Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Autistic Empathy and Caring

A good number of us in the autistic communities have been shocked by an author alleging autistic people lack empathy.

This is one myth that is not only rubbish, but really damaging rubbish.

If anything, most of the autistic people I know have so much empathy for the pain and suffering of others that they barely know how to handle it.

Let's look at how that myth happened.  I am going to generalise.  Everyone is a little different.  These are examples.

Autistic People Cannot See if You Are Sad
Imagine you have a Blind friend and you sit on the sofa next to them, looking sad.   They don't notice.  Would you be tempted to say, "Gosh, you lack all empathy!".
And yet, non-autistic people may do that to us.
We can't see face expressions that clearly.  Nor can we hear voice tone very clearly.  Not in real life social situations we can't.
So...problem one - you're imagining we can see and hear those things, and we can't.

Solution - say how you feel.

Autistic People Need Thinking Time
Second dilemma - how to respond.  Our body language is different to yours.  Our face expressions are different.  Our voice tone is different.  And....we are on a time delay.   It may take a few minutes....or an hour...maybe a day or two....but all of a sudden, bingo, we've processed this.  Then, goodness me do we feel the empathy.   Yes, non-autistic brains can be much much faster at this.

A colleague of mine explains this.  She said a friend in the street told her that she'd just had a cancer diagnosis.  My colleague acknowledged this, and went home.   Having got home, realised what it meant, and then realised how her friend must be feeling.  Then, went to a shop, bought a big bunch of flowers, and went round to give the friend the flowers and be there for them.  Hugs, love, all the usual stuff.  It was a time delay.  That can happen.

Me, if I'm not totally 100% focusing, my face can be stuck on Wrong Expression.  I'm desperately listening for key words.  Anything that indicates sadness, pain, etc.  If I hear one, it's a race to make my face and words match what I feel inside.  It doesn't always work.  I'm trying to mimic what non-autistic people expect to see.   Inside, I feel their pain so intensely.  But I'm inside a body that naturally speaks a different body language.

Autistic People Display Different Behaviour in Response to Your Pain
In our own culture, it can be a sign of respect to not rush up to someone and hug them.
It can be sign of respect to not overload someone with eye contact.
It can be a sign of respect to not overload someone with words.
In other words, all our 'respect' signals look just like your 'couldn't care less' signals.  See the problem here?  We're misreading each other.

Ours is designed not to overload already-hot-brains.  So we try hard to keep each others' brains cool.  Low sensory stuff.   Very quiet.  Different to you.  Not lacking empathy.

Autistic People Do Social Justice
I am so honoured to work with autistic people who are so filled with love and caring.  Especially for big social justice projects.  A huge passionate interest in fairness, in equality, in justice.  So many work in caring professions, too.

Some Autistic People Don't Have Much Empathy
And that is true for some non-autistic people too.

That's the reality.

It is a huge shame that some professionals mistook our differences for a 'lack of empathy'.  It has been so damaging for autistic people.  We have so often ended up feared, shunned, hated, left without friendships and relationships, rights and good life outcomes.

The myths need to stop.

Help us stop them.  Next time you read something that portrays us all as non-empathetic monsters, challenge it, please. And get to know some of the fantastic autistic people, of all IQs, all abilities to communicate in words or otherwise, all genders and backgrounds and ages. 

Thank you for listening.

The picture shows a number of gemstone hearts of different sizes and colours, arranged on a black cloth.