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Empathy and autism explained

Discussion in 'General Autism Discussion' started by Kalinychta, Oct 10, 2019.

  1. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    I read a fantastic article about empathy and autism the other day that I thought I’d share here since empathy is so often misunderstood, especially when it comes to autism. There are three types of empathy: affective, cognitive, and compassionate. I copied most of the article below, but there is more to read if you’re interested (see the link).

    Autistic people & empathy: what’s the real story?

    Affective Empathy

    This is an unconscious, automatic response allowing you to feel what other people (and other living beings) are feeling, and is absolutely not something autistic people lack.

    For example, it’s very common to find people on the spectrum who feel intensely connected to all species of animals, birds, insects etc. and the bonds they form – with creatures who live free from the endless restrictions of human social rules – can be quite extraordinary.

    In the case of affective empathy, rather than having too little, autistic people can often have way too much – a condition known as ‘hyper-empathy.’

    Hyper-empathic people find that even the thought of anyone or anything suffering causes them intense emotional, psychological and often physical pain. They can be highly sensitive to any changes in atmospheres, picking up on the slightest tension between people, and becoming more and more upset as they anticipate things escalating.

    Since processing these powerful feelings can be really hard for them, they’ll often withdraw or go into meltdown over something that’s perfectly valid to them, yet a complete mystery to those around them.

    Another way this shows itself is in the extreme personification of objects: forming deep emotional bonds with everyday items like pencils or rubber bands.

    There are many examples of personification in the language we use every day (time waits for no-one/the camera loves her etc.) and also in our culture, with films such as Beauty and the Beast being very much enhanced by its singing, dancing, emoting kitchenware, but what I’m describing here is something much more overwhelming. Autistic people can become extremely upset if they feel, for example, that a specific crayon or hairbrush isn’t being used as often as the others, because it might be feeling left out. I can imagine how that sounds to anyone who’s unfamiliar with autism, but believe me, to many, many autistic people, this really does make perfect sense.

    Cognitive Empathy

    This is the largely conscious ability to work out what other people are thinking or feeling, and because human beings are so endlessly complex, if you’re not naturally wired to understand the process, it can be really, really difficult to learn. Cognitive empathy is an intricate thought process allowing you to grasp what people really mean when they say something vague, or which emotions they’re feeling when they behave in a way you find confusing. It’s something most neurotypical people pick up very quickly, and most autistic people have to work really hard at.

    Anyone who lives with autism (whether they’re autistic themselves or are in close contact with an autistic person) will recognise how difficult it can be for people on the spectrum to guess other people’s behaviours and intentions without very precise instructions. In other words, it really helps to say exactly what you mean when you talk to autistic people, because they just don’t get the concept of ‘implied.’

    A perfect example of this happened in here recently, when my youngest son’s girlfriend told him ‘I’ve just left work; meet me at the end of the road.’ Now, it was clearly implied that since she’d just stepped out of the office, she wanted to meet him at the end of the road she works on, but since Aidan doesn’t do ‘implied,’ there she stood, more than twenty minutes later, still waiting for him to arrive.

    Aidan, meanwhile, was waiting at the end of the road where she lives, which seemed to him to be the most logical road to meet on, since they’d met there several times before. Not specifying a particular road when talking to an autistic person is what we call in here a ‘rookie mistake!’

    There are a couple of terms relating to this that you’ve probably come across if you’re part of the autism community: The ability to consciously recognise what other people are thinking and feeling is known as ‘the Theory of Mind’ (usually abbreviated to ToM); while being unable to do this is known as ‘Mind-blindness’. Mind-blindness is one of the most common traits a health professional will look for during an autism diagnosis, and its effects very much work both ways.

    Autistic people will often assume everyone has the same views and understanding of the world as they do, as well as the same passions and interests. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the seemingly endless discussions about special interests which are a direct result of this trait.

    They’ll also believe that if they’re aware of something, other people must be too, and this can lead to all kinds of problems. When my son Dominic was young he almost died of acute double pneumonia because he didn’t tell us he was in agonising pain whenever he coughed. Devastated, I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned it to me, and he said simply ‘I thought you knew.’

    Compassionate Empathy

    This is both the understanding of another being’s situation, and the motivation to help them if they’re in some sort of trouble. Once again, autistic people have no shortage of this kind of empathy, even though they can sometimes struggle when it comes to offering the right kind of help.

    Many people on the spectrum are hugely motivated when standing up against what they consider to be injustice, and you’ll find some of the most passionate voices in the struggle for equality, animal rights and a cleaner environment are the autistic ones.

    Autistic people see far less boundaries than neurotypical people do, which is a really positive trait when it’s applied to finding new solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Conversely there are many challenges for autistic people to master when it comes to giving and receiving emotional support, as they tend to struggle quite a lot with social boundaries.

    Autistic people often don’t like to hug, or they hug too tightly, which is a natural way for neurotypical people to show empathy towards each other, and this definitely adds to the misconception that they’re unfeeling and lack the capacity to love. Putting your arm around someone’s shoulder or your hand on their arm when they’re sad are both automatic gestures for neurotypical people to make, but can be incredibly confusing for autistic people who have difficulty picking up social cues about how much physical contact is appropriate in each particular situation.

    When you’re autistic, joyous occasions such as birthday parties and weddings can be just as difficult to navigate as the more emotionally draining events like funerals. Understanding why it’s important to ‘say the right thing at the right time’ can be very confusing, leading to all sorts of mix-ups, but autistic people really do care, and are genuinely trying their best to be supportive, even when they get things wrong.
     
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  2. Pats

    Pats Well-Known Member V.I.P Member

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    I love this - thanks for sharing it.
    I thought it was humorous reading about personifications - still I can not work a jigsaw puzzle and have a single piece be the last piece alone. Not fair for that piece. lol
     
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  3. BrokenBoy

    BrokenBoy 戯言使い(Nonsense User)

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    Why don't I feel affective empathy most of the time?
     
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  4. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    Can you explain a little more about why you think you don’t feel it?
     
  5. BrokenBoy

    BrokenBoy 戯言使い(Nonsense User)

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    I just don't really care about the suffering and pain of others and I tend to primarily focus on myself unless I can get a material reward out of pretending to care. If anything, I like the pain of others because I often think it's hilarious and it feels good to indulge in others suffering.
     
  6. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    Have you been evaluated for antisocial personality disorder? What you’re describing would be very rare in an autistic person (have you been formally diagnosed with autism?) but common in someone on the antisocial personality spectrum.

    It might be helpful for you to speak with a counselor about your feelings. I’m sure they’d be really helpful to you and understanding.
     
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  7. Progster

    Progster Gone sideways to the sun V.I.P Member

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    I don't literally feel affective empathy as is implied here; it's not that I don't feel empathy, but it needs to have been part of my own personal experience before I can know what it feels like. So if someone is sad over a famous person who I have no connection dying, I don't automatically feel sad just because they do, but if it is over a person that I knew well and was close to, then I might feel their sadness. If a person is getting stressed out and upset, if will affect me, because it becomes overwhelming to deal with their emotions and usually there's nothing I can do to help beyond giving practical advice.
    This is a miscommunication on the part of the girlfriend, and I think that, given that he normally meets her at a certain place, then it is natural to assume that this is where she wants him to meet her. I think that anyone would likely misunderstand her, not just autistic people. People are often not precise enough in their communication, and it's not always the fault of autism that a person misunderstands. People are often poor communicators.
     
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  8. SusanLR

    SusanLR Well-Known Member

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    Affective empathy seems lacking in me also.
    I don't automatically feel some emotional or physical pain when I see others in said pain.
    If it is someone I am close to emotionally then I do feel a response to seeing or knowing they are
    hurting in some way. And it needs to be something I can relate too.

    This article explains the three types of empathy as I have come to understand it from reading
    about them and a little more in depth than others.

    Miscommunication is another difficult one for me.
    I take everything so literal. As it says, implied is hard to get.
    I didn't think implied communication and understanding were an empathy.
    But, cognitive empathy, I thought was knowing how other people are affected emotionally
    or physically from various experiences even if it doesn't create the same feelings in yourself.

    Antisocial personality can co-exist with autism.
    A therapist would be a good person to examine these questions with.
    It would be a co-morbid personality disorder.
     
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  9. SDRSpark

    SDRSpark Well-Known Member V.I.P Member

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    Thanks so much for posting this!!! It really put into context something that I've struggled to understand. I have a real hard time with cognitive empathy but I seem to have "too much" of some of the others (I really relate to the part about feeling empathy for inanimate objects for example!). I also really struggle with knowing how much physical contact is appropriate.
     
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  10. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    It sounds like you might actually be hyper-empathetic. I would only feel a little bad for someone who was sad over a famous person dying unless they were crying and truly devastated because that person had meant a great deal to them. I would feel deeply sad for them and with them, and their despair would likely haunt me for at least the rest of the day or even several days.

    Last week I read about a man who had been eaten by a bear. The thought of the terror and pain he must have felt kept me from sleeping the night I read it. I felt intensely, horribly sad for him and like my whole body was pulsating with anxiety and dread. It took me about two days to really calm down. I spent a lot more time than usual rocking with all the lights off to try to calm myself. That's hyper-empathy.
     
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  11. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    I think somewhere in the original article the author explains that autistic people typically either experience affective and compassionate empathies normally (as in, the same way non-autistic people do) or we experience them to a much greater degree. So it sounds like you just have normal affective and compassionate empathies.

    I struggle with "implied" a lot, too. The example in the article of the girlfriend expecting that her boyfriend would understand that she meant to meet him at the end of the street...yeah, I would have had a storm of questions for her. Non-autistic people seem to just get it. I don't. I would have needed the girl to say this: meet me at the end of the street I work on, at the corner of Alberta Street and 14th Avenue, on the right side of the street, right at the same corner where the 7-Eleven is, and stand on the sidewalk right next to the stop sign. I need extremely specific and detailed instructions, or I won't understand.
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2019
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  12. Kalinychta

    Kalinychta Well-Known Member

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    I've struggled with hyper-empathy all my life and had no idea it was caused by autism. I cry a lot, and I spend a lot of time rocking back and forth to calm myself when I've seen or heard about someone suffering, especially animals and children. It's good to know that others (like you) can relate! Autistic people pretty much by definition experience things more intensely than regular people to the point of discomfort or even meltdown e.g. sights, sounds, textures, etc. so it's no wonder that emotional empathy can be hyper-affected, too.
     
    Last edited: Oct 11, 2019
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  13. SDRSpark

    SDRSpark Well-Known Member V.I.P Member

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    I had to run off to work yesterday and didn't have time to read some of the replies.

    Same. I really didn't have that much empathy as a child. I turned out to be a good person, full of love and compassion despite not having much empathy as a child. I had to learn empathy. As such I often question if what I feel is true empathy, or not. I have always thought real empathy is innate.

    If someone I'm close too is hurt, I have a tendency to have over-the-top reactions but otherwise, I just feel vaguely uncomfortable because I know I'm expected to say or do something, but I don't feel like I can "perform".

    I'm much more prone to anger on others' behalf (RAGE against injustice) than I am to feel sadness on their behalf. I'll hear about something on the news and be absolutely livid at the perpetrator, but not sad for the victim.

    Yep. Sometimes it's not autism, just really poor communication. Neurotypicals aren't psychic after all.

    Same. I have a decades long "bank of experiences" to draw from which means I at least pass as being highly empathic now.
     
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