What is empathy? The free online dictionary takes the 2003 Collins English dictionary definition that empathy in relation to other people is:

“the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings”

It was widely thought that autistics including aspies are unable to have or express empathy. More recently people with lived experience are being listened to more carefully about this emotional attribute. Whereas it had been thought that we had no empathy, this idea was based either on flawed psychology experiments or a misunderstanding of the experiences and expressions of autistics. Experiments were of the ‘Sally-Anne doll type’. In this type of test, after introducing two dolls, the child/adult is asked a control question which is what the names of the dolls are. A short skit is then enacted; Sally takes an object and hides it in her bag. She then exits the room and the. Child/adult is told Sally has gone for a walk. While she is away, Anne takes the object out of Sally’s bag and puts it in her own bag. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question: “Where will Sally look for her object?” Technically this is a theory of mind test, looking at if the child/adult can understand or imagine what the doll Sally is thinking. However, the results, in which most autistic children said that Sally would look in Anne’s bag, have been taken as showing that not only do autistics not have the ability to perceive things from another’s point of view but their ability to understand emotions and respond to them is limited.

My issue with the Sally-Anne test is that the person undertaking the test is not told explicitly that Sally does not know what Anne is doing. I think that this is a important point because the experimenter is wanting the person to ascribe thoughts to an inanimate object that cannot think. If the experimenter is asking this, then how is one to know whether or not Sally can ‘know’ what Anne has done. Neurotypical (NT) children generally say that Sally thinks the object will be in her own bag, but they are more likely to be familiar with playing games that one second ascribe human or superhuman characteristics to inanimate objects and the next second do not. I think this is instead a classic demonstration of the hidden rules of NT interactions.

Leaving that aside, and looking at the misunderstanding of autistic experience and expression, it is important to note that many NTs misread the emotions of autistics. I can be in a room with an autie and just know how they are feeling, whereas the NT teacher does not. Most adults on the spectrum indicate that they have had this experience frequently, and I think to is because our body language is often different to that of NTs. Many autistics have less expressive faces and more expressive muscle tone than NTs. Many, but not all of us seem to feel not only our own, but others emotions, far more intensely than NTs. This intense experience combined with our atypical expression of this experience has led others to suggest we do not understand the feelings of others. An example of a common atypical expression of experience relates to the death of someone who has been ill for a long period of time. I, alongside many autistics have a gut reaction to this, which is a thankfulness that the dead person is no longer suffering. Psychologists have suggested to me, that my response is a compartmentalising of experience, but I do not agree. I am also a Buddhist and my faith does not see death as negative, more a release from the suffering of this life and a gateway to the next life. I digress, back to empathy.

I am MORE profoundly affected by the release from suffering than by the sadness of those who are grieving. I do know that the people grieving are sad and yet, my Aspie logic keeps kicking in, telling me that all of these other people must have known the person was going to die, after all, we all die, especially once we have been ill a long time, and therefore even though they are sad, they must feel some sense of relief. I know from experience that this is not the case! But I cannot change that my prominent response is to the longer term suffering having finally ended.

Another atypical expression, is that our responses to intense emotion (again our own or that of others) can be delayed by minutes, hours or days. We have the understanding of the other person’s feelings, but the effects so intense that we cannot process a response quickly. I have learnt a number of responses to a range of situations and can appear to have appropriate timely responses, but in reality my actual response is likely to happen a few hours later.

Most of the autistics I know are extremely kind and caring, and are able to express their thoughts and feelings and responses to others, whilst demonstrating understanding of others, in writing. In person we can seem a little stand-offish, but this is usually because we are processing. However, our empathy can be tempered with our often different system of prioritising. As with my priority of emotion following the death of a person who had been ill for a long time, we often analyse situations and this see them from several points of view. For example in a classroom, if a child (Jo) cries because another child (Bob) had taken their lunch, an autistic child may think any or all of the following:
– Taking others things is wrong, I must tell the teacher, they will make it better
– Jo will be hungry now, I could give them my lunch
– Bob must have not had any lunch of their own
– I could get the stolen lunch back because I saw where Bob put it
– Why are children so mean to each other?
– Jo looks really sad now

Their response will depend on which response they prioritised or processed first…. But their facial expression may not reflect their emotional state or expression. They may wail and howl or run off or do nothing, and their reaction can be and sadly often is misunderstood.

Autistic adults modify their reactions in public, where excitement for others could naturally be demonstrated by hand flapping or twirling, they make look uninterested , but from experience know that flapping and twirling are misunderstood and unappreciated by others, when really they are often a sharing if joy.