How Are You Feeling? – Autism and Empathy

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30th June 2020 10:28am

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This is an essay I planned to write simply because I believe that autistic people are judged unfairly as lacking empathy – I would like to challenge these views by pointing out their flaws and using my perspective as an autistic person.

Firstly, I would like to start by discussing whether perspective is an important aspect of this debate; I certainly think it is, as what is perceived by someone as a display of empathy may not be viewed the same way by another person. The same, I believe, goes for autistic and neurotypical points of view on empathy: what an autistic person would see as empathy may be different to a neurotypical’s definition of the word, and it also differs between individuals. Therefore, I would argue that it is difficult to accurately measure something as subjective and abstract as empathy itself.

This leads me to another point: what is the definition of empathy? It is the ability to relate to another’s feelings and consider the impact of something (such as something that happens, something someone says or a thought process) on that person’s emotional state. However, do these impacts not vary widely from person to person? In order to predict how someone will react to something, you need to know them personally, which is why many autistic people will struggle to know exactly how to act around others as they are unsure of the reaction they will receive. Crucially, there is a difference between this and empathy – empathy is far more complex than simply predicting another’s response to something. It is the ability to understand the emotions themselves, rather than the reaction they cause (the expression of the emotions) that constitutes empathy.

For someone with autism, expression of emotions is something they often feel condemned for if they express such emotions in the ‘wrong’ way, leading many to fear expressing them at all. The ‘right’ way, of course, is the neurotypical way that fits with expectations of society – the ‘socially acceptable’ way of expressing yourself. Why there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to your own individual feelings is something I have never understood, and I doubt that I ever will. This too causes difficulty for those with autism, as it also means that there is a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to respond to another person’s actions, which is usually the natural, pre-programmed response of neurotypicals but has to be learned by autistic people over their entire lifetime.

Furthermore, empathy is often felt very acutely by those with autism, in fact possibly more intensely than neurotypicals, making it an overwhelming and inexpressible experience for many; it is as if they feel another person’s emotions and pain for them. This can be very upsetting to experience; it is made more upsetting by the misunderstandings it may cause when those around them interpret this expression of the sheer intensity of empathy as a childish tantrum, or worse, an inability to experience empathy at all.

Let me give you an example I once saw online: a mother of an autistic child was discussing how her son would become upset every time he saw someone with a visible physical disability; the mother and those she was talking to had obviously assumed that the reason for this was that her son was afraid of people with disabilities, and, in a broader sense, people who were different to him at all. I, however, realised immediately what he must have been feeling to trigger that result: these people seemed, from his perspective, to be in pain or suffering, and he could do nothing to help. This, I believe, was probably the true cause of his distress.

The innate differences between autistic and neurotypical people are mostly in the way they process thoughts and the intensity and types of emotion that they feel. It is as if these two groups have completely separate ways of viewing, thinking about and responding to a problem or situation. I am not saying that this is a bad thing – in fact I will stress that I think this is potentially very useful, and that I do not consider either autistic or neurotypical people to be more advanced in terms of intelligence and overall mental health. The perceived problems in these areas for autistic people are (I believe) caused by the fact that the majority of people are neurotypical. If this were not the case, I am very sure that both groups would be seen as equals, instead of autistic people being viewed as ‘mentally ill’ simply because they are mentally different.

The impact this has on society is that it is the expectation for everyone to act as if they are neurotypical, whether they actually are or not. This would not be as much of a problem as it is if it were not for the fact that autistic people are expected to act in a way that is not at all natural for them without even being taught how. This, to me, is as ridiculous as expecting a person to learn a foreign language by listening to the people who speak that language, without any support, and being punished for making any mistakes. This is less difficult for those on the milder (or so called ‘high-functioning’, although I find this description quite ignorant) end of the spectrum, since their mind is closer to the mind of a neurotypical person in terms of how it works. In the language metaphor, these people could be seen as being like speakers of a language similar to English (such as Dutch) learning English. Those on the more severe end of the spectrum are metaphorically like those whose first language is extremely different to English, such as Mandarin.

Relating to someone whose mind is so different to your own is nearly impossible, and yet many autistic people try to relate to neurotypical people just so that they can be a part of the society that was not made for them. Since this society is based around the way that neurotypical people think and act, it is expected that autistic people learn how to relate to neurotypicals and not the other way around. Would it not be considerate of neurotypical society to try and relate to the experiences and emotions of autistic people instead of trying to make them conform to what is socially normal? Not only do autistic people have difficulty in relating to neurotypicals, but neurotypicals experience the same amount of difficulty in relating to autistic people, simply because they are so different to each other.

I can conclude that there is no difference between the capability of these two groups to experience empathy and relate to others; the only difference that I can clearly tell from experience is that autistic people try in their daily lives to relate to neurotypical people around them, something which is so difficult to achieve that it is no wonder that they become frustrated by their inability to do so. Many neurotypical people in this society, on the other hand, feel no obligation to attempt to understand the behaviour and emotions of autistic people, since from their perspective it is the ones who do not conform to society who should change their behaviour and become more like those who do.

Written by E.S Wyld (15)

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