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What It's Like Having Hyperempathy as an Autistic Person

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When I was first diagnosed autistic, I was diagnosed with a lack of empathy. As it turns out, I did have empathy. My empathy was different though — it was black and white, all or nothing. I thought to myself it might be more than other people’s but that’s conceited. Or is it? Finally, 44 years later, I think they’re finally coming around on theories. I have hyperempathy, or as some are calling it, double empathy.

My empathy is very strong. It’s so strong that it appears black and white. You get it all or you get nothing. If I have it, it appears like it’s all of it. If I don’t, it appears like nothing. The difference is so stark that the people that don’t get any, think I don’t have any.

People also seem to take the fact that I don’t appear to have empathy as a long-term thing. It may just be that moment. I’m not thinking about them. That doesn’t mean that I’ll never have empathy for them or that I don’t have any right now. I’m just not thinking about them.

I have a one-track mind. If a person is not in that track, I’m not thinking about them. I may not show any empathy for them right then, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them anymore or they’re not my friend. I’m just not thinking about them.

At the same time, if I give them empathy, they think it’s way too much. They’re amazed by how much and how beautiful it is, but then only minutes later, they feel like they don’t have it anymore because I’m not thinking about them. They act like they’ve lost it forever.

On the flip side of that coin, if they see my anger, it’s the most hate they’ve ever seen in their life. I hate them that much. They don’t understand it’s just for that moment. I don’t hate them forever. They’ve never seen somebody so mean in their life. There are some people that I do feel that angry at, but it’s very few. I’m just angry at that moment and I have that much apathy.

Another reason people don’t think I have empathy is because it runs out. I’ve had so much empathy for a person that I just can’t have any more. That happens to typical people as well as autistics like me, but it happens faster for me. They get all my empathy all at once and when it’s gone, it’s gone. People can’t understand that they can’t just get it all the time like that. They can’t press for more or it will run out. If they just let it flow, they can have it forever. Lots and lots of it forever.

Then there are things people see that make them think I don’t have any empathy because I don’t do things the way they think I should. I don’t collect pictures and look at them because they tear me up all the time. It’s great to see these things, but it’s so great it tears me to pieces. So I don’t do it.

It’s the same with funerals. I’m only there for a few minutes. People think I didn’t want to be there in the first place. This is true in some ways, but it’s because it tears me to pieces. I can’t handle it. I’ve already been crying before I got there. I get there and people tell stories. Those stories tear me to pieces. I just can’t do it. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. It means I care too much. I’ll try to make a responsible showing and greet everybody that I should, but I don’t know that I can make it that long. I do the best I can.

It’s the same thing with family reunions and other heartfelt events.

I don’t go out to the graveyard where my parents are for the same reasons. I don’t talk about them. I think about them every day and it tears me up. I can’t have a conversation about them with their friends. People will just keep talking about them and it will keep tearing me up. They keep going so long that I break down. I have to ask them to leave or leave myself. Then I’m cold or heartless.

I’ve been in peer support and people ask about my problems. They keep asking and I keep giving answers, but I get more angry or more and more depressed. More and more anything… then I have to stop talking to them. They think it’s about them. It is not. It’s about what we were talking about. They think I never want to talk to them again, but I just wish they would let me go and calm down. After I’ve been worked up that much, I may need to take a nap. I just need some time.

When somebody brings me a gift, it may seem like I’m not thinking about it or it doesn’t interest me. People say that it’s about them and not about the gift. It might be that I’m focused on something else and I just can’t stop focusing right then. It’s my one-track mind and I can’t take it off its track for them at that moment. So their gift sucks. They think I don’t like them. If they would just give me some time to get on their track instead of the one I’m on, I can respond.

If I don’t care for their gift, I can’t hide it. I’m sorry if I didn’t care for their gift as much as I should have. I didn’t mean to not like it. My mannerisms give me away. If I say I do, it doesn’t matter. They know better. I just can’t tell a good lie.

People always told me that I need to be nice. But it doesn’t matter if I am. My empathy is so stark that even if I’m nice, they know I’m lying — to the point that they don’t accept the fact that I’m trying to not hurt their feelings. Other people lie to be nice and they accept it, but not when I do.

A lot of times I don’t even think about it anymore. There’s no point in masking for me. No point in trying to act normal. They can just see straight through me. They don’t accept the fact that I even tried to not hurt their feelings. That’s how stark my empathy is.

On the flip side of that, if I’m hot, I’m raging hot or a hopeless romantic. I’m being too personal. Too close. We’re not in a romantic relationship, why are you doing this?

People will ask me, “Are you always this friendly?”

I’ll tell them yes, but I’ll stop. Then I’m the biggest a-hole ever. I’m sorry I’m so friendly but if you don’t like it, I leave you alone. There doesn’t seem to be any in between that I can find. That’s how stark my empathy is.

Whether it’s all or whether it’s nothing, it’s always too much. It doesn’t matter that I tried to be nice or act polite. When other people do it, they accept the fact that they’re not trying to hurt their feelings. It’s just not the case for me. There is no way for me to mask or act normal. So I’ll just be me.

Originally published: April 28, 2021
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