What It Means To Be Highly Empathetic, And Autistic
Ascribing generalizations to a diverse group of people only serves to harm us.
When I was in the fourth grade, I took a handwritten note, sprayed it with my mom’s drugstore perfume, dotted it with loopy pink hearts, signed “Love always” with my full name, and dropped it in the locker of the kid I had a crush on. Before I went to school that day, my mom asked me if this was what I really wanted to do: “I know how much you care, but this may not be received the way you want it to be.”
As this story demonstrates, I am an outwardly emotional person; I may also cry when I see someone crying, or absorb everyone’s emotions in group settings. All of which probably wouldn’t be worth mentioning if not for one fact: I’m also autistic. And public perceptions dictate that autistic and empathetic shouldn’t go together.
The popular myth that all autistic people are socially withdrawn and unempathetic — like the teenage protagonist in the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or the undiagnosed but stereotypical representation of The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper — hurts the entire autistic community.
The truth, unsurprisingly, is that you can be empathetic (even highly so) and autistic. You can be extroverted and autistic. You can be outgoing and autistic. You can be a people person and autistic. Of course there are autistic folks who are introverted as well, but as the saying goes, “If you met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” Ascribing generalizations to a diverse group of people only serves to harm us.
According to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), “The idea that autistic people lack empathy is a damaging stereotype that isn’t supported by research. Self-advocates have consistently said that we have different communication styles from others, not a lack of empathy.”
As the saying goes, ‘If you met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.’
In my own life, this stereotype adversely affected my emotional and physical health. Before my diagnosis around age 7, I was unnecessarily provided a medley of treatments — including antidepressants and mood stabilizers, behavioral therapy, home visits, tutoring, and special education — to address mood disorders and mental health issues that I don’t have. Physicians assumed I couldn’t be autistic and also as emotionally available as I am, and they often misunderstood traits of autism — special interests, oversensitivity to lights and sound, autistic meltdowns and shutdowns — as signs of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
At the same time, my different communication styles, coupled with my pronounced empathy, made it harder for me to figure out my place in the world.
For a while, as a young child, I was nonverbal and then semi-verbal, communicating mainly through gestures. Once I became more verbal, I used gestures and stims (like hand flapping and kicking my feet) alongside my words, and I often repeated things I’d heard somewhere else or used an analogy to describe a situation (“This was like that episode of Sailor Moon” was something I said a lot, as a nerdy kindergartner).
As for social rules? I didn’t understand many of them. I’d walk up to someone I’d just met a few hours ago and declare, “We’re best friends now! You should come over after school.” I was interested in what my friends were feeling — and could usually feel the emotional tension when they were acting differently but not saying why — but I didn’t know when to stop pressing them to tell me what was wrong, to the point where they’d yell at me and we’d be in a fight until they were ready to talk about it.
All of this made it difficult for me to feel accepted — yet because of stereotypes about autism and empathy, I lacked the resources to address these issues. Was it okay to write a love note to a crush? Should I tell people about my crushes in private? Could I ask someone out loud if they wanted to be my friend? Was it okay to declare that someone was my best friend after only a few days together? These weren’t things that physicians, occupational therapists, teachers, or counselors thought about when it came to dealing with autistic kids, so I felt like I couldn’t turn to them for answers — and worse still, I wasn’t sure if it was okay to grapple with such questions to begin with.
While I don’t advocate for applied behavioral analysis treatment for autistic people, I would have loved for a medical professional who understood the unique challenges I was dealing with, someone who could talk to me about how I might express myself in ways that made sense to my neurotypical friends.
I would have loved for a medical professional who understood the unique challenges I was dealing with.
A lot of the stigmas the autistic community face are further wrapped up in how we socialize people based on other identifiers like gender, sexuality, race, religion, and class. “People’s reactions to me have so often been that I’m either inappropriately or unrealistically empathetic, and partly that’s because our society’s concept of masculine identity is so invested in a toxic denial of empathy in boys and men,” says autistic children’s book author Mike Jung, who is also Korean American. People who are assigned female at birth are also less likely to be diagnosed, as are people of color.
As someone who was assigned female at birth and has been openly queer for most of their life, I was only diagnosed after years of misunderstanding. Ableism played a role, too; because I’m also physically disabled and have trouble with walking, balance, and mobility, my autism was often overlooked by medical professionals who were used to teaching me how to walk up the stairs and grasp a pencil.
The myth of the unfeeling autistic person has societal impacts that go beyond the personal as well. In social settings, I’ve been afraid to admit that I’m autistic, because I didn’t want my friends to fall into the trap of thinking that I’m unfeeling and don’t know how to love. More broadly, this idea is often, troublingly, used to criminalize the community.
“Serial killers, mass shooters, terrorists, and even white supremacists in the vein of the alt-right have all been labeled autistic or other types of neurodivergent or mad by armchair psychologists trying to pathologize violence,” says autistic activist, educator, and writer Lydia X. Z. Brown. “This is an insult to the many neurodivergent and mad folks who are not only survivors of horrific violence, but work constantly to end it.”
I’ve been afraid to admit that I’m autistic, because I didn’t want my friends to fall into the trap of thinking that I’m unfeeling and don’t know how to love.
In today’s political climate, it’s easy for people to jump to mental health and cognitive or intellectual disabilities to fault people’s bigoted behavior. We’re all looking for a scapegoat, and we would rather throw around the words “crazy” and “stupid” than admit that we live in a white supremacist society that was built on the oppression of marginalized groups, which has always served to benefit those with privilege. But this isn’t doing the hard work of dismantling the oppressive system, and it’s extremely harmful to neurodivergent communities that are already marginalized.
Even before we had a diagnosis, my mom never thought something was “wrong” with me. She could see that I loved deeply and was highly sensitive, but that I couldn’t always sense the socially appropriate way to communicate that. When my best friend and I got into a fight after she lost her dog, my mom sat me down and told me that sometimes people act out when they’re grieving, and they aren’t ready to talk about the loss yet. She said, “Don’t push her. Just wait until she’s ready to talk about it, and let her say what she needs to. Until then, just being there is enough.”
Over time, I’ve taken these lessons with me. When I first met my now-partner of eight years, I had to remind myself not to claim her as a best friend too soon, something I’ve done that has pushed friends away, so I ended up waiting until we’d known each other for eight months before I officially used the phrase.
In other ways, too, I’ve learned how to express and embrace my empathy. My mom was also a great listener, and taught me by doing — I’d watch her listen to my aunt and Nannie tell her their day’s complaints, and I internalized what I saw: reacting without judgment, listening until the person was done, reassuring them they could say more without pressure. After years of practicing my mom’s listening, I’ve now become the go-to in my friend group for serious conversations. Whether a friend is considering a difficult breakup with their significant other or coming out as LGBTQ+ to their family, they usually turn to me. At the same time, my friends appreciate how compassionate I am; I’m a cuddler and a hugger, and one of my old standbys is writing letters to my friends on New Year’s Eve to tell them how great they’ve been in the past year.
I’m still autistic and not neurotypical; I try to stim in non-distracting ways while I’m listening and I might even take my friend on a walk somewhere so we can talk it out while we’re moving. I don’t always make direct eye contact, but my friends always know I’m listening and empathizing — and that they always have me in their corner.