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Understanding Autistic Empathy

A black and white photograph of two children walking away from the camera, one with their arm around the other.

By Chris

This article is part of My Plan Manager’s guest blogger series.

There exists a widespread myth that Autistic people have no sense of empathy. There’s no one source to this myth as it is a complicated issue.

When I was young it was difficult to show emotions externally because I didn’t understand the situation I found myself in. As an adult, I now find it hard to stop my emotions from overwhelming me because I understand situations much better than I did when I was young.

My sense of empathy is so overwhelming that I literally cannot attend emotionally charged events because I can’t cope with the tide of emotions coming from everyone around me. Being bombarded with other people’s emotions threatens to throw me into a meltdown. I call this Empathic Overload. For those not familiar with Autism, imagine a nervous breakdown and then imagine it fifty times worse. Not fun at all.

So, lack of understanding of a situation, social or otherwise, is one reason Autistic people appear to have no empathy. But isn’t it true that things aren’t always as they appear?

Another matter that can cause an Autistic person not to show empathy outwardly is fear of how others might react to that empathy. For many of us, people not on the spectrum seem volatile and unpredictable, especially when strong emotions are involved, and that can make us uncomfortable showing our emotions. Having someone bite your head off when you are trying to be supportive is a traumatic and harmful experience for us and will generally lead us to avoid repeating that “mistake” with anyone else which compounds the appearance of Autistic people not being empathetic. Someone who has been through that can seem stuck in a single mode, thus the whole ‘robot’ perception – a cruel and inaccurate way of depicting any Autistic person.

Sometimes being blind-sided with something shocking, surprising, or horrible can cause Autistic people to have a massive surge of empathy which can overwhelm us causing us to seem unresponsive. This is because our brains are processing the experience and are unable to offer an emotional response. That doesn’t mean there IS no emotion going on in there.

I have personally had the experience of having a friend tell me about something horrible she went through. I was unable to respond because I was too shocked by what she had told me to be able to express my feelings on the outside. So it appeared that I didn’t feel anything at all when in fact all the feelings were crashing into each other. This made it impossible for my emotions to reach the surface. I was drowning in so many feelings it was like a million swimmers all pulling each other down to try and reach the surface. Sadly, because I couldn’t express my emotions externally, I lost her as a friend because she couldn’t see the internal turmoil.

So, just because we don’t respond in a way you recognise, don’t assume we aren’t empathising with you. We are, in our way, and we feel you.

Hi I’m Chris. I’m a 44 year old Autistic Person. Originally from California, I ran away to Australia as soon as I could. Raised in the country, life wasn’t easy with an invisible neurological difference especially when that difference wasn’t even widely known about. On top of that I didn’t even get a diagnosis until I was 39 years old. Looking back I now realise how miserable I was and how badly I was being treated by everyone. Looking forward I want to leave behind some small piece of myself that maybe, if I’m lucky, might make a positive impact.




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1 Comment
  1. Jessy Larwood

    Hi Chris – Interesting idea that you describe ‘Empathic Overload’ as “fifty times worse” than a ‘Nervous Breakdown’ … I’m Autistic too – and I’m UNsure if we’re using these terms ‘Empathic Overload’ and ‘nervous breakdown’ to mean the same things? … When my child comes into Centrelink with me and after an hour or so excuses themselves outside so they can pace and breath fresh air for a while (until they no-longer feel like they’re going to vomit) … THAT is what I’d describe as ‘Empathic Overload … where as for me the term ‘Nervous Breakdown’ is a word I’ve used to describe times in my life where I’ve been confined to bed, in the foetal position for weeks / months at a time and/or admitted to a Psych hospital because I just couldn’t function at all on the ‘outside’ … For me what I would call a ‘Nervous Breakdown’ is 50 x worse than ‘just’ Empathic overload – because in one situation I can remove myself and calm down – in the other one I spiral down and down and down into a state of near body and brain shut-down … I’m pretty sure the way you’re ‘defining’ / using those words is different?

My Plan Manager: NDIS Plan Management