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  • Writer's pictureAutistic Animist

Autism, Empathy, and Being a “People Person”

It’s Day 7 of my 30-days-of-blogging April challenge--finishing out the first full week!--and the topic I had listed to discuss today is a big one: empathy.

As with the other topics I’ve talked about so far, I can only scratch the surface of this one in the course of one short blog post, and I’m already on a low spoons day, so this one might end up being shorter than some of the more recent posts.

But I want to talk about empathy for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason to talk about empathy in the context of autism is that there is such a persistent stereotype about us autistic people having little to no empathy, and this just couldn’t be further from the truth in my experience. Most autistics I’ve talked to report feeling a tremendous--even debilitating--degree of empathy, and indeed, my own autism diagnosis was delayed largely because I was so caught up on this misconception and in the idea that I was an “empath”--somehow the polar opposite of a (stereotypical) autistic person.

More recent research has started to dig into what is actually meant by “empathy” and why autistics might be perceived as having low empathy (by neurotypicals) and yet experience high degrees of empathy. Martin Silvertant over at Embrace ASD has written a useful article outlining different types of empathy and in particular highlighting the difference between cognitive empathy and emotional/affective empathy. I highly recommend giving the full article a read, but one takeaway is that autistic people often have high levels of emotional/affective empathy and comparatively lower levels of cognitive empathy (though we frequently develop strategies to compensate for this through careful observation--a process, in my experience, similar to what we go through in order to effectively mask or camouflage).

Martin also speculates about something called “unbridled empathy” being part of what is behind the high rate of alexithymia in autistics--with alexithymia (not autism) often being the actual root of what causes us to be perceived as lacking empathy. So putting all that together, if true, suggests that what many autistics (myself included) have been saying all along is exactly right: we feel so much empathy that it overwhelms us and impairs our ability to express ourselves in such a way as to be perceived as empathic. Sound familiar? If so, you might be autistic!

Digging a little bit further into how to measure empathy and what “cognitive empathy” is all about: consider these two psychometrics for evaluating “empathy”, the Empathy Quotient (developed by the infamous Simon Baron-Cohen and Sally Wheelright) and the Toronto Empathy Quotient (developed by Spreng et al.). [Links to the tests and some discussion about them, courtesy of Embrace ASD, included below!] I took both of these tests as part of my evaluation for autism and scored very low on the first (indicative of “low empathy” and of possible autism) and very high on the second (indicative of high empathy). Both of these scores were (to my understanding) consistent with what my evaluator commonly sees in autistic people.

So what is going on here? Without going into all the detail of what’s in the tests (you can take them yourself and probably instantly recognize the pattern!) and at the risk of “spoiling”: the questions for the Empathy Quotient are predominantly concerned with social behavior and social norms. They have very little to do with “feeling other people’s feelings” (which is how I think of empathy) and everything to do with being able to suss out neurotypical social culture (which is precisely how I think of what being autistic makes impossible for me!). The questions on the Toronto Empathy Quotient, on the other hand, have much more to do with how other people’s emotions affect us--and for me, that’s a lot.

So are autistics “highly empathic” or “lacking empathy”? Well, it depends on your definition of empathy. Do we tend to feel the impacts of others’ (and our own) emotions very strongly and sometimes experience overwhelm and consequent lack of ability to verbalize the experience as a result? Seems like the answer to that is yes. But are we generally good at making sense of what causes other people to feel certain ways (based on their specific neurotypical cultural expectations) and reasoning out the “appropriate” (according to them) responses? Well, no. But guess what? Neither are neurotypicals. At least not when it comes to autistics.

See, there’s this concept of the “double empathy problem”, coined and described by Dr. Damian Milton. [I’ve included a link to a more detailed summary below.] In short: yes, autistic people do seem to struggle to interpret and respond “appropriately” to neurotypical social and emotional cues and communicate effectively with them. But the reverse is also true: neurotypicals also struggle to communicate with others outside of their neurotype. And, statistically, autistic people don’t experience the same degree of communication impairment with other autistic people. It’s almost as if… like we’ve been saying… we’re just wired differently and being a neurominority, we ended up being the ones that got pathologized.

Bringing this all back to one of the reasons I wanted to talk about empathy in the first place: yesterday I talked about the challenges of being autistic in the workplace, and how I work in a field (technology) that tends to have a higher percentage of folks on the spectrum. Before I understood how being autistic impacted my communication style and tolerance level for certain types of social interactions (in some cases, they fuel me tremendously, and in other cases they drain me to the point of meltdown very quickly), it all seemed very random and chaotic. When planning my future in my career, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to slowly become the nerdy hermit that sits in the corner and codes without ever speaking to another human… or if I wanted to spend all day working with more junior folks, bringing them up to speed, providing mentorship. And the concept of the “double empathy problem” really made that dilemma… click. It’s not as simple as “I have people skills” vs. “I don’t have people skills”, or “I like talking to people” vs. “I don’t like talking to people”. One of my absolute favorite things to do is to mentor other neurodivergent folks (or, in some cases, folks who share another axis of marginalization with me, or even just new folks who feel awkward and like they don’t fit in, even if with time they will grow out of that like I never could). But navigating office politics-style small talk with people who control aspects of my livelihood but have zero interest in the actual topic we’re ostensibly chit-chatting about? Literally painful. Physically, viscerally. It is all I can do not to start gnawing on my wrists to numb the inner agony of the experience. I sound like I’m being dramatic, but I’m actually being quite matter-of-fact. That is my actual, physical, internal experience. Pain.

So if you’re like me and you’ve spent any amount of time stuck in a loop of trying to decide: “Am I highly empathic or lacking empathy? Am I introverted or extraverted? Am I a ‘people person’ or not?”, consider the fact that these questions might not make sense in the context of the autistic experience. These distinctions were, after all, most likely drawn with neurotypical people in mind, and if you’re autistic, then your experience is by definition going to be outside of these categories. You might feel a great deal of affective/emotional empathy, struggle with the cross-neurotype translation required to have cognitive empathy for neurotypicals, feel extraverted and chatty among autistic people who share your special interests yet experience tremendous sensory overwhelm around extraverted neurotypicals, and you might find that you love mentoring interns at work but can’t stand the small talk required for (likely neurotypical) client-facing roles. All of you is valid. Defy those categories, and just be you.

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