present in the moment

2) Be genuinely curious

3) Be aware of one's own opinions and beliefs

4) Listen deeply

5) Know what to say

6) Open up about yourself

7) Offer physical affection

8) Show 'attending behaviours' such as making eye-contact and reflecting feelings using

facial expressions


I don't know about you, but I cannot demonstrate or execute half of these things. Does that mean I don't have empathy? Not at all! It solely means my brain isn't wired to comply with the accepted standards of demonstrating empathy.

Einstein, probably the world's most famous autistic, wrote: 'you cannot judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree'.

Asking an autistic to show empathy according to the generally socially accepted standards as stated above, is like judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree only to determine it cannot and therefore conclude that it doesn't feel.

Let's take a look at those standards one by one and let me then demonstrate how autistic people can struggle with the execution of that required behaviour:

1) Be fully present in the moment

Right... let's paint a picture here. It's a family dinner and your sister-in-law and you are preparing food in the kitchen, assuming your motor skills are good enough to even prepare food because that simple task in its own can already be quite overwhelming for some autistic people. But let's assume that they are and you have no trouble cutting tomatoes or whatever while your sister-in-law is cleaning the lettuce.

Right then and there, she opens up to you about a troubling situation involving your brother. It is your job, according to this standard, to be fully present in the moment. And you try! Maximum effort! The thing is this:

- The lighting from underneath the kitchen cabinets is hurting your eyes

- The light is also flickering which is making you feel quite disorientated

- The juice of the tomatoes you are cutting is irritating your skin

- The smell of the tomatoes is penetrating your nose and giving you a headache (it does with me, even though I like tomatoes)

- You are continuously alarmed by unexpected noises coming from the living room because people are laughing, kids are screaming and the dog starts barking every time it wants a treat

- As you are autistic, you most likely have a weak muscle tone, meaning that standing or sitting straight is already killing your back after five minutes

- You already feel worn out by all the information hitting your senses and the suspense you have been feeling even before coming here. I mean, you've only been here for half an hour and you're already wondering how you'll survive this evening.

Despite all this, you have to stay in the moment!

It's a nonstarter. It is almost impossible for us to stay completely focused in the moment because our brain cannot filter out unnecessary information and is therefore continuously bombarded with data. Pair that with ADHD in my case, and well, I'm shit out of luck as they say.

2) Be genuinely curious

This, for me, has never been a problem, at least not when people are discussing something that really comes from their hearts. And therein lays the next problem. How often do people discuss something that really comes from their hearts? Rarely...

I cannot be captured by subjects that I cannot grasp the importance of, like the Kardashians. I cannot grasp why such a subject would interest people. But speak to me from a place of sincerity, and I'm all ears. I don't give a crap about fashion, but if you tell me how much it means to you, how your heart flutters every times you design a dress, and I will be captured by your story. Anything less than that and I'll drift off. My brain just doesn't see the point. If you don't genuinely feel it, neither will I.

I will be genuinely curious, if you have a ardent story to tell.

3) Be aware of one's own opinions and beliefs

I try, just as much as the next person. In fact, I'm usually very aware of the processes that take place inside myself, psychologically speaking. I immediately notice when I get agitated for instance, and try to derive where that emotion stems from. I'm not always successful, but who is?

4) Listen deeply

Whenever I feel physically and mentally well, whenever I'm not bombarded with sensory information, and if the story I'm listening to is heartfelt, I'm all ears. But that's just the thing, isn't it? All these conditions need to be met. You cannot fake real interest or focus. Or at least, I can't.

But how often are all these conditions met? When I stated before that we are often denied the change to be empathic with others, this is what I meant. Our brains are all over the place, figuratively speaking of course, how can we be expected to show empathy in accordance with these standards. We can't. It's mission impossible.

I am not wired to maintain focus for long. I am not wired to filter out unnecessary information. But that doesn't mean I don't feel you.

5) Know what to say

Okay, so where's the manual for that? How do you know what to say, truly? Yes, there are the usual clinchers and statements to be made.

"My husband had a fatal car accident last week."

"Oh, I'm so sorry for your loss."

And then what? What do you truly say to your co-worker who has just lost her husband? What do you say when what she's feeling is overwhelming you and you can feel it in your bones that no matter what you say, it will never be enough?

When I spoke to one of my best friends on the phone when my father was about to die from cancer, there was nothing she could really say to me that would have made me feel better. Nothing. But when she just simply said my name - 'Oh, Sandra' - I heard it in her voice that she was right there with me. It said more than a thousand words and it was all I needed to hear.

So, how do you know what to say? What words could ever truly convey the message of the heart? And how can you be certain it is received the same way as It was meant?

I honestly don't know.

6) Open up about yourself

Oh my, if only it were that easy.

The problem is that the whole concept of opening up about yourself comes with a set of unspoken rules of its own.

- You need to share enough to give your story meaning and tell the whole tale

- You need to be careful not to overshare because apparently, everybody has a limit

- You need to be aware of what details you can and cannot share depending on the person you are speaking to

- You need to share your story in such a way that it is coherent, not too detailed and straight to the point

- You need to be careful not to be too blunt or explicit.

- You need to show the appropriate set of emotions

- etc....

I don't know about you, but I'm out.

7) Offer physical affection

Demanding this standard from a group of people who are known for their sensory issues is like asking an elephant to fly. There's no way people.

When someone puts a hand on my arm, it feels like my arm is on fire.

When someone gives me an unexpected hug, the intensity of that feeling makes me unable to breath.

Kisses on the cheek, oh lord, that wet sensation that just lingers on the surface of your skin, no thank you.

And to deliberately execute this behaviour to try and consolidate others...

I try, I really do because I know how much this can mean for others, but whenever I show physical affection, it just comes across as weird and uncomfortable. You cannot fake affection because for some reason, you need to really want physical affection in order for it to come across as genuine and real.

And if you don't want it, if you shy away from it because of how horrible it can make you feel, how can give that to others? You cannot give away what you don't have.

8) Show 'attending behaviours' such as making eye-contact and reflecting feelings using facial expressions

This is the same as the previous point. It's like asking elephants to fly, zebra's to show more colour, fish to walk a mile and mosquito's to have a beer.

I am in no control over my genuine facial expressions. I mean, I fake a smile just as much as next autistic person, but to really show emotion, that's difficult for me.

That doesn't mean I don't experience that emotion, it just means that whatever connection there is in neurotypical people, leading from experiencing emotions to facially expressing it, I don't have it.

And as far as eye-contact goes, if you want me to listen and be present in the moment, making eye-contact will undo all those things. Perhaps eye-contact, like touch, smell, seeing (the world around you) and hearing, is just another sense. Eye-contact can physically hurt, it can make me feel uncomfortable, it is distracting and energy consuming and I really would rather avoid it.

So, there you have it. The most common and appreciated ways to show empathy are beyond the reach of your standard autistic person. Does that make us emotionless, disdain or ruthless. Not at all. Most autistic people I come across are genuine, kind hearted, honest and loving people. But true to autistic people, we do not adhere to standards, we are untraditional and we are rebellious towards anything and anyone who tries to squeeze us into a labeled category or a box.

Tell us your story, your heartfelt and sincere story, and we can respond with so much love and acceptance. Probably not straight away because there's too much information to process all at once, but once everything has been worked through and we've had time to analyse your story, most of us are able to amaze you with the most honest and warm responses and insights.

But then again, we might not respond. You see, responding to your story, means we need to bring up a subject later on. And that poses another challenge because again, this is connected to social rules.

How can we determine whether or not you want to talk about the same thing again?

For some of us, it might be hard to find the right words. Some of us may fear your response, after all, experience has taught us that the responses we get from other people are unpredictable at best because we have trouble 'reading' them.

If anything, autism is complicated and nothing is what it seems to be. So please, be patient and ask question.

It's not a matter of empathy, it's a matter of social sensitivities.


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