One troubling issue which comes up again and again for the autistic women I work with is the question of whether or not they can experience empathy. From what they tell me, they certainly experience empathy—which is at odds with how we tend to think of people with ASD. For many of my clients, the idea that they can’t be empathic is troubling.
When we’re thinking about the issue of autism and empathy, we need to understand what we mean by empathy and to appreciate that there are different types of empathy.
Empathy comes from the German word Einfühlung, which means “feeling in.” It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what empathy is, partly because there are many different ways to experience empathy, but it includes the ability to sense other people’s emotions and to be able to imagine what they are thinking or feeling. With this understanding, you can respond to that person’s state of mind with an appropriate emotion.
Empathy can be further broken down into two distinct parts—cognitive and affective.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to identify with and understand other people’s emotions—what we commonly refer to as being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. An example of cognitive empathy would be watching a newsreel of someone who has been flooded out of their home. Without having experienced that yourself, you would be able to understand just how fearful, sad, and terrible they must be feeling due to the types of emotions that this awful event has had on them.
Affective empathy—also known as emotional or primitive empathy—happens when you have an emotional response to what someone else is thinking or feeling. Going back to the newsreel footage of the flood victim, you may find yourself welling up with tears or feeling angry towards the government that this has happened to this person.
Research has shown that it’s the cognitive empathy part that people with ASD struggle with—they have trouble working out exactly what is going on for someone else1. They find situations confusing and may not quickly work out why someone is so upset over a situation. But it doesn’t mean they don’t care, and they may experience an emotional reaction to someone else’s distress, even though they’re not really identifying with the complexities behind that person’s distress.
Struggling to identify with a person’s understanding of a situation, whilst experiencing an emotional response to that situation, means that your reaction can appear strange or unfeeling.
Inside, you may feel emotionally overwhelmed when you hear of someone else’s distress, but you may not be able to express that feeling—indeed, your face and body language may remain very still, revealing very little. What I, and some of my clients, have described is a sort of “time lag” between receiving information and making sense of it. This doesn’t just apply to situations where someone else has experienced difficulties, but this is one of the situations where it can occur.
I have quite often been told about something distressing, and I don’t react straight away. There’s too much information for me to make sense of. Once I’ve gone home and have had time to process that information, I may then feel very sorry for the person.
If you have ASD, your experience and expression of empathy may be different from that of a neurotypical person, but it doesn’t mean that you care any less. If you need help with any of the above issues which relate to ASD, please enlist the help of a suitably qualified therapist.
1. Baron-Cohen S., Wheelwright S., Hill J., Raste Y., Plumb I. (2001). The “reading the mind in the eyes” test revised version: a study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry. 42 241–251