Are autists capable of feeling empathy?

Artist: Chelsea Osgood
Artist: Chelsea Osgood

Empathy : the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feeling Webster’s online

This definition is talking about two things. The first is pretense. Pretending to understand a feeling or experience another person is going through. Your feeling is telling you that you are able to share another person’s experience.

Let us pretend that I fall down and hit my knees. That hurts, I might cry and even be sad because it happened. What if another person fell down and hit their knees in the same way? This is where it becomes tricky.

89 Comforting a Friend in NeedTrue empathy (see above) would mean that I could truly feel what the other person hitting her/his knees felt. Perhaps there are people out there with this ability. If there are, I imagine they are few and very far between. For the sake of this post, I am ruling that true empaths do not exist. Therefore, we are stuck with this “feeling” thing.

What I have is my experience. When I see another person falling down, all I can do is extrapolate from my own experiences and use that to do whatever it is I do. If the person shakes their fall off, I might become confused. My projection of my own feelings onto that person tell me that the other person is supposed to be in pain, crying and needing comfort. But nothing in the situation indicates that is happening.

Parrot comforting rat
Parrot comforting rat

As it often does, my extrapolation failed. To me that is what happens during an empathic experience. People project their own feelings on to another person and expect them to behave in the same manner as we did. If the above definition is a valid one, it is highly likely that autists might not be good at empathizing.

A lady I know had a husband who was sick for an awfully long time before he died. I’m practically 50, so some rules in society have been knocked into my head. I also have my own experiences to go by. As death got closer, and my parents were talking about her pain and sadness (and her missing me in church), I figured I could text her every evening until he died and maybe a little after. I did not have a clue as to what she was feeling. Because of my own sadness when people and animals have died, I figured she had to be having a rough time and took a chance on my sms’ working. A while after his death, this lady told me that those texts were part of what kept her going through her difficult time. That made no sense to me (which is probably a lack of empathy) but I was glad my intention to help worked.

Comforting a friendAt her husband’s funeral I figured there would be PLENTY of green stuff. I didn’t bring any. Instead I thought about what gave me comfort when I was sad. For me that is hugging something really hard. Now that her husband was dead, she needed something else (at least that is what I extrapolated from my own experiences). I got her one of those soft dogs that you can get at a toy store. A big, huggable one. You know what? That dog has been held and cried at and been the recipient of all sorts of emotions (not only hers).

This time my attempts worked. Often they do not. But people generally don’t seem to mind those attempts to help. And just as my projections onto people often fail, so do theirs onto me.

From American Horror Story

Let me present you with another situation – not mine. No, not mine at all, but another autistic person. Someone I am very worried about when I remember that she exists. She has one of the more painful stories I have come into contact with.

My friend writes some of the most touching posts I have read. Sadly, this beautiful person struggles with severe depression. My friend also has arthritis to a degree that causes extreme pain and a severe sensitivity to touch. Neither illness responds to treatment. My friend is also autistic. Unfortunately, in the eyes of some health personnel the combination of these three make my friend less than human.

One time when things were at their worst, my friend asked for help. In spite of my friend’s previous experiences with health services, that friend needed help but when help was requested something completely was given. This friend has records that indicates that no force should be used and my friend’s doctor is very clear on that matter. However, this was placed in seclusion and restrained. It turns my friend had the gall to beg for toothpaste.

After restraining restraining my friend, health personnel and others present  made fun of my friend. I believe they call it bullying when regular people act the same way. Severe bullying in this case. Every single cautionary note in her file was ignored. Her arthritis, her sensory issues, her fear of restraint and so on. It is highly likely that none of the bullies were autistic. Therefore, an empathic ability should have been present in them all. My friend did not come out of her experience a healthier person. Quite the opposite.

Whether empathy is a true ability in non-autists is not something that matters to me. Nor does my so-called lack of it. What does matter to me is how people treat other people. In my friend’s case, I am extremely worried about the outcome. A lack of empathic compassion caused what is likely irreparable damage of several kinds.


4 thoughts on “Are autists capable of feeling empathy?

  1. Maybe empathy is overrated. What you did for your friend with the text messages and the teddy bear was show compassion. If we had to wait to feel empathy to help people it would be a cold world indeed.

    1. Empathy is a confusing concept to me. I am beginning to wonder if the ability to empathise is part of helps neurotypicals be such good bulliers. These “mysterious” abilities seem to be able to be used for both good and bad.

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