Neurotypicals and Empathy

Dania Jekel, Executive Director, and Sonia Janks, Contributing Editor
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Many of us probably think we have a pretty good understanding about what empathy means. However, the more seriously we consider the subject and take in the scientific research, psychological and philosophical debates, and varying points of view, the more complex it becomes. According to Wikipedia, “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” But it also goes on to say: “Definitions of empathy encompass a broad range of emotional states.” Perhaps recognizing that this word has become an umbrella term in our society for so much is the first step in acknowledging that our own definitions about what it is and how it is expressed may not match the views of others.

Since autism was first categorized, there have been false and damaging assumptions that individuals on the spectrum lack empathy. But today I want to turn the autism and empathy question around and ask: Can a neurotypical individual empathize with someone on the autism spectrum?

Put another way, if I am a neurotypical therapist, parent, or spouse, can I achieve one of the aspects of empathy, which is to really understand or feel what a person on the spectrum is feeling, and put myself in the shoes of my client, child, or partner on the spectrum?

My hypothesis is that this is vital for any relationship between autistic and neurotypical individuals, but very difficult to do without dedicated effort. Neurotypical individuals tend to create subconscious generalizations about what everyone is thinking and feeling based on themselves and those around them who frequently match their own neurology. This may feel like a kind of intuitive ability to read people, but it may be completely inaccurate when considering those with autism. If a neurotypical person applies their internalized suppositions based on their own neurology to someone on the spectrum whose neurology is inherently different, the neurotypical person is going to be wrong.

So where should a neurotypical person begin in order to have empathy for someone with a different neurology? Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge and understand that the way a person on the spectrum is thinking or feeling may be very different from the way you would think and react to a similar situation. The things you find trivial may be incredibly important to them. The things that would devastate you might be insignificant to them. Or maybe you would feel the same, but show it in a completely different way. Take a hard look to see if you are making assumptions based on your own neurological bias.
  2. Gain knowledge about the traits and challenges associated with autism as they apply to the particular individual. Not everyone on the spectrum has the same sensory sensitivities, level of desire for social interactions, reactions to changes in routine, or anything else. Learn what the person’s profile is and how it affects them.
  3. Draw from your past experiences with the person, and learn to read their behavior, body language, and nonverbal cues. This may not only be different from the neurotypical individuals you know, but it may not match other people on the spectrum you know. It may be subtle or it may be the opposite from what you expect.
  4. Above all, listenListen to whatever they are communicating in whatever form is comfortable to them. I have said before the expert on the autistic person is the person themselves. There is no substitute for learning directly from the individual.

Let’s take a really simple example. It’s a beautiful day after a long winter and as a neurotypical partner you and your autistic wife decide to take a walk together. You turn onto a busy street where there are masses of people also out for a walk. Your partner wants to go home after a few minutes. You could argue and get frustrated that you just started out and it’s the first time you’ve been on a walk together in months, But if you are empathetic, you will understand how crowds and noise are stressful and overwhelming for your partner. You could ask if she wants to change the route to a quiet street, or accompany her home and then finish your walk on your own if you weren’t finished yourself. Empathy helps you figure out that the experience for her is completely different from yours and allows you to imagine ways to accommodate both of your needs.

Our society tends to emphasize the skills people on the autism spectrum should learn, but I believe more attention should be paid to the efforts neurotypical individuals should make as well. It may take a while, but recognize this effort is what those on the spectrum do every day — at work, in relationships, and at school. They are finding ways to understand and interpret the intentions and emotions of others who are completely different from them. Sometime we all get it right, sometimes we all get it wrong. So be forgiving and gentle, but the work and resulting relationship will be worth it.


See other content on the topic of empathy:

Autism and Empathy: Reflections from Adults on the Spectrum

How I Came to Understand My Son’s Empathy

A Better Definition of Empathy