Empathy and Autism

My thinking on this topic has changed since I last posted about Emma and Empathy over a year ago.  I am not convinced that Emma “has a terrible time figuring out what another person is thinking or feeling.”  Today that is not something I would say.  I often wonder if Emma feels things in the extreme rather than not at all.  I have read a great many articles written by people on the spectrum who describe their feelings and responses to other people’s emotions as being too much for them.

One young woman, Dora, says:  “I often feel things too deeply or have too much empathy and have to run away, not because I am callous, but because I feel so strongly it causes my brain to shut down or freak out.”    Her statement is similar to another woman with autism, who’s amazing mother, Clara Claiborne Park wrote two books about her daughter, Jessy.  She describes how Jessy would cover her ears and could not tolerate certain words because they were “too good”.

When one of us is upset and Emma appears to completely disregard our emotional state, whether by ignoring it or making sympathetic comments, which to our ears strikes us as insincere, I have to question whether our interpretation is accurate.  How can we know what she is really experiencing?  We cannot.    I choose to believe Emma is deeply sensitive to her  own and our emotions, but just as she has trouble expressing herself verbally, she may express her feelings differently as well.

Dora goes on to point out:  “The notion that we don’t have feelings frees up people to commit atrocities against us without accountability.”

When I hear neuro-typical people discussing autism I am often surprised by the conclusions they come to.  How differently might we treat someone if we believed them to be fundamentally unintelligent?  How would we speak to them?  What things would we say because we believed they have a low IQ, lack empathy, could not understand us?  How would we treat them as a direct result of our assumptions?   If we decide a child’s behavior is a form of manipulation or because the child is “spoiled” or because they “think they can get away with it”, do we not treat them differently?  Isn’t it true we can behave in some pretty horrific ways when we make assumptions about other’s actions?  Isn’t it easy to rationalize our behavior when we’ve decided a person or child is “dumb”, “less than”, “inferior”, cognitively unaware”?  And what if all those assumptions we’ve so quickly and easily come to are completely wrong?  How does our response stand up under further scrutiny?  Have we not behaved with callous disregard?  Have we not completely “disregarded” their “feelings”?

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and her relationship with her brother, Nic go to: www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma in Union Square Park – Summer, 2011

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