Imagine living in another country or planet where the culture was vastly different from what you were used to; most people acted completely differently from you. Imagine that what was normal to you was absurd to most others; what was normal to them seemed absurd or nonsensical to you. Imagine that because of these cultural differences, you were the one seen as “odd”. More importantly, when misunderstandings occurred, you were blamed. Because everybody acted so differently from you, saw the world differently than you did, it was hard for you to understand them, and you were blamed: it must have been some sort of personal defect; perhaps a lack of empathy. You may eventually learn to understand others on some level, but you will always be different and painfully aware of it. You may resonate with those who share similar traits, but to the majority of the population you’re a deviant. According to them, you lack the empathy needed to connect.
This is a reality that Autistic individuals face every day. There is a stereotype that we lack empathy. The truth is, however, that everybody, including Autistics, possess varying degrees of empathy. Moreover, empathy has many different interpretations and is no single concrete thing. Allistic (non-autistic) people are included in this. Therefore, to say that an entire population of people lack empathy is stereotyping, and unfairly so.
Much of the reason we are labeled as collectively lacking empathy lies in the reason stated in the introductory paragraph: cultural difference. Neurotypicals make up the majority of society, and because Autistics are wired differently, we may struggle to understand them. This can come in the form of not interpreting their social cues, struggling to understand expressions, or comprehending their language.
However, this does not reflect a lack of empathy. This reflects a difficulty in understanding something that is different from you. In this case, Autistic culture versus neurotypical culture. When my family moved from India to Canada, we faced similar struggles when it came to understanding the different dynamics of Western culture. Indeed, immigrants usually find a hard time adjusting to new norms at first. And when a person’s brain is wired differently to the rest of the population, these challenges can be amplified.
Autistic people, in reality, often experience extreme amounts of empathy. This is one of the reasons many of us have a strong sense of justice; we feel for those who struggle and want to make the world a better place for them. This is why many of us, including myself, are emotionally impacted by stories, movies, or music. It is also why myself and many other Autistics tend to develop powerful bonds and strong emotional attachments to others, sometimes to a fault. Many of us have reported having to shut down and lock ourselves in due to this, which is consistent with the Intense World Theory of Autism. When people suffer, we notice, and we care. We may not always express it in a typical way, but we do care.
Autistics are stereotyped to lack empathy due to innate differences: our difficulties understanding neurotypicals, and the differences in how we respond to emotions.
The irony is that non-autistic people tend to blame miscommunication entirely on us without criticizing themselves or examining their own prejudices. They say we lack empathy, but did they ever stop to see if they understood how we feel? Most of the time they do not. Every stereotype about Autistic empathy can be flipped: non-Autistic people may not be able to read our body language or social cues. They may struggle to understand our expressions or feelings. And such is often the case.
Autistics usually, in contrast, get along with each other, or at least understand each other, better than Allistics understand us, since our minds are wired more similarly, and we can relate to one another. Many discussions around Autism revolves around comparisons of our sensory, emotional, and other experiences. This empathetic support provides us with much-needed validation: that we are not broken; we are just Autistic; our minds are wired differently.
Now, it is important to remember that empathy varies within every individual; Autistic or not. There are some Autistics who may genuinely lack empathy, but this does not mean that they do not care for others. One can lack empathy but still have morality. And just because some Autistics may genuinely lack empathy does not mean we all do. Just as some neurotypicals lack empathy, but that does not automatically make them bad people, nor does it imply that all neurotypicals lack empathy.
My personal experience with empathy is complicated. As a child, there were adults who assumed I didn’t have empathy. And it was true that as a child, there were times when I was self-centered, or not understanding of the needs or wishes of others. However, I was far from the only kid who behaved this way, and others often treated similarly; in fact, it could be argued that I was treated this way far more than I treated others.
As a teenager and adult, I am always deeply impacted by depictions of injustice; particularly bullying, exclusion, or environmental destruction. I was also affected by depictions of oppression; whether it was from my friends in the LGBTQ community, or people of other subjugated minority groups, being multiply marginalized myself. Abuse, bullying, social rejection, prejudice, trauma, depression, and suicide, are issues that very deeply affect me. They rattle me so much I develop strong opinions regarding these issues.
I am not fully innocent myself (is anyone?), having said and done things I’m not proud of. But for what it’s worth, I stood up for others. I spent time with those who were excluded, and helped them fight back against bullies. I know firsthand the negative effects of unfairly judging others, and that was something I swore never to do. I absolutely refuse to be ruled by prejudice, even when pressured to by others. When it comes to friendships, I display a staunch and fierce loyalty to people I care about, vowing to do my best to be a caring and supportive person. Even if such loyalty is rarely, if ever returned.
All these attributes are a testament to my empathy, and directly contradict the words of non-autistic “professionals” who played off stereotypes and tried to label me unempathetic just because I may not have expressed my emotions the way they wanted me to.
My affective empathy is strong, and I can often tell if someone is upset or unsettled, even if I do not show external signs of knowing. As an Autistic, I am naturally hyper-aware and sensitive of my surroundings. However, there are times when I do not understand why someone feels a certain way. Why would someone choose to end a close friendship rather than fixing the problems that arose just because one situation was difficult to deal with? Why does Autistic infodumping(the act of imparting substantial amounts of information on a specific subject) come off as “annoying” to certain people? Why do parents mourn having an Autistic child? Why do minor things make people uncomfortable?
Some of these are questions asked by everyone, and it goes to show that empathy is fluid and varies from person to person.
There are many instances in which I can tell that a non-autistic (or in some cases, even another Autistic) person feels a certain way about something, but I will not understand why they feel that way, or will disagree with their perspective, which is also perfectly normal. While it is my responsibility to be a respectful and understanding person, it is also their responsibility to meet me in the middle and be understanding of my perspective.
It is a common saying within the Autistic community that where we give 97%, Allistics resent having to give back a meager 3% of emotional energy and empathy. This isn’t fair. For proper inclusion, we must demand an equal amount of understanding.
Empathy goes both ways.