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Addressing the Harmful Myths About Autism and Empathy

When I was a little girl, I stopped eating meat, because I told my parents “you could be eating someone’s family.”

When I was a little girl, I continued to bury myself under blankets as my mom gleefully asked “Where’s Sarah?” even though I thought she should be able to see me, and I thought it was silly, but I thought she loved it so I played along.

When I was a little girl, I knew how much it hurt to lose a favorite toy, and I’d feel terrible when other kids did. Sometimes I still do.

I had autism then and I have autism now. I use all those little anecdotes because they all show empathy. The empathy some people will say that I, being autistic, shouldn’t have. The first one? I was 3 when I did that, an age where many children are still struggling to get out of the “me-first” mindset. But I was already making life-changing decisions based on a budding sense of morality that was rooted in empathy. While every autistic person is different, to say we don’t have empathy is unfair. We do have empathy. It’s just that like many things, we might show it differently.

I’m not good when my loved ones cry. I feel awkward and don’t know what to say. I’m not the best shoulder to cry on because I would prefer to offer you advice on how to feel better. I do this because I want to help fix your pain. Because it kills me inside to see others in pain and to feel helpless.

I also look for problems where there are none. I used to be terrible at understanding body language, but now I’m getting better. And I’m always on the lookout for my friends and my family, if they should seem upset in any way. I hear the tone in their voice and try and figure out what they’re feeling. Then I try and figure out how I can make sure they’re OK, because if I so much as think they’re upset I just can’t handle it.

The ultimate test of empathy some people seem to consider is how people react to terrible events in the world, because apparently we don’t have enough to deal with in regards to the people we know and love. When I hear about a national tragedy, like the countless shootings we’ve been plagued with as of late, I don’t usually cry. Not because I’m not sad, but because I don’t know how to express my pain. Crying makes me feel vulnerable and like I’m bothering others, so I keep my pain inside. But please believe me when I say I’m feeling it.

That’s not to say I never cry, of course. I do. As a child I was called a crybaby… and in many ways I still am. I cry when I’m overwhelmed. I cry when I’m angry. I cry when I’m hurt. I cry when I can’t possibly keep it in anymore. And I try to keep it in. Being called a crybaby so much made me try to suppress the urge whenever I could. Even now, it’s hard to let it out. I instinctively try to hold it in, which hurts both physically and mentally.

But I can cry when I watch sad movies, or play a sad part of a video game. The fictional frame I can put those tears in makes me feel safe. The fact that the story isn’t true makes me feel safe to express my pain — the pain I feel for those who truly are suffering. It’s hard enough to see fictional characters go through hard times, and I just can’t allow myself to think about real people facing real pain.

More than anything else I think I compartmentalize. I try to put facts in one place and emotions in another. I used to be, and still am to a degree, interested in criminology. I still watch true crime shows, though sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I get too angry and upset about what humans are capable of. But I try to avoid that by looking at crimes as a puzzle to be solved. I imagine people who investigate those crimes try to do the same — not because they don’t care about the victims, but because they do. But they can’t help them unless they can do their job and maintain some distance.

So as you can see, I feel empathy. I feel people’s pain. I feel it on a level most people can’t grasp. But I feel it so much I’m almost numb. It’s like when I accidentally cut my finger once. At first, the pain was so great my body made it so I couldn’t feel any pain at all. My body, like most bodies, is smart because it recognizes we can’t function if we’re in too much pain. The emotional pain empathy brings is, for me, much the same. You may not see me get upset, but that’s just because I’m so focused on functioning that I can’t allow the emotion to take over.

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Getty image by Hulya Karakas.

Originally published: January 9, 2017
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