Our society often describes autistic individuals as lacking empathy and incapable of having feelings as others do. This is a myth, a false stereotype, and a misunderstanding of behaviors. While some autistics lack empathy, many possess it, and this is common to all populations—neurodivergent or not.
The falsehood that all autistic individuals lack empathy is a harmful decades-old barrier that we are just now breaking.
Two Different Types of Empathy
Empathy is the ability to sense and understand other people’s emotions.
There are two types of empathy, cognitive and affective. Reviewing each type helps us to understand why autistic individuals are labeled with a lack of empathy.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand why someone experiences the emotions that they do. It enables us to put ourselves in another’s shoes without feeling the emotions ourselves. An example of this is a newsreel that reports a family that lost their home to fire.
With cognitive empathy, you understand the traumatic sadness or loss that the family must be experiencing due to the event, even if you have never experienced anything like it yourself. You can communicate your thoughts and reactions to the event in an effective way.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the perspective of another person—to put yourself in their shoes.
Affective empathy, also known as emotional or primitive empathy, is the ability to feel and respond to the emotions of others. An example of this is when we see someone else cry, such as the family that lost their home to fire, even if we do not understand what made the family feel sad, we have an emotional response to what they are feeling.
When someone else cries or displays sadness, for example, our eyes start to fill with tears. We cry along with the person that is crying.
Autistic individuals struggle more with cognitive empathy compared to affective empathy. This has nothing to do with not having feelings. An autistic individual, for example, may have an instinctive emotional reaction to the emotions of others, but struggle with understanding and simulating what the other person experienced that led up to their emotions.
This creates a challenge for some autistics, “How do I respond to this?” The delay in reaction, or the display of an inappropriate reaction, can look ‘different’ or unfeeling, which is often the precursor to the myth that autistics lack empathy.
In her blog, Autism Myths Debunked, Eileen Lamb, author and founder of The Autism Café, explains her emphatic feelings which disprove the myth that autistic individuals lack empathy:
“Autistic people lack empathy and are incapable of feelings. False.
It’s a common misconception that people with autism aren’t capable of feelings and empathy. If anything, for me, it’s the opposite — I feel too much. While it is rare for me to connect with people emotionally, when I do I really do. I love with all I have.
I think that for a lot of autistic people, it’s just that we don’t share our feelings in a way that’s obvious. If I try to express my feelings at a level that makes sense to other people, I feel incredibly overwhelmed myself. When emotions take me over, I become unable to communicate. I’ve found a way now to let people know how I’m feeling, and that’s by writing.”
Why is the Lack of Empathy Myth Harmful?
While it is true that some autistics have difficulty processing emotions and displaying appropriate responses, people associate this with a lack of empathy rather than social communication issues that can be improved. This can lead to missed diagnoses and delays in effective remediation.
In her blog post, Do You Think You Might Have Autism?, Claire Jack, Ph.D., who was diagnosed with autism when she was in her forties, gives us clear insight into how an emphatic autistic can be misdiagnosed, or diagnosed much later in life:
“And yet, I began to wonder whether the problems which I’d experienced my entire life could, in fact, be due to autism. Going right back to my earliest childhood, I’d been described as “highly sensitive,” “withdrawn,” and plain old-fashioned “weird.”
My numerous phobias, need for order, social anxiety, complete absorption in subjects and extreme sensitivity to noise all fitted with “autism.” But as a woman with a partner and two children, who displayed high empathy not only for my family but for my therapy clients, I didn’t fit what I thought was the autism profile.
I was determined to find out more, though—as so much of what the therapist had said resonated deeply with me—so I began to research women and Autism Spectrum Disorder…”
(Learn more about Why Is It Harder for Girls to Be Diagnosed with Autism? here.)
Can Empathy Be Taught?
Here at RDI®, we believe that empathy can be taught. At the root, empathy is taught through modeling, prompting, reinforcement, and with a focus on the development of dynamic intelligence through the Guiding Relationship.
Each of the six areas of dynamic intelligence is critical to the emotional needs that a person requires to both possess and communicate empathy:
Emotional Referencing – The ability to ‘read’ and learn from the emotional experiences of others.
Social Coordination – The ability to observe others and self-regulate behavior in order to participate in social relationships.
Declarative Language – The ability to use language and non-verbal language for expression, interaction, and to share feelings and ideas with others.
Flexible Thinking – The ability to adapt when life’s circumstances change.
Relational Information Processing – The ability to think situations through, to obtain solutions, when there are no “right or wrong” answers.
Foresight and Hindsight – The ability to reflect on past experiences and use them as a tool to anticipate potential future scenarios.
(Learn more about the Six Areas of Dynamic Intelligence and download our infographic here.)
Don’t Know Where to Turn?
It can feel overwhelming, and it can be confusing for parents to know where to turn next.
You are not alone with this. We have the resources, the connections, and the support to help you and your family move forward with your lives.
If you’re interested in learning more about how we can help you or your child to grow and develop a greater level of empathy, schedule a free consultation with an RDI® consultant today.
If you’d like to talk to RDI® professionals, parents, and adults on the spectrum, join our online learning community.