The Empathy Imbalance: How autistics relate to others

Seeing autism as an ’empathy disorder’ is quite a common umbrella theory…

An umbrella theory applied to autism is any idea that tries to explain several symptoms of autism using one underlying concept. ‘Magical world theory’ which I went over a few weeks ago technically counts as an umbrella theory. Despite still being in its early stages, the idea that a lot of autisitc traits stem from difficulty in predicting and understanding change might be useful in our understanding of the spectrum…

Umbrella theories are problematic in that trying to explain anything using one overarching net is likely to result in some oversimplification. By some of the proponents own admission, this is definitely the problem with describing autism as a deficiency in feeling empathy.

I know that I don’t completely lack empathy. I “feel with” people greatly. I can understand when I’m in a happy environment ’cause I feel positive as a result, which partly explains why social gatherings don’t worry me. Alternatively, news of human suffering effects me, even if they might not do so personally. When the Grenfell Fire tragedy happened, I remember having a severely upset and angry reaction, to the extent that I felt socially paralyzed, unable to divert my thoughts.

Just as ’empathy disorder’ lacks nuance, its not entirely wrong. It is true that autistic people can have more difficulty discerning how other people think and feel through elements such as facial expression and body language. Not to mention “reading between the lines” or discerning the hidden meanings in how people communicate. This is what theorists like Simon Baron-Cohen mean when they describe ‘mind blindness’. The problem here is that we’re talking about empathy in binary terms.

Shallow vs. Deep Empathy

We tend to think about empathy as the process of “putting yourself in anothers shoes”. That is to say, trying to understand someones emotions and thought processes from thier outward expression.

In social work its quite common for a support worker to show you images of different facial expressions. While overtime an autistic person can learn to identify them, they may sometimes struggle to properly respond to these signs, at least initially, when they encounter them in real life. Again, this shows a bottom up thought process at play whereby an autistic mind tries to find and then discern detail in order to come to a conclusion, rather than relying on learned attributes of ‘this is how to respond to sadness’…

Many hold this up to show autistic people lacking empathy. After all, using outward signals to directly work out what a person is feeling is the definition of empathy employed by thinkers like Paul Gilbert who uses the phrase “looking through the eyes of another”. And, they’re not entirely wrong. Just like a good improv comedian, to encourage communication, I shouldn’t say ‘no’ I should say ‘yes and…’

This form of empathy is called “shallow” or “cognitive” and is concerned with knowing how somebody else is feeling. However to understand a persons sorrow is not the same thing as feeling sorrowful. There might be scenarios where this approach is needed. I used to enter a state of extreme panic when I lost anything that I valued, as not having that would make me feel like I was loosing my sense of surety. While I still find that an unpleasant experience, being able to recognize that sort of anxiety in younger autistic relatives helps me to observe from a distance, so that I might take a rational approach, without feeling overwhelming emotion. Its the same form of empathy that a support worker might feel when confronted with someone suffering from a dark patch in thier mental health. Although this is the form of empathy autistic people struggle with, its by no means alien to us. I had a mentor through uni who was autistic, and helped me to understand my anxious states as well as my contended and happy ones.

This leads me to discuss “deep” or “affective empathy”. This, according to psychologist Daniel Goleman is when “you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious”. You might have heard some autistic people describe themselves as being too empathetic. Well, this is precisely what is meant. In my blog on music I point to mirror neurons where your brain processes, and by extension your actions and emotions, mimic those of someone you’ve observed. As an autistic person, I see a lot of my behaviours as learned from influential figures in my life. For me its a natural reaction when a friend describes to me thier upset, or when I hear emotion strongly transmitted in music and film, to find myself having a heightened emotional reaction.

A pitfall of affective empathy is that managing your emotions becomes more difficult. Constantly having strong emotional reactions which can change without warning can lead to burnout, and psychological exhaustion. Here’s where we discuss compassionate empathy, whereby we’re moved to help. Compassionate empathy recognizes thought processes and emotions as intrinsically connected.When friends comes to me describing feelings of anxiety or distress, I often feel deeply emotionally connected, and often try to help them make sense of that by telling them about my own experience of those feelings, and how I overcome them.

Interestingly, while as an autistic person I struggle with cognitive empathy, I have large amounts of affective and compassionate empathy.


It goes without saying that different people will have different levels of empathy. How much value you hold to the different types will depend on how much value you place on the trait. According to psychologist Steve Taylor, empathy is the thing that makes us human, and that all oppression and cruelty is the result of a lack of empathy.

“if you identify with another person, if you have a psychic and emotional connection with them, then it’s impossible to treat them brutally. You recoil from their experience of suffering in the same way that you recoil from your own suffering. In fact, you feel a strong desire to relieve their suffering and aid their development. But if you can’t identify with them, then there’s no limit to the amount of suffering you can inflict. You can’t sense their pain, so there’s nothing to stop you causing it”

Empathy: The Ability that Makes Us Truly Human

Peronally, while I can accept the idea that inflicting suffering on another requires a suspension of empathy, for me its the contrast: the ability to change if and how we relate to others that makes us human. As an autistic person with a strong sense of right and wrong, I used to be – and to an extent still am – constantly confounded about how some politicians can be aware of the suffering some of thier decisions inflict, and continue with them irrespective. These politicians may have the ability to excersise shallow empathy in being able to talk to people, understand thier needs and appeal to them, while a lack of affective empathy allows them to make decisions which maltreat others, without the burden of guilt or pain.

The same principal applies to conversation. If I as an autisitc person came to you, physically shaken and tell you that I’m suffering from a great deal of social anxiety after being overwhelmed, the correct response is not to reassure me that I’ll be fine or remind me that everyone has days like that. These minimize my experience by removing the specifics with little regard for my anxiousness. Rather, trying to understand how this has affected me, and helping me make sense of my thought processes through conversation might be a far more useful approach. This creates a non-judgmental environment, therefore creating space to address a stressful situation.

Remember earlier when I described “mind-blindness” – the way in which autistic people struggle to predict anthers thought processes or reactions in an exact moment. Well, this is related to “theory of mind” the idea that we constantly mind-read and thats how we gauge the mood and motives of someone we’re talking to. Notably, the ‘blindness’ that some autistic people can experience in certain interactions is something experienced by everyone. Empathy usually isn’t something that just happens – its a conscious decision to be emotionally present.

Going back to the ‘I come to you feeling stressed’ example, there will be scenarios where you are so caught up with our own problems that you emotionally withdraw. Able to sympathize – i.e to express pity, but not able to be empathetic. I bring this up ’cause we spend a lot of time beating ourselves up when we dont have an empathetic response to someone who comes at us with thier problems. Make no mistake though, empathy is a skill not a natural trait. It requires learning to be aware of our own emotions and detaching from them. When we can’t do that our minds create ’emotional static’, whereby an opportunity for understanding is lost. The effects can be anywhere between short-term falling outs to the fracturing of relationships.

An Atypical Perspective…

Showing empathy goes beyond reading facial expressions: Its easy to see why we primarily associate empathy with being able to read and understand body language. It defines probably a larger proportion of our interaction with others than speaking does. However, by doing this we are ignoring the empathy that comes with being able to feel another persons pain or joy, when your emotions mirror theres, or wanting to help someone. By gaining greater understanding of these we could learn to develop them and vastly improve our interaction, and attitudes to other people.

Your emotional state is important too: We tend to see empathy as primarily concerned with other peoples mental states. However, how you manage your emotions will determine how you show empathy to another person. With cognitive empathy you need to be emotionally present and being in that state all the time can be difficult, and has to be practiced. Same with emotional empathy. You want to be able to ‘feel with’ others but looking after your own mental health and taking time to recuperate from burnout can be just as important. The quicker we realise empathy as difficult, with multiple challenges, the better we can look to support people with expressing and receiving that kind of kindness.

Empathy is nurtured and developed: My intention with this blog has been to show how empathy can be challenging – the truth is that autisitc people are incredibly emotional most of the time and want to help people wherever possible, although we may not always know how. However, with the sensory environments we interact in, mixed with the fact that many of us more easily piece together detail over a period of time, rather than instantly identifying a category, we find empathisng at least on a shallow, every day level, quite hard to broach. I suggest that those who view empathy as an easy character trait which comes naturally, although well intentioned, overlook its complexities as a skill…

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