Empathy, Imagination and Autism

Some excellent work has been done on empathy and autism. Damian Milton‘s ideas on The Double Empathy Problem are fascinating; recognising that it is as difficult for non-autistics to empathise with autistics, as it is for autistics to empathise with non-autistics.

It is finally being understood that many autistics don’t lack empathy, some may have more empathy than average, it’s just not shown in a non-autistic way. Autism doesn’t mean not feeling things deeply. It doesn’t mean not caring about others. We are not less human or less loving, we just show it in different ways.

The more time I spend on this Earth, the more I realise that true empathy needs an excellent imagination to go with it.

Growing up, people did not empathise with my sensory issues, because they could not imagine someone else feeling something they did not.

There have been times when friends have been blasé about something I’m hurt by, only to apologise later on in life when they have finally experienced the same, and can now understand my feelings. They were not able to imagine how it felt without direct experience.

Which is why people struggle to empathise with autistic people’s experience. They will never share those moments of complete sensory overload or social difficulties in the same way.

This is where analogies help to get across the experience, and where the label of autism helps explain why the experience is not the same as theirs.

If I were to say to someone that the label on the back of my t-shirt feels like a wire-brush circling my skin over and over and over, then they are more likely to dismiss me if they assume I share their neurotype. They don’t feel that, so why should I?

They search for other explanations to explain my statement away; I must be seeking attention, lying to make myself interesting (?), worried about something else but unable to express it.

With the label of autism people are more likely to accept differences in experience, and using physical comparisons they can understand, it may be possible to convey an idea of the truth.

Empathy is not an autistic problem, it’s a human problem, it’s a deficit in imagination. We all need to work on imagining things we have not been through.

We forget that our entire reality is created by our senses and how our brains interpret those senses. If we can imagine that perhaps your brain sees colours differently to mine, then maybe we can get a little closer to accepting just how differently we can each experience the exact same thing.

If we all worked a bit more on our imagination, and a bit less on our specific experiences, wouldn’t the world be a little brighter? Imagine that.

27 thoughts on “Empathy, Imagination and Autism

  1. I am hyper-imaginative (if that is a word..if not, I just made a new one). I also pick up on vocal inflection and can either interpret or misinterpret. I’ve read that females in general have more skill in this area. I have to be careful not to become enraptured in their world and invent a mental story that takes my attention away from them when they are talking, because I have mentally put myself in their shoes.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Reblogged this on Gedankenmuesli and commented:
    Ja, es benötigt Vorstellungskraft beim Versuch sich in Andere hinein zu verstetzen.
    Ich kann mich dabei nur Fragen:
    – Wie würde ich mich in dieser Situation fühlen?
    – Warum würde ich mich so verhalten?
    Inzwischen sind mir teilweise aber auch andere Gefühle in Situation X oder andere Gründe für solch ein Verhalten bekannt geworden; durch Austausch mit Anderen, durch lesen von Sach- als auch fiktionaler Literatur oder durch Fernsehsendungen. Dies hat meine Möglichkeit mich in andere “hinein zu versetzen” erweitert. Trotzdem liege ich regelmäßig falsch …

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you 😊

      No, because I’m not specifically talking about a lack of empathy. I don’t see levels of empathy as being linked to autism at all. Humanity is made up of people with varying levels of empathy, some have none, some only empathise with similar neurotypes, some have an excess and are able to empathise deeply, some feel it shallowly. You could say that empathy is a spectrum in itself. So when I speak of “empathy” I’m not speaking of “having empathy”, I’m covering all levels.

      Having empathy or not is not an autistic problem, perception of empathy, and listening and believing others’ experiences is the problem. Hope that explains my thinking!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, I think I understand. You are referring to the problems in any way connected to empathy, not empathy as a problem in it self (which I strongly believe it’s not), am I right?
    I been thinking about this. They say autistic people lack empathy, but they do not seem to want to hurt anyone. The psychopath, on the contrary seems to understand very well that he’s hurting someone, but he seems to either not care on even like it. They call that “lack of empathy” as well, although it’s obviously two very, very different things. Any thoughts?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, that’s it exactly.

      As I understand it, a psychopath is, by definition, someone without empathy.

      It seems to me that those who are talking about autistic people lacking empathy, aren’t linking the two.

      A psychopath has to learn that they are hurting someone on a cognitive level, rather than an emotional one. An autistic person is more likely to empathise on an emotional level, but not be able to show that in a way that someone else can understand as empathy. Very different things, which it’s right should not be conflated.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That means, as you say, that there’s a problem in calling them the same for sure. I’ve known some autistic people in my life. One was the ex girlfriend of a friend of mine. She was difficult to be with (I truly believe he is too, though :D) and she could say very hurtful things, but I don’t think she meant to. She was a good person. My friend knew her better than me, of course, and he consider her one of the biggest hearted people he’s known.
    Another autistic person I knew was on a totally different level. I took care of him a couple of times a week as a paid job, he was incapable of taking care of himself. He was very hard to connect with, and seldom used more than two words in a sentence. It seems to me that autism is more a question of connecting with other people than the empathy thing. It’s a problem of communication. Do you agree?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I think I do in general; I just don’t think that the communication problem is one sided.

      So in the example with the friend’s ex-girlfriend, it’s often said that autistic people say hurtful things. To actually work out if they do or not you need to look at the meaning and the interpretation. I am aware that neurotypical people often assign value to things that I see as neutral. For example being thin or fat; for me these are just things. They are not good or bad. If someone asked me if they looked fat, I know that social convention means they probably want me to say no regardless of what is “true”. If I were to say yes, then I would not be saying something bad, I would be being factual. There is no judgement from me. I don’t see it like that. Where is the mistake in communication? In me for saying something you take badly? Or in you for assigning a meaning that was never there? I think both sides are getting it wrong. It’s a mismatch. We just all need to adjust our expectations.

      Because I have learned how to communicate effectively with non-autistics, I know what to say, but non-autistics make no blooming sense to me 😄 they rarely communicate in the ways I would prefer. Sometimes I find speech harder, and have recently started using sign language in small doses at those times. It’s far easier, but most people won’t communicate like that.

      Ideally I would communicate with purpose only. I hate small talk, it’s hard work and pointless working out what you need from me, without any important factual information being shared. But I do it because others prefer it.

      Sometimes I think it would be much nicer if we could all meet in the middle a bit more with communication.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. Hmmm… a lot to ponder in all that. Plenty for me to self-reflect on and wonder about. For me empathy is a very tricky game. I have a huge imagination in the directions that I have it. Sometimes I perceive far more than the speaker means to reveal or may even be aware of. Other times I miss the most obvious not directly stated items. Then there’s the how does it emotionally impact me. And then the consideration of what response I’m going to make. And it all goes so quickly. Now that I’m 51, I’m more practiced at expressing the ‘right’ emotion at the ‘appropriate’ level. But I can easily get swamped by empathizing too deeply and the originator feels put out by my level of emotion. It’s been a lot of training of how to fit in to a world of neurotypicals many of whom still consider me developmentally disabled in my emotional responses, because I don’t let on that I’m spectrum and usually don’t trust others with that info. It’s safer to let them assume, and for me just to keep learning.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I recognise myself a lot in what you describe. Especially the sometimes seeing far more, and (often simultaneously) missing the obvious. Empathy can be overwhelming and that can mean an “incorrect” response.

      Learning is all any of us can do 🙂


  6. heidimorein.wordpress.com
    Raised by Asperger’s

    I’d like to know what you think, and perhaps one day we can “dialogue” a bit.

    Thanks so much for this piece, I’m saving it on my iPad.

    Liked by 1 person

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