A contentious subject – empathy in autistic women.
I was just watching a talk specifically about empathy in autistic women. The expert was saying that all autistic women and girls are highly empathic! I take issue with this.
What is empathy?
Empathy is the intuitive ability to understand, imagine, or experience what it is like to be another person and to feel emotionally moved by others’ emotions. People often describe this as the ability to step into someone else’s shoes. For most non-autistic people, this helps them to communicate on an emotional as well as an intellectual level. It also helps people to understand the unspoken rules that pervade social interaction enabling communication to flow easily.
Known as hyper-empathy, some autistic women and girls can feel empathy to an extreme degree and they often become overwhelmed by other people’s emotions. However, this is not a universal trait for autistic women at all. Many autistic women and girls (myself included) struggle to feel any empathy at all.
What is compassion?
It’s important to understand that empathy and compassion are entirely different. Compassion is the ability to feel ‘for’ someone–to understand them on intellectual level–whereas empathy is the ability to feel ‘with’ someone. Most people have both of these abilities. However, some people, particularly some autistic people, only have one, or sometimes neither.
I have compassion. People’s sadness or frustration when difficult things happen to them makes sense to me. I have a strong (autistic) sense of social justice and fairness. Unfair treatment of someone will inspire me to action and I will go out of my way to help them.
But this is very different from empathy.
Non-empathy in autistic women.
I don’t have empathy, and this is common for a lot of autistic women. Social and emotional connection with people is rare for me. I don’t feel what other people feel and I have no idea why people feel sad when their friends feel sad. This simply doesn’t make sense to me. Why would you feel someone else’s feelings? Social connection is mostly unnecessary for me. In fact, it is often excruciatingly difficult because I don’t understand why people do what they do–small talk in particular–and I would much rather avoid it.
I understand the need for empathy intellectually. I can see how these skills are essential from an evolutionary point of view–they help to build emotional and social connections that are essential for pack animals. But my brain simply does not contain the wiring for any of it. It doesn’t make me a bad person, but it does mean that I struggle to understand people and interact with them appropriately.
Empathy with animals can be easier for autistic people.
Interestingly, I (and many other autistic people) have much more empathy, and a deeper connection, with animals. We can understand their state of mind and communication more readily. My theory is that people who can empathise easily rely on an unconscious ‘felt sense’ of what other people are feeling and experiencing despite the sometimes vague words they might be saying–for example, the overused “I’m fine” statement.
Non-empathising autistic people tend to rely heavily on words because we don’t have this inbuilt ability to intuit what the person in front of us might be really feeling. We take the words at face-value and believe them literally. This can lead to lots of confusion as non-autistic people are rarely straightforward in their verbal communication. “I’m fine” could mean anything from actually being ‘fine’ to ‘I’m having the worst time ever’.
In order to make sense of people and social interaction, many autistic people make an extra conscious effort to learn about non-verbal signals such as micro-expressions, body language, and visceral clues such as skin flushing, degree of eye redness, and pupil size etc. In fact, I am so fascinated by the foreign-to-me unspoken language that studying humans is one of my autistic lifelong ‘special interests’. I even went on to study an MA in body and movement psychotherapy and it’s now become my job. This is a common career route for many autistic people.
Cognitive learning of this can be really helpful, and it’s great in a clinical setting. But unfortunately it can’t replace the non-autistic inbuilt intuitive ability to pick up on these signals in social settings.
With animals there are no words, therefore no confusion. Animals don’t lie or mislead, they simply unconsciously express their true feelings with clear signals–tail wags, snarls, bristling fur, head bumps, happy hops etc. As this is the communication language I’ve learned to rely on (in humans), it’s actually much easier for me to read the communication of animals–there are no misleading words to confuse me. They generally don’t hide their pain or their sadness, and their behaviour says it all. This makes communication and connection with animals much easier and much less threatening for non-empathising people.
Non-empathy in autistic boys and men.
When I heard Chris Packham talk about his experiences on this YouTube video, I related a lot to what he was describing–not being that bothered about having other people around him, actively not wanting social contact most of the time, and feeling little or nothing when other people are having emotions.
It seems totally acceptable for autistic men and boys to have no empathy. In fact, it’s often expected. So why do so many experts insist on denying that autistic girls and women can feel the same? Many autistic females experience this. To deny it erases their lived experience and it can make them question their sense of self.
Stereotyping autistic women.
I think that this is down to the fact that lack of empathy for autistic women does not sit well with female stereotypes. Women and girls are meant to be intuitive, sociable, kind, and loving. When females don’t fit into this narrow box, they threaten the fantasy of the gender binary.
I know non-empathy is true for me. Similar to the dreams of Chris Packham, my dream is to live with my cat, alone in the woods, with hardly any visitors. I don’t want others in my lovely safe inner sanctuary very often. I feel safe when I’m alone. And this is the experience of many autistic women I have spoken with.
Autism in different genders can have tendences in one direction or another, and it’s been really important to pay attention to these. Particularly as autistic women and girls have gone undiagnosed (and wrongly diagnosed) for years because these differences have been missed. However, let’s not go down the simple route of dividing autistic people by a false gender binary and making blanket statements about specific traits and behaviours.
Both gender and autism are spectrums, it’s never going to be a one size fits all situation.
Please feel free to comment below with your own experiences of empathy. I’d love to hear your experiences.