exploring the awesome in autism


On: Autistic Empathy

Among all the literature and books and articles it is well-documented that those who are Autistic tend to have a special interest, and I am no exception. For me, the interest has changed many times over the years, from trucks, to computers, to philosophy and intellection, and others along the way. Since my diagnosis though, my special interest has become Autism itself. In the 34 months since my diagnosis, I have read countless books and articles, seen therapists, and talked to countless parents, educators, clinicians, and Autistics. Of all the answers that finally made sense of a lifetime of struggle, I could never come to terms with one prominent diagnostic criteria: I should be void of empathy, as though Autistic folks should be emotionless and distant monsters that should be feared.

Certainly we know that Autistic individuals experience meltdowns and negative emotions. And if they experience negative emotions, are we therefore saying they lack solely the basic, positive emotions like love? That sounds downright sociopathological. I mean, if a lack of positive emotion were to be the criteria, I have not met a single Autistic individual who would actually be Autistic. I remember giving my whole allowance one summer, which I was saving for a toy truck, to help needy kids in Africa because it broke my heart to think they didn't have even basic food and water. I remember in middle school wanting to start a youth center because I didn't want other kids to get bored and into trouble like I did. It was empathy that stirred me to help the anti-trafficking movement. It was empathy that started GeekGive; a desire to give back to those less fortunate. It is empathy that leads me now to create a successful workplace for others who have tremendous and valuable gifts and talents, yet face upwards of 80% unemployment.

After intellecting on this issue for some time, I realized that the empathy issue was overgeneralized. Quite simply, what the rest of the world is content to simply call "empathy" is really two distinct and unique skillsets. The first is external, social empathy, and it is the ability to look someone in the eye, give and take in conversation, show the correct facial expressions, know when to nod versus verbally acknowledge, and carry the correct and expected body posture, among other things. Those who are Autistic can be quite lacking, sometimes severely, in these skillets. I personally find small talk tedious and would much rather jump to the heart of the conversation that gets my brain whirring.

If we stop the story here at external empathy and say Autistic individuals lack empathy, we might be somewhat correct, but we would only be telling half the story. The other half of empathy is internal, compassionate empathy, and this is where Autistic individuals shine brightly. Some theorize this is a result of issues with emotional regulation, and that is a topic for another post, but everyone I've met has big, beautiful hearts full of compassion and love and care and concern, even if they don't always know how to express it to others and loved ones. Likewise, I know of many Autistic individuals who actively avoid the news because of the intense negative emotions it - as intended - can create. Recently, for example, I read about humanizing new programs to help chronic homelessness and I cried. I can feel the despair, the invalidation, the thought of living life without hope. I have lived many years without hope. And I can equally feel the hope and pride in being validated as a human being.

The third variable in understanding Autistic empathy is to recognize that many Autistic individuals have a condition known as Alexithymia, which is difficulty understanding and identifying, let alone explaining, their own emotions, making it equally difficult to explain them to others. To someone without an insight into dual empathy, this can also contribute to the idea that Autistic individuals lack emotion and empathy.

While Autists may be lacking in the social graces, they are not lacking for compassion. Even when it appears invisible to the outside world. It is time to de-generalize the empathy issue and understand it for all it's wonderful and sometimes messy complexity. Indeed, the above graph could now be redrawn as followings, keeping in mind that everyone is different, and the actual levels will vary by individual:

One of the beautiful facets of Autism is, while the social empathy may be lacking, the compassion more than makes up for it. I for one would much rather enjoy a world where people are kind and compassionate and possess internal empathy than one where everyone is adept at small talk.