Hello! Every week I will be doing:
(1) a monkey bars post where my main goal is to provide tips to us on the spectrum on how to deal with certain situations.
(2) a Peek Inside post geared more towards typically functioning for peeks inside a spectrum brain.
This post is my first in the “peek inside” series. Enjoy! 🙂
People with autism often are said to have no empathy. I disagree. It’s the opposite. We feel too much because we feel everything all at once and as a result cannot distinguish which feeling should be placed in each situation.
Because I feel and experience so much all at the same time I don’t know what particular emotion I would experience in a situation I have not experienced myself. Now, with regular empathy people draw off the emotions they know and have felt. They know intuitively which one they would feel in the other person’s situation even if they have not been in it and can empathize.
I think that I feel differently in situations and that is why I cannot empathize. If people with autism ask questions about why or how you are feeling a certain way, it is not because they are being mean. It is because we are trying to sort through which emotion to place in the scenario.
For example, have you ever witnessed a great historical tragedy so big on the news that you don’t even begin to know how to feel or process it? That is how I feel with every unfamiliar emotional scenario. It’s not that I cannot understand the emotions…it’s that I experience so many emotions that I have no idea which particular one the person in front of me is feeling. In reality, a typical brain is likely only experiencing one basic emotion for a certain situation. But for me, I have no way to know which one since my own emotional range is unpredictable and they usually all flood in at once. I then internally filter through the onslaught and assign the appropriate reaction to my situation.
Here’s an example. I remember very well in kindergarten I used to stick my tongue out at people to see what emotion it would illicit. Does my action cause anger? Happiness? I had no idea until I tried it…because I cannot know intuitively since I cannot read nonverbal behaviors. For me, someone sticking out their tongue would cause no emotional response because I did not know to assign a social emotional value to this nonverbal act. To me, it was meaningless. So, there was no way for me to empathize in that situation because my emotional response would be nothing, which is completely different from everyone else’s. You cannot properly empathize when the emotions you experience in each situation are not uniform and the same as everyone else’s. Our emotional experience is different and therefore we have to learn to understand why certain nonverbal things would upset people. Because it naturally does not upset us.
So I reject the theory that we cannot empathize. We empathize on a different plane.
I think we have a different emotional experience and are a different emotional plane. This causes it to appear that we do not empathize when in reality all that’s happening is a disconnect between two ways of processing. Everything else about our way of processing is different, this is too. I once saw a video that described it as we are a Mac and typically functioning are a PC. The brains process differently, neither processor is wrong just different. However, the viruses and computer problems a Mac encounters are usually not the same as a PC. Same goes for emotions in the different brains. As I said in the beginning, we feel too much externally, and do not know which one you may be feeling as a result because we feel it all and constantly are filtering through all the emotions. All the time. Or on the flip side we do not know what you are feeling because we ourselves don’t have emotional responses to a nonverbal cue.
How can I help? If you are a typically functioning person the greatest way you can help is to explain your emotions and why you feel them in the situation you are in. Maybe even relate it to a time we felt that way so we can see the connection. You can also cue us by saying you think a certain person may be feeling sad because of something that happened and suggest a way for us to reach out to them. Because we don’t know which emotion people are feeling, I know that I become uncertain of the best way to support someone and make them feel validated because I do not know what would help me in a situation I have not experienced. Again, it is because my emotional response patterns are unpredictable to me. Use gentle cues to guide us in the right direction as to which emotional response a person may be feeling that we did not notice and be approachable when we ask questions about what you are feeling. We mean well I promise 🙂