One of the dominant characterizations of people on the autism spectrum is that they lack empathy or are empathy-disrupted. This is based on the paradigm that autistic people aren’t able to intuit the emotions and needs of others, or that people on the spectrum aren’t willing to respond to the emotional needs of others. The truth, which seems to be entirely missing from the literature of behavioral science, is that the only people being considered in the “others” piece of that definition are neurotypical (non-autistic) people.
I am an aspie (a person with Asperger’s), and thus am perceived to be a person who struggles with understanding irony; still, the irony does not escape me that there is a tacit level of empathy absent in the conceptualization that someone like me cannot empathize with other people. I am wired– literally, at the neurological level– with a social rulebook which differs from the rulebook hard-wired in the DNA of neurotypical (non-autistic) people. I have no problem understanding the needs and desires of other aspies and autistics, reading their cues, and responding appropriately to them in a warm and nurturing manner. I understand them because we have the same innate rule book written in our genes. Implying or directly stating that I lack empathy because I can’t understand “others” is to exclude autistic people from the definition of “others.” It’s erasure of their humanity. According to the most painfully-literal level of abstraction, that definition is dehumanizing in that it doesn’t include autistics in the definition of “people.”
I process sensory and emotional input in different parts of my brain from neurotypical people. Expecting me to naturally intuit a neurotypical person’s needs and to be able to read their social indicators is to deny me empathy. If I were blind, would psychologists posit that I lack empathy because I am unable to respond to people’s silent facial expressions? If I were deaf, would behavioral scientists conduct research and arrive at conclusions that my inability to interpret subtleties in tone and inflection was an indication of empathy disruption? It seems obvious that it would be inhumane and unethical to impose a lack empathy on people who had biological or anatomical differences which precluded them from understanding stimuli in the same way as the majority of the population. Why, then, am I characterized as lacking empathy because of a neurological difference?
I have needs which are different from the neurotypical majority, and in order to avoid causing more stress to the other person, I need to maintain a degree of equilibrium. My struggle to avoid some types of social interaction is not in the interest of self-service. I don’t want to become overwhelmed and triggered because I don’t want to cause more stress to my neurotypical loved ones who might not understand my reactions and aversions; but, because I have empathy, I do not expect them to understand something not innate to their perceptive framework. Physical contact is difficult for me, and holding someone, hugging them, or even patting their shoulder as a gesture of empathy is distressing to me. It’s too intimate. If I hug someone, press my body against theirs and feel all of their hard and soft spots and the textures of their clothing, smell their sweat and shampoo and the food on their breath, and hear the crunching of their styled hair pressing against my face, it overwhelms me. Once the contact is broken, my skin is electrified and burning where the warmth of their body still tingles on my skin, their smells still pounding like a hammer on my raw olfactory nerve. It may be what another person wants from me, but I’m not always able to give it to them. If I do, I might be so overcome with overstimulation that I can’t focus on another word they say to me. I will feel traumatized. My brain doesn’t always differentiate between sexual touch and casual touch. There is no such thing as casual touch to me. Why is my consent to bodily autonomy and physical touch leveraged against my ability to feel empathy? Does the lack of regard for my needs to not endure unwanted touch not demonstrate a lack of empathy for me?
I focus more on communication with words than with gestures or tones or facial expressions. If I have needs, I try to express them verbally. I use language which is specific and direct. To me, this is the most respectful and intimate way I can interact with others. Hinting at things, being subtle and hoping the other person is able to read my mind feels manipulative and passive aggressive. Telling someone that I enjoy something I don’t enjoy feels dishonest. Making empty plans for ambiguous future meet-ups neither of us plan to carry out feels deceptive and hollow. Capitalizing on someone’s time by talking about something obvious which is meaningless to both of us (like the current state of the weather we are both presently experiencing) would feel to me that I was communicating to them that they aren’t worth more depth of thought. I don’t expect people to intuit my needs because that places the burden of guesswork on them, and that feels inconsiderate. In my values, according to my neurotype, communication is more respectful when the subject matter is deep and thoughtful and explicitly (bluntly) stated. This isn’t a lack of empathy on my behalf, but the evidence of its abundance.
If a person tells me what he or she wants or needs, I will do what I can to accommodate him or her. Neurotypical people often misinterpret my honesty or my directness as aggression. My sincere questions in asking for clarification are seen as Socratic and passive-aggressive. Sometimes, my speech seems too formal to neurotypical people, and they view me as pedantic or arrogant. I do have difficulties understanding why two phrases which mean exactly the same thing to me mean totally different things to neurotypical people. I become so nervous in conversations, monitoring my speech to use the right combination of words to ensure that I am not too prescribed, making sure to not enunciate too crisply (singin’ instead of singing), and ending sentences with prepositions when it feels unnatural to me, to the point that conversations become daunting and stressful. For example, I might change the phrase “that I use the right synonyms to avoid appearing arcane,” to “that I don’t use fancy words and sound uppity.”
I’m not always sure what’s expected of me, and I don’t emote the same ways most people do. Because of dyspraxia, I don’t move with the grace of neurotypical people. I drop things all the time and trip over thresholds, and when I become overwhelmed, it becomes even harder to coordinate my movements. Because of poor fine motor coordination, I can’t wink without looking like a deranged owl with Bell’s palsy. I have to physically concentrate sometimes to make myself smile or nod my head or raise my eyebrows. Other times, I laugh when nothing is funny because that is just how my brain responds to striking or shocking information. This might mean that I respond with laughter to someone telling me about a car breaking down or a job loss. That’s not because I find it humorous. It’s because I’m so awash with empathy that it is unpleasantly overwhelming, like the feeling one has when being tickled. Other times, I might say, “That’s hilarious,” without laughing at all. I can’t always tell if my outward emotions are showing on my face, and I don’t know if I need to try harder to let you know with my body language what I’m feeling. I don’t typically offer a courtesy laugh at a joke that isn’t funny because it doesn’t occur to me that being dishonest is what the people around me want from me. I’m also so unaware of my body at times that I can’t feel what my face is doing.
I don’t comment on people’s appearance or attire because I don’t see those things as relevant. My lack of attention to a person’s façade is not an indication of my disinterest in others, but a reflection of my interest in the traits and character of the person with whom I’m interacting. If I don’t notice your new hairstyle, or if I don’t comment on a change in your appearance, it’s because how you look is not important in my perception and is not a reflection of who you are. Your mind is what’s important to me. This is why I might challenge your thoughts. The best social interactions, for me, are those in which we work together to learn something new, or to examine our own thoughts and prejudices to try and better ourselves as a collaborative venture.
I might not be able to find a way into a conversation about American football. It’s true that I cannot fathom why anyone is so invested in a game in which adult men the size of refrigerators demonstrate their athletic prowess by ramming their heads into other people’s heads while battling for possession of a ball the shape of a prolate spheroid and made from the flesh of a dead animal. That is my inner dialogue. I can’t understand how the people who are supposed to be so imbued with innate empathy can delight so much in another’s ability to concuss himself. I watch it and worry that the players, who are most often Black, are being exploited for white entertainment as a proliferation of systemic dehumanization and racism. Their value to the sport is measured in how much pain they can take and how much they can inflict, and in how much they will sacrifice their health and bodies for the gladiatorial bloodlust of others. I think about how the athletes will likely have shortened lifespans, and how their bodies will ache every morning for the rest of their lives because their cartilage has been destroyed and their tendons hyperextended. But, mentioning this in conversation will be considered demonstrative of my lack of empathy because I don’t understand the status quo.
It’s time to re-evaluate how we define empathy as it relates to people on the spectrum. Characterizing autistic people as lacking in empathy is harmful and inaccurate. We are a spectrum as broad and as complex and diverse as neurotypical people, and we experience empathy in varying degrees within that spectrum. When my aspie toddler gets distressed and pushes me away from people who hug me or touch me, it isn’t because she is jealous of the attention. It’s because she believes that someone is violating her mother’s boundaries and imposing too much touch on her. She feels this way, intuits this naturally, because she is wired the way I am. She loves animals, but she doesn’t touch them. She just looks at them, gets close to them, and giggles. She does this out of respect for their bodily autonomy and their right to not have touch imposed on them. Her internal rulebook is sophisticated and balanced against a complex moral reasoning that includes logic, ethics, and emotional abstraction. She doesn’t need to grow up in a world in which her future educators and health care providers perceive her as oafish and lacking in empathy. She deserves to be recognized as the empathetic, socially responsible, unique individual she is, full of love and potential and in need of your tolerance and acceptance.