Feelings: This, in layman’s terms, describes empathy. More specifically, empathy involves the feelings that we have for others; that is, sharing and understanding their feelings. When it comes to people with autism, chances are that you’ve heard all about how they “struggle” with empathy, how they don’t tend to feel the way others feel. Sadly, such information is based on half-truths and whole lies. That’s why for this article, I’ll explain the misconceptions of autism and empathy and what we can all do about it.
As for these misconceptions, it’s like I said earlier: People with Autism Spectrum Disorder, for far too long, have been characterized as somehow less emotional than neurotypicals. Now I don’t mean “emotional” as in being over-the-top or dramatic; no, I’m referring to the plain and simple truth that, despite the fact that it’s been disproven, people continue to believe that autistic individuals are cold and stoic. You can thank our sensationalistic, “pop psychology” media for that. And why? Because those with autism sometimes don’t make the right facial expressions when we’re happy or sad or angry? Because our voices at times don’t “sound” the way others’ do, because our tone and affect are off? Really? So that means we must have no knowledge about emotions? That’s what I’ve been hearing, and it doesn’t take much research to realize that people on the spectrum tend to be more logical, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to fewer emotions or a lesser understanding. It might mean that we have a greater difficulty in applying our knowledge of emotions, but this should by no means be treated as some sort of defect. And remember, those with autism are sensitive, too, and not just around bright lights and loud noises; we’re prone in one way or another to have trouble regulating our emotions, as well. The media is at least partially aware of this, and to be sure, I’ve read plenty of articles and heard many a report reinforcing this. But how can they then turn around and say we’re unfeeling and have at best a shallow expression of emotions? All that leads to is bullying and discrimination! Excuse me, but that’s more than a little absurd, and it needs to stop.
But how does it stop? The answer lies in fighting the misinformation out there. After all, it only takes a few people and a handful of lies to snuff out the truth, and when it comes to the hurdles that those with autism face already, we don’t need any more distortion of our character. You can be part of the solution—start a blog, correct those who don’t have the facts, spread awareness of what the truth about autism is so this condition and the people who live with it will stop being ridiculed and feared. People with autism feel emotions every bit as strongly as everyone else, even if we don’t always show it. What’s more, we in our own way do understand what others feel. So, to everyone out there who doesn’t have autism, please recognize that we’re just like you. We have empathy, but we sometimes never receive it.
For a more in-depth look into empathy, watch the following TedX presentation with speaker Simon Baron Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge. Baron Cohen explains how autism is actually the polar opposite of psychopathy. While adults with autism may struggle to understand the thoughts and motivations of others (cognitive empathy), they are affected emotionally when they hear that someone is suffering (affective empathy).