How Do I Feel About Empathy?

‘Aspergers have no empathy’.  Of course, I understand this statement is an over-simplification of much data and some consistent patterns, and I use it here for dramatic affect.  This dangerous statement has been reinforced in clinical diagnostic attitudes, misconstrued via public stupidity and perpetuated as meaning ‘All autistic people, especially those ‘with’ Aspergers, are insensitive, heartless, and have no ability to feel emotion’.

The first time I came across this diagnostic misconception, and the gross misinformation it spawned, I had an intense reaction of disbelief – that is, I knew it didn’t describe me at all.  Amplified emotional sensitivity has been a core feature of my entire lived experience, shaping my relationships, my perceptions, my mental health, my creative work and my years as a teacher….my capacity to feel intensely has been fundamental to my being, whether creative or destructive. 

As I further investigated this particular point (‘Aspergers have no empathy’), it became evident that, actually:

  • Some autistic people do not seem to access emotional processing of any kind due to differences in their neurological structure.
  • Some autistic people do not access emotional processing in relation to other humans, but definitely experience emotion in relation to animals, nature, certain inanimate objects or even conceptual frameworks such as moral injustice.
  • Some autistic people are not perceived as accessing emotion because it isn’t expressed outwardly via any obvious physical expression, or any physical expression that fits a non-autistic recognition of ’emotional expression’.  Meanwhile, these autistic people may be experiencing a great degree of emotion internally.
  • Some autistic people experience intense emotional sensation, but have not developed an emotional vocabulary to describe it in words.
  • Some autistic people experience an emotional sensation so intensely that they become adrenalised, cannot sequence their thoughts enough to describe the emotion even if they have the vocabulary, and subsequently experience sensory overload.
  • Some autistic people experience so many (often-conflicting) emotional sensations simultaneously that they cannot sequence their thoughts enough to describe the emotion even if they have the vocabulary, and so experience sensory overload.
  • Some autistic people experience emotional sensation in ways that have no adequate human language description.

I know for myself that if I’m feeling under threat, confused, criticised, upset or angry, or even feeling certain ‘positive’ emotions, I am so hyper-aware of my internal state – the electrical activations in my nervous system – that it’s often difficult for me to find energy or focus enough to generate a physically outward expression.  I am just too immersed in / overwhelmed by the intensity of what I’m experiencing within my own nervous system to translate it into, for instance, a facial expression. 

Amplified sensory sensitivity is a core feature of autism, a result of complex interconnections within the brain, and can be experienced in a myriad of ways.  The brain and nervous system are constantly scanning microsignals in the environment – sensory information – as a matter of survival.  A brain with greater interconnectivity is more likely to notice very subtle sensory (or extra-sensory) input, will translate the input into a wider range of survival-based interpretations, and (eg in the case of anxiety) anticipate a more complex array of potential outcomes.

This processing all occurs at inconceivable speeds, causing the brain to release chemicals into the nervous system almost instantaneously, which most of us experience as physical sensations in the body. With the gradual development of language over millennia, we have come to categorise these chemically-induced bodily sensations as human ’emotions’.   Based on cultural language-symbols (‘happy’, ‘sad’ etc) , we assume shared meaning as a matter of survival, but these assumptions have become so generic and stereotypical that many people have no vocabulary (or even awareness) of the many subtle and complex interactions of ’emotion’ in their own body, let alone anyone else’s.

For example, if my partner approaches me in an angry state (whether she is expressing it directly or not), I’m feeling first the impact of her own emotional intensity (danger signals), then trying to cognitively separate that intensity from my own feelings of being under threat (fight and flight), trying to ascertain if her anger is directed at me, feeling the pressure of her expecting a somehow appropriate response that validates her feeling, being so adrenalised that I can’t focus my thoughts clearly, and any number of other competing thought processes occurring simultaneously (self-criticism, knowing what I want to be able to say but not accessing the words, hating myself, wishing she were able to understand without me having to explain, knowing how impossible it is to explain the entirety of what I feel, feeling unnecessarily responsible or guilty, feeling innocent, feeling misunderstood etc etc).  This is a barrage of cognitive processing in a compressed timeframe, in a situation demanding an immediate response.

This is not an absence of feeling!  Nor is it an inability to feel what the other person is feeling!  I would suggest it is a hyper-ability, a hyper-awareness of all sensory inputs.

The more I encountered complaints of ‘lack of empathy’ in non-autistic perceptions of autism, the more I disagreed with the whole conversation.  As far as I can see, ’empathy’ has come to describe a rather selfish expectation that someone else automatically ‘feel what you feel’ and feed it back to you in order to satisfy some need or insecurity in oneself.  Like the similarly unrealistic expectations of ‘theory of mind’ as a normative behavioural index, ’empathy’ appears to be another one of many non-autistic hypocrisies. I could see little evidence of non-autistics making an effort to demonstrate their own so-called ’empathy’ in order to understand what autistic people actually feel.  Later I was very happy to discover the work of autistic researcher Dr Damian Milton, who addresses this very problem in his ‘Double Empathy’ model, in which he makes the point that responsibility in any interaction goes both ways.

Long before I discovered I was on the spectrum, I had also developed another perspective: I had stopped thinking in terms of ’empathy’, and felt more comfortable reframing it as a matter of ‘compassionate intelligence’.  Drawing on various techniques and methodologies that focused on emotional awareness, heartful detachment, and being authentically present, I developed my own active practice around emotional attunement with others.  This included learning to listen without judgment, asking clarifying questions, maintaining presence of mind and an attitude of simply allowing the other person to experience their own feelings, without feeling compelled to intervene or even respond.

While it may seem aloof or insensitive to someone accustomed to being automatically comforted when they are distressed, the kind of ‘compassionate intelligence’ described by experiential psychologies such as Buddhism, shamanism and Tantra, is intended as loving respect for the person’s experience; intervention might distract the individual from the full feeling and perhaps learning to be gained in their process.

In my experience, this healthy detachment has nothing to do with absence of emotion, and everything to do with experiencing emotion in its fullness without clinging, knowing it will pass just like any other event in the nervous system.  I’m certainly not suggesting I’m able to maintain this equanimous state in every context, and there are also times when I yearn for someone to feel what I feel, but I exercise ‘compassionate intelligence’, to the best of my abilities, as a practice for living mindfully. The more we recognise emotion as a passing energetic event in our nervous system, the easier it becomes to allow the feeling to run its course, and the less likely we are to remain tangled up in anxious thoughts or stories of the mind.