Misunderstanding Empathy

Empathy is quite the concept these days. Everyone wants others to “do empathy” better than they are. We all expect to receive understanding from others, but we aren’t always willing or able to give it in the right way. But we all deserve to be understood, which is the essence of empathy.

According to dictionary.com, empathy is the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Essentially, empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling from their perspective. There is much discussion about empathy and autism and I will tell you, a great deal of it is wrong. Neurotypical people who study autism will generally conclude that autistic people lack empathy because they interpret empathy as that which is outwardly expressed in the way the neurotypical person is able to see/feel a connection. Autistic people may not be able to display or communicate a connection to what a neurotypical person is going through, but that doesn’t mean we don’t empathize.

If I, as an autistic person, am speaking with a neurotypical person who is in distress, I will ABSOLUTELY feel their distress very acutely. However, they will likely still perceive me as not being empathetic toward them. They have expectations about how an empathetic person should react to their distress and those reactions are never going to be authentic to me. I would describe my feelings of empathy as being on a deeper (or just different) level than the average neurotypical is able to understand. It may be that the neurotypical people are actually those who struggle with empathy.

Don’t get me wrong, neurotypical people can have empathy, but many will perform empathy instead. It is relatively easy to make the average neurotypical person feel like you are relating to them. I believe there are many autistic folks who could do this performance, if they wanted to. But it is just a performance. We operate on different planes.

I tend to feel, quite often, that I can sense a mood in a room without talking to anyone in it. That is VERY DEEP EMPATHY. However, when a friend is having a bad day and just wants to vent about it, I have a really hard time. They are looking for a specific answer, which is relationship-based, and shows to them that I am listening and understand and have gone through this before and can relate, etc. My inclination is to help them identify and solve the root cause of their distress. This is RARELY viewed as helpful, but it does not indicate anything about empathy.

Autistic and neurotypical people will need some common definitions for terms if we are going to come to an agreement on this topic. We interpret empathy so differently that each believes the other doesn’t know what it is. Autistic people are viewed as cold and uncaring, which we are neither. We are, however generally concerned with very different, usually less “self-oriented” pursuits and individual day-to-day occurrences feel very small. With a wider, less self-oriented focus on the world and our place in it, it is no wonder we do not view empathy as something others can give or show to us. It isn’t about showing at all; rather empathy is a state of being. Empathy is how you show up in the world. It is being present and receiving thoughts, feelings and energy from others, regardless of whether or how you are able to reflect that back to them.

Autism, in the absence of trauma, is empathy.

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