By: Heather Dimmitt
I’d like to address the widespread myth that autistic people lack empathy. When autistic people hear this, they are usually offended and confused, and rightly so. When I was first researching about autism, I kept coming across this myth followed by explanations where people try to qualify this by saying autistic people specifically lack “cognitive empathy”. At first, this can seem like it makes sense and explains why autistic people struggle. However, this is also a harmful myth, and I will explain why.
So what is cognitive empathy? Cognitive empathy is defined as the capacity to understand another’s perspective or mental state. This is usually elaborated on as: autistic people don’t understand social cues or other “normal” behavior. Autistic people will tell you that, yes, they may struggle to intuitively understand non-autistic people in this way, but they understand other autistic people better than neurotypicals. We have our own culture and social language. Recent research has come out showing that autistic people communicate better with other autistic people and neurotypicals communicate better with other neurotypicals. Why is that?
I think it’s simply because we are able to understand the perspective and mental state of being an autistic person in the same way a neurotypical person can understand another neurotypical person or a black person can understand another black person or a gay person can understand another gay person. Cognitive empathy relies on having similar perspective, which means having similar experiences and ways of perceiving and relating to the world and ourselves.
Autistic people do NOT exclusively lack cognitive empathy. It makes more sense that people with different identities and ways of being in the world aren’t able to have intuitive cognitive empathy with other groups, simply because they don’t experience the world the same way. For example, as a white person, I can’t intuitively understand the fear a black person might have around police. I can intellectualize it if they tell me this is a fact, and I can label that as a fact in my mind, but I can’t fundamentally understand or feel their fear, because I’m not targeted the same way, and people who look like me aren’t killed by police for simply existing somewhere due to institutionalized racism.
In that respect, you could also say that non-autistic people lack cognitive empathy for autistic people because they don’t have the same experience of things like sensory differences. For example, I might be tired and overwhelmed after going to a grocery store because of sensory overload and not feel up to socializing afterwards, preferring to sit in a quiet place and do something I enjoy alone. My autistic friends will understand this because they may have had similar experiences, but non-autistic friends or family might say things like: “why are you avoiding me and not being social? I don’t get it, why are you mad at me?” In that situation, they clearly lack cognitive empathy for me.
The concept of cognitive empathy simply relies on having a similar identity, and the reason autistic people are deemed “deficient” in this, is that they are being measured against a non-autistic standard. The reason autistic people are singled out for lacking empathy is related to the empathy quotient test, which literally asks questions that related to the perspective of being neurotypical. That would be like giving a white person a test about what it’s like to be a black person, and saying they lack cognitive empathy because they don’t understand what it’s like to be black. Well, of course they don’t!
The worst part of this nonsensical myth is that it creates further division between autistic people and non-autistic people. A non-autistic parent hears that their child “lacks empathy” and might think they won’t ever be able to truly love them because they don’t like being hugged. An autistic person is told that they “lack empathy” and they feel like they are fundamentally flawed, or bad, or evil somehow, like they have this in common with a murdering psychopath. It hurts both autistic people and their non-autistic loved ones to perpetuate this myth. If you had a child with a different skin tone from yours that made them more or less likely to face discrimination and have misunderstandings in society than you, you wouldn’t say they “lack empathy”. You would say they will have a different perspective and will do well to connect with others who share similar experiences, to find their community. We should give autistic people the same respect, and stop labeling them deficient in empathy. It’s just illogical, and hurts everyone in our community.
Additionally, when autistic people are told they lack empathy, this is the same as saying that their perspective is fundamentally flawed, incorrect, and lacking. This is the same as gaslighting, and takes away credibility from the autistic perspective. When you take away someone’s credibility, you take away respect for their needs. Thus, when an autistic person communicates that they don’t like being hugged, they are ignored and forced to into something they don’t want that might be physically painful for them. Then when they get upset for being physically coerced into something they don’t want, they are further punished for getting upset and having a “meltdown”. Wouldn’t it be better to tell people that this autistic person has a legitimate aversion to hugs? That you need to respect their needs and boundaries? Respect their perspective as legitimate even though it is different from your own? I think it would be better for everyone to understand this. The world would be better in general.