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.