“You don’t have empathy,” a friend told me during college. “You just don’t get it.”
I wasn’t sure exactly what I was supposed to be getting at the time, but I also knew my friend was wrong. But at the same time, I didn’t know what to tell her.
To me, empathy is still one of the more difficult to understand aspects of autism and life. Many people have heard the stereotype that people with autism don’t have empathy. I think that this is true, in that they don’t experience empathy in the same way neurotypicals experience empathy. And that can be frustrating, because empathy is often a foundational aspect of friendship. It’s definitely one of many obstacles to making friends for the typical person with autism.
But I do think I experience empathy in my own way. It’s rarely a healthy way though. When my friend tells me something bad is going on in their life, I do care about them and I’ve learned how to express those feelings. Fundamentally that is what empathy is: learning to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. Inside though, I’m conflicted and torn. “How can I possibly be sorry in a true and adequate way for this person’s child being sick when I don’t have kids? That is a feeling I literally can’t relate to, so how do I show this person that I care?” That is where things begin to not compute for me.
There are also times when I get so overwhelmed with empathy for a certain situation I just withdraw. I think funerals are the best example of this. As a churchgoing person, I respect funerals as a celebration of a person’s life through a ceremonial process. But actually going to them is rough for me. Crying loudly and publicly in front of other people does nothing to help my grief, so I don’t understand how it helps other people’s grief. It feels like funerals in a way are designed for people who are grieving to at least feel like they are not grieving alone. But that is something that is just different for me. My black-and-white brain accepts death as a black-and-white thing. It is nice to have comfort from friends during hard times, because losing a person is still a very difficult thing to wrap my brain around. But it’s not something I need to accept their death. One thing I still know was a bit unusual was in 2010 when I accepted my mom’s death very quickly after her cancer diagnosis and spent the last two months of her life detaching from the rest of my family and her because I couldn’t understand their feelings, their anger, or their sadness and that was difficult for me. I know this detachment upset family members at times. It was something, however, that I did not know how to change.
Another way in which I have a difficult time showing empathy is with facial expressions. I literally am incapable of making my face show an expression I am not currently feeling at the time, other than maybe a small smile for pictures. But I certainly can’t make it frown or look upset, and those “pose and make a funny face for the camera” pictures are always lost on me. I feel like sometimes that is another way in which I struggle to relate to others, and that sometimes my face is supposed to be showing something that it just isn’t. It’s another part of language that is foreign to me.
A lot of what I write is designed to help people with autism find their way in the world and relate to people who are different from them. But there are some fundamental blocks that are pretty large, where it feels like we are speaking a different language, and this is one for me. I hope as the number of diagnoses for people with autism continues to increase, we develop an understanding of how to deal with this. Not being able to understand and see people in the way they want to be seen when they are upset is something that is very difficult for me. I love the feeling of friendship, of building something special that makes me feel good based on common interests and feelings, and it is hard when there is a point where that back-and-forth transfer of feelings becomes blocked.
In a sense, empathy is like another language to me. It is kind of like touching is another language, although that is mostly easier for me to deal with.
I don’t understand how to touch people in a way that makes them feel comfortable, or when it’s appropriate to offer a hug or when it’s not, so I just don’t do it. In a sense, COVID has been a relief because I’ve found that, even in 2022, while people have finally begun to touch each other again, they still are touching each other way less than they were before, so it’s one other way communication is easier for me now than it was then. But as you might imagine, it has left me wanting in relationships, because it’s one area that I just choose not to engage in. Empathy is kind of like that, except I can’t choose not to engage in empathy. I just have to accept that my way of feeling empathy is different, be confident that my feelings are valid, and learn how to show those feelings in the correct way, even though it is something that doesn’t come naturally to me and feels like another language. However, making an effort to show empathy is very important because it can be very upsetting when you don’t.
I hope this has helped shine a light on how difficult relating to others truly can be. There are so many things as an autistic person where it’s easy to go, “Wow, I need to learn how to do this, let me just do x, y, and z, and then I can at least do a reasonable job of getting by.” This isn’t really one of those things. The next time you’re wondering why a neurodivergent person in your life isn’t feeling the emotions you want yourself to feel, ask yourself why you’re trying to control their emotions, and remember, some things are just like speaking a different language.