I know a lot has been written on empathy and the autism spectrum.. And I don’t know if I am able to bring anything new to that discussion, but I thought I’d share my thoughts and experience on the matter.
Everyone knows the general assumption that people on the spectrum are somehow less empathetic than the average people. And that has been proven bullshit so many times, yet it is still a stereotype that many people hold of Aspies. All the Aspies I know are very empathetic, generally more empathetic than most of the population. I’ve found that Aspies are particularly empathetic towards animals, and anyone that’s vulnerable or an outcast. From my own point of view, I can say that if I am able to imagine myself in the particular situation and viewpoint of the person, I generally feel empathy very strongly. I cry watching documentaries, news stories or reading stories of people or animals who have suffered in any way. If a friend or a family member is struggling, I feel strongly, and rather than thinking ‘I need to give them space’, I want to offer them hugs, and make sure they don’t feel alone. Because that’s what I would like people to do for me. I guess the problem arises when people react differently to suffering, and I find it hard to see what they want and need, because my understanding is based on what I would want and feel. Yes, the way people on the spectrum feel and show empathy is different, but it certainly does not mean we are somehow lacking in empathy. If anything, we can be empathetic to a point where it becomes very painful for us, and it’s not such a great thing if when you are trying to offer support to someone, you become the one that ends up crying the most. Or you become paralysed because you are trying to handle your own emotions, and end up seeming unempathetic to the outside world, when in fact you are feeling so much that you can’t express it.
I have also noticed that I can be very unsympathetic towards people who have hurt or killed themselves due to their own stupidity or irresponsibility. Someone decided to dive off a huge cliff for fun, or someone was hanging off a skyscraper trying to take a selfie and fell? Sure, it’s sad if someone ends up dying, but it’s hard for me to put myself in their place, and feel very bad for them. I read a comment section under an article like that, and see people commenting on how they feel sorry for them, and think to myself if I am really lacking on empathy. On the other hand for example, I can be empathetic towards people who went to jail for drug use, because many of them have had a rough childhood, have been fighting mental health issues and have tried to numb their pain with drugs, while other people talk about them as if they were garbage.
Empathy is such a complicated concept. Before you accuse someone of ‘being unempathetic’ realize that people feel and show empathy in different ways, and there is not necessarily one accepted, right way to do it. And if someone cries when they find a dead squirrel on the road, please don’t ridicule them for being over-emotional, but rather tell them it’s a gift (albeit a painful one) to feel and care so deeply.