Do you have autism? Have you learned other kinds of empathy?
April 25, 2021 9:47 AM   Subscribe

I've recently (like, in the last week-ish) realized I'm probably pretty firmly on the autism spectrum. This has come up because of problems in my relationship, and I've found some things that really, keenly describe those problems: my partner needs a certain kind of empathy from me, and I don't know if I ever feel it. If you're an autistic person in a relationship with someone allistic, have you been able to learn this? How long did it take? What was involved?

I say a "certain kind" because the articles I've been reading can't quite seem to settle on the specific sort of empathy that people with autism tend to lack. It seems sometimes they call out cognitive as the missing thing, and sometimes compassionate. For me, it specifically seems to be compassionate empathy, but I'm still navigating this and learning a lot of new concepts and vocabulary, so I'm not 100% sure that's the term I'm looking for.

I'm really struggling to understand if this empathy-lack is hardwired, if this is something I CAN'T do, or just something that will be a lot harder for me to do. I was absolutely floored to read about other types of empathy -- I thought cognitive empathy WAS empathy.

I'd really appreciate personal stories -- either yours, or if you know some good articles/books written by autistic people on this subject. I'm not looking for relentless positivity, so if the stories don't have happy endings, that's okay. I'm re-contextualizing everything in my life and just looking for some facts to build off of.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm autistic (I've known for only about a year) and I guess I have some thoughts about this, though I feel like I'm still in the early stages of learning.

I think there are two kinds of empathy that I experience: (1) where I imagine how I would have felt if I were in the same situation as the other person, aided by my very strong imagination as well as referencing my memories of somewhat-similar situations that I have actually been in; and (2) what I've seen described as hyper-empathy [some but not all autistic people have this] where I directly absorb the emotions of another person, without necessarily being able to put names to them or know what to do about them; this can be overwhelming and can sometimes lead me to (mentally or physically) "run away" to avoid "drowning" in the other person's distress (which I guess could read as a lack of empathy, when really it's too much empathy). #2 is especially awkward when I pick up an emotion that the other person is trying to hide, and I think being punished and/or gaslit for doing this has made me both doubt my impressions and be afraid of responding because I don't know whether I'm "supposed" to be able to detect the other person's emotion.

Separate from this is my outward response to the other person that comes as a result of my internal experience of empathy. I suspect that in many cases I have "failed" to express empathy "properly" because, while I felt it strongly, I didn't know what would be an appropriate way to express it and was afraid of crossing the other person's boundaries inappropriately. This isn't an issue with my partner because we know each other very well. I kind of suspect that neurotypical researchers don't know the difference between "feeling empathy" and "expressing empathy" and hence jump to the conclusion that autistic people don't feel empathy when in fact their subjects just aren't expressing empathy in a neurotypical way.

There's a third possibility here and that is that you're not picking up on the nonverbal cues that your partner uses to signal their emotions, and that if you did, you would have no problem fully feeling the empathy and expressing it in a way that your partner is able to receive.

It may be worth having a detailed conversation with your partner to try to find out in which of the three links in this chain the disconnect is happening. It would be best to do this when neither of you is in distress! All autistic people are different (the famous "spiky profile", or the saying "if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person"), so you will probably have to pick apart which of these various possibilities applies to you and your relationship with your partner specifically.
posted by heatherlogan at 10:09 AM on April 25, 2021 [13 favorites]

One other thing I wanted to add, since you specifically write about cognitive empathy versus compassionate empathy (to be honest, this is the first time I've heard those terms, so I'm guessing what they mean by their names): I find that I can use language, OR feel emotions, and it's very difficult for me to do both at the same time. If I need to talk, I compartmentalize/dissociate my emotional part. So expressing my emotions, or even putting them into words, is a very challenging and slow process for me, which I cannot do "live" while in a conversation with another person. So this is another possibility for where the disconnect might be happening. (Again, you may be different, but here's a data point at least.)
posted by heatherlogan at 10:16 AM on April 25, 2021 [10 favorites]

I'm really struggling to understand if this empathy-lack is hardwired, if this is something I CAN'T do, or just something that will be a lot harder for me to do.

You don't make a distinction between feeling & doing here, but what you do when someone is upset is far more important than what you feel. Can you recognize when your partner is upset, and try to understand why? "Recognize when someone needs comfort & administer comfort protocol" is something I consciously learned how to do. Actually I know exactly when I learned it. My hubby was in the ER and having a hard time. I was standing there panicking because I felt so bad that he was having a hard time but the awareness that there was something I should be doing was not there. A nurse looked at me & pointed at him and said HUG HIM. I was like OH! Of course! It seemed so obvious and so right once she said that but for whatever reason I needed it to be said. Now I do it all the time! So that's why I think what you do matters more than what you feel, cause you can feel bad for someone inside but the only way to help someone is to understand what they need & then carry it out.
posted by bleep at 10:29 AM on April 25, 2021 [20 favorites]

Did you see this recent post on the blue?
posted by oceano at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

I have learned empathy in two ways. The way I became aware of "felt" empathy was during use of LSD in my teens. I felt the powerful feeling of connectedness that is necessary for me to really feel the emotions of and empathize with the feelings of other people. Listening to music on acid boosted my ability to feel that has lasted all my life. When I need to empathize with other people, I can play music and get the real feelings I need to communicate. I'm now in my sixties and I still depend on music to show me the way.

Then there is expressed empathy, which I have consciously studied. I have a few friends that are naturally quite empathic and know how to connect gracefully to other people. I have studied the words that they use, the expressions on their faces, their gestures and eye contact. I approach it like I'm an actor studying a role and then "acting empathetic". With enough years practice, my act is well played and most people are never aware that I don't exactly feel it. It's not to say that I don't care about their feelings, I just don't naturally express the cues that I care.

For example, I made a New Year's resolution to learn how to hug people in a natural looking way. I patterned the style of hugging on a co-worker who hugged almost everybody in a way that the receiver enjoyed. First, I learned not to flinch when someone hugged me. Then I started asking people who were having some kind of bad feelings, if they would like a hug from me. And if they consented I would hug them. I practiced at work every day, and after several months I could hug and be hugged in a way that felt genuine to the other person. In the years after that, new people I met really considered me a very huggy person and would seek me out for hugs. Of course with Covid I'm way out of practice, and will probably have to relearn to make my hugs believable again.

All this learning has gone on all my life. I tend to break down learning new ways of expressing empathy into discrete units that I concentrate on one at a time. So I have done studies of: eye contact, handshaking, standing still, hugging, comforting, motivating others, smiling, laughing appropriately, body posture, apologising, asking for help, standing up to aggression, giving compliments, small talk, phone ettiquette, saying no when necessary, how to teach others, not interupting, accepting praise or criticism, how to gracefully excuse myself from difficult interactions, supress fidgits, standard expressions of sympathy, etc. At this point in life, I can do most of these things in way that is that is convincing.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:52 PM on April 25, 2021 [13 favorites]

One thing to keep in mind is that EVERYONE experiences empathy differently, it’s not just a matter of “neurotypicals know how to do it “right” and the rest of us don’t.” It’s an admirable goal to want to be more present emotionally for your partner and others, but you don’t have to pathologize the way you experience the world in order to do that work!
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:19 PM on April 25, 2021 [13 favorites]

I'm a therapist-suggested-but-not-diagnosed person who does an awful lot of learned empathy in exactly the way a humble nudibranch describes it. I practice and I am decently good at it with most people. But it's hardest with my partner. Partially, I think, because he's ADHD and so we have some conflicting emotional needs (needs to tell his rambly story when it first comes to him, doesn't circle back to whatever I was saying if he's interrupted me - I can sort of handle interruptions but not the "OK let's talk about something else now" and not realizing I was in the middle of not just a story but a sentence. Also he makes noise like ALL the time and fusses about me being sensitive about it if I tell him to maybe try doing that differently) and partly because I let down my guard around him and can sometimes be blunter than is usually considered manners, occasionally saying "I do not care about this, why are you telling me this?" in a way that I don't mean to be attacking but obviously to people who are not me it lands wrong, I get that.

I have a meditation practice which has helped me get some distance between the thought "I don't care about this" and opening my mouth, but it's not going to make me care about some things/stories/responses. However, I am getting better at being non-committal "Oh, really?" and not being encouraging but also not being discouraging. The thing with meditation that was hard for me was the "Notice what's happening in your mind. Are you thinking or feeling?" and I'd be like "Um, those are the same thing, they are always the same thing" and apparently other people don't feel that way? Like heatherlogan describes, I definitely get flooded by other people's emotions but if someone's just blabla talking about something and not really relating emotionally strongly, I can get confused at how to respond. Even though other people's strong emotions can be hard for me, it's almost harder to respond well to other people's not-strong emotions because they are subtler.

And so, yes, talking to your partner and also maybe having a trusted third party you can talk to personally (friend, therapist, whatever) about what your partner says because, no matter how much you love them, they also may be asking for a kind of empathy that is too much (for you specifically or for anyone) and one of the harder things for me has been when I have to express a boundary that I think is about my neuroatypicality, but it turns out it's just a normal type of boundary but I felt like it was asking for something exceptional.
posted by jessamyn at 3:22 PM on April 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is alexithymia in play? About 1 in 10 neurotypicals and 1 in 2 autistics deal with it. Sometimes it's innate, sometimes it's a result of culture/trauma that teaches you to suppress your emotions— like toxic masculinity or a stiff lipped upbringing. Basically, you have feelings but you don't process them in a timely or integrated way. This is different than having blunted feelings or a limited emotional range, although the burnout, overload and masking burdens of being neurodivergent can certainly add to your processing load here.

And what about executive function and memory issues? My brain rarely 'pings' me to reach out, I don't miss loved ones when they're out of sight. So if my goal is to express affection that seems spontaneous, I have to set such things in motion manually. Maybe that means writing "send memes to friends" on my weekly task list. Hey it may not get done the way neurotypicals do it, off the cuff using their magical cue-reading and Guess Culture powers, but I make my own systems to prioritize people who are important. Can you set up reminders?

The best thing is attending to people's actual needs. Not doing what you would want or what you assume they want. Neurotypicals get this wrong all the time, look up "double empathy problem."

For you and your partner, I'd suggest emotion wheels, somatic & trauma work, and learning assertive communication skills with an emphasis on affirming, consent-forward speech. People in general are quite bad at owning desires and sharing feelings, so it's equally incumbent on your allistic partner to learn new habits. Communication goes two ways.
posted by lloquat at 4:21 PM on April 25, 2021 [8 favorites]

Reading about the double empathy problem might be of interest to you - it really helped explain to me what the deal is with one of my main areas of ‘oh, I can’t be autistic’. I feel things very strongly when I know someone else is feeling something, but I also can come across as cold because feeling things is not the same as understanding/taking action. It’s unbearable for me to watch shows and movies where someone is angry, embarrassed, or hurt but when I’m in situations in real life, I don’t really know what to do and also I can’t really figure out what the feeling is in a timely way.

In my relationship, I compensate for this with communication. I ask ‘Are you upset?’ or ‘Do you want to be held?’ or ‘Should I pay attention to you now, is something happening?’ if I have a feeling something is happening, or could potentially be happening based on the context matching previous contexts where she’s been upset. I know a lot of people don’t like this, because it doesn’t feel as real if they to have to say with words what they want in terms of comfort, but I kind of just got lucky in terms of partners.

I don’t think I will acquire the skill some people have where they intuit others emotional needs and figure out how they can meet them. But I can totally acquire more specific skills: when my partner doesn’t respond much to me verbally, something is going on and I should ask and then use the information I get from asking to take action. A lot of this relies on your partner understanding that you aren’t being callous or dense to them by not just knowing. It’s really valuable if they can have a functioning mental model of how you get and process information. You probably spend a lot of energy trying to communicate to your partner in a way they understand, and it’s best if you can give them information about yourself that lets them try to do that too.
posted by nevernines at 8:26 PM on April 25, 2021

Have you been able to learn this? How long did it take? What was involved?

My other, more personal answer is— all of the tools I listed above, plus thousands and thousands of hours of pattern-matching and script-building. I read fiction and advice columns, dragged myself to many awful parties, watched films, and blatantly stole behaviors and styles from the coolest, most competent people I knew. I built awesome masks for many occasions until I burnt out from never speaking my native emotive language, and now I use these skills as little as possible to preserve my sanity but also stay safe and keep some doors open.

For me, I have all the necessary pieces (cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy) but it's hard to run them at the same time. The more demanding my cognitive load, the more stressed I get and the less integrated I am. This is true for everyone, it's just that neurotypicals cater to their own high thresholds and not my low ones. Talking, feeling and processing facial expressions at the same time uses too many of my resources, I can't do that parallel computing easily. The sheer complex trauma of living as an autistic person in the world, where I am nearly always acting against my grain to survive, means I must do more with less from the very start! I spent years and years slightly dissociated— the quirky, pleasing life of the party— because it was easier than being my real, serious, creative, toobigfeeling, staunchly justice-oriented self. Guess what? It's very hard to feel your real feelings when you wear a mask. The two blend and you lose yourself. Sometimes I still can't tell what's skin. I suspect if I never had to fake it to be understood, alexithymia would have been a manageable blip instead of a self-reinforcing nightmare.

(Newly out and bitter, sorry.)

I agree that modeling each others' inner worlds is helpful.
posted by lloquat at 8:48 PM on April 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

1) Empathy studies is a really new field - I wouldn't take anything you read as written in stone. It's all super grey and fluid still.

2) You are almost certainly not actually experiencing issues with empathy; you are in all likelihood experiencing an issue with recognizing and responding to social cues and/or executive functioning issues and processing issues.

Both neurotypicals and people on the spectrum often fail to recognize when a person of the other group is in distress, the extent of any distress, or how to provide effective support. This isn't an empathy issue, it's yet another manifestation of social cues issues.

Face blindness is an obvious case. I can't recognize subtle expressions at all, so anything less then outright deep frowns don't come across as a distress signal. The example upthread of hugging someone in distress is also a good case in point - for many people on the spectrum, a hug is upsetting, not a source of comfort. Inflicting distress on someone in distress is a bad move. The other way around, neurotypicals are notorious for doing things to distressed people on the spectrum that are further distressing (hugs/touches are actually the classic example of this). So each person's empathy is functioning just fine, but there's this fundamental mismatch which causes it to appear to be absent.

That's not even getting into the processing speed and cognitive overload issues. People on the spectrum are always having to adjust for a world that is not built for, and in many cases is actively hostile to, us. The ER is like the least-friendly environment I've ever been in, I wouldn't be right on top of working out someone needed a hug either. Cognitive overload is real. I can't process body language or voice tones in real time.

The best solution I've found is IDing where the breakdown in communications and expectations is occurring. What signals are they displaying? What signals mean they are feeling better? What methods help them go from a distressed state to a calmer/happier one? Are they consistently honest about their internal state, or do you have to reverse engineer some of that? A surprising number of allistic people don't seem to know themselves well enough to actually report what they're feeling, so this might be a time for them to grow a bit too. Then, develop a habit of checking for those signals and offering the appropriate response. It's not an easy process, but it works. Build in times when you don't need to be thinking about this, and can just be alone.

It's never going to be quite the same as someone not on the spectrum, because there are fundamental differences. It's going to be work, probably for the both of you. Metaphorically, we are living with 3 legs in a world built for people with 2, and I'm glad to be able to do extra fun dance moves but man is daily life hard.

On preview: Ditto to everything that nevernines and lloquat said
posted by Ahniya at 9:25 PM on April 25, 2021 [3 favorites]

Journal of Best Practices describes one person's experience in trying to figure this out for himself.
posted by metahawk at 10:13 PM on April 25, 2021

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