empathy and autism

In this post, we’ll be talking about empathy and autism.

It is commonly thought that people on the Autism spectrum can’t or don’t empathise.

I’d like to challenge that from a couple of different angles.

First, from personal experience.

Second, from the “systems” perspective I’ve read in Paxton and Estay’s book on Counselling people on the Spectrum.

And thirdly, I’d like to talk about and what I call “permeability“.

I’ve worked with people with Autism for the past 11 years.

Each individual is different – as we all are – and has different abilities and personalities which make them unique and great to be around.

I’ve had empathy from autistic people I’ve supported, so I know that I can challenge this from personal experience.

A pat on the back when I seem sad.

An attempt to make me laugh when someone has angered me.

Laughing at something funny we both happen to see at the same time, and knowing we are both laughing at that exact same thing.

Whether it’s “mainstream” empathy or not, does it really matter?

The general definition of empathy is to have the ability to identify someone else’s emotions or thoughts and respond appropriately.

Don’t the few examples I mentioned above fit into this?

I think they do.


I thank those people that have changed my life and enlightened me through their particular ways of being, and approaches to life and relationships.

Point two – Paxton and Estay suggest that autistic empathy is more about systems than what we usually recognise within ourselves when we feel empathy towards another person.

They say that “systemizing is described as the ability to understand and build systems, and predict how a system will perform given certain conditions. Systems can be mechanical, natural, envorinmental, technical, abstract or taxonomic. they do not include human systems – family, office.”

I agree with this, as I’ve challenged clients on the spectrum before with things such as:

“Well you say that when someone has their arms folded, it means that they’re being defensive. This might be the case some of the time. Other times I might fold my arms because I’m cold or I’m thinking and this helps me think.”

I work with people on the spectrum in a similar way that I would with anybody else, as you can see from that verbatim above. I challenge views and allow for space to think about alternatives.

In the case of someone on the spectrum, even more sensitivity needs to be used, as it has taken the individual quite a lot of time and effort to come to this conclusion.

It is by no means a wrong conclusion.

It might just be incomplete, and my job as their counsellor would be to fill in the gaps, so that their empathic system has even more options and alternatives of what someone’s behaviour – i.e. folding their arms – might mean, and therefore allow even more responses – i.e. being defensive back or offering a blanket!

Systems help people function.

They help people empathise in a particularly clever way.

Whether someone on the spectrum empathises with you in the more “traditional” way or via the systems they’ve built, they are still being empathic towards you.

Let’s talk hyper-empathy or what I call “permeability”.

In my work with autistic people, we’ve come to the conclusion that the reason for emotional overload or feeling overwhelmed in a room full of people, might be due to hyper-empathy, or having too much empathy.

Of course there are other issues like sensory overload – the noise, the lighting, and other things that might affect an autistic person differently or that they might notice more than a neurotypical person might.

I’ve called this “permeability”, but the official term seems to be hyper-empathy.

Having too much empathy, being extremely permeable can cause someone to shut down or get overwhelmed and react in ways that seem non-caring towards others.

But how would you protect yourself from all these emotions, stimuli, coming at you from all directions of the room?

Retreating might be a response. But that doesn’t mean lack of empathy or understanding. It means the person is over-stimulated with others’ emotions and needs to ground themselves again, to be able to keep interacting.

To sum up, when it comes to autism and empathy, there are many avenues to explore. We can’t keep saying “autistic people can’t empathise” because it’s not true.

Understanding how different someone’s processing of emotions and their environment might be, will help us be more empathetic to everyone around us.

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Empathy and Autism

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