Level 1 Autism & Empathy: Destined to fail?

By Kloey Kaeser

July 2, 2024

Level 1 Autism & Empathy: Destined to fail?
July 2, 2024
Kloey Kaeser

There are two kinds of empathy. 1) Emotional empathy, the ability to respond to others’ emotions appropriately, and 2) cognitive empathy, recognizing what another person is feeling (Baron‐Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004). To display empathy correctly, one must recognize the emotional turmoil in the person around them first (cognitive empathy), then respond in a feeling manner (emotional empathy). Recent research concludes that autistics show more emotional empathy and less cognitive empathy (Shalev et al., 2022). As someone with autism, these findings make sense; ever since I was young, I have been taught “appropriate” emotional reactions to use in place of my true reactions which are often emotionless or can be interpreted as rude. Now, at age 18, I am skilled at fake emotional empathy. I know how to respond to many different scenarios. Someone scrapes their knee on the playground, check. Someone’s mom is hospitalized, check. Someone’s grandma was diagnosed with dementia, check. Does this mean I have emotional empathy? Not exactly. True empathy—understanding, feeling, and sharing an emotional experience—is far from my abilities. What I can do and what I have been taught to do, is feign empathy. Sure, I understand someone’s sadness after a shocking diagnosis. It is out of their routine, something they did not expect but disrupts their daily living. Personally, I hate anything outside of my usual routine, but do I always feel and share their emotional experience? No, I do not.
Cognitive empathy is equally difficult. We cannot employ our learned emotional empathy if we do not and can not identify when someone is upset. Believe it or not, cognitive empathy is the more difficult of the two because autism directly impairs all communication skills, especially non-verbal and para-verbal skills, meaning that I will not pick up on your
sad facial expression or defeated tone of voice. Missing those communication cues, I do not think to employ any emotional empathy because I didn’t notice you were upset. I go about as my normal (blunt) self chatting your ear off about World War II and next thing I know, you are in tears. My failure? Impaired cognitive empathy.
Now that you are crying, a universal, highly visible trait of emotional turmoil, I conclude you are upset. I begin to employ my past “training” in emotional empathy. You tell me your cousin’s aunt’s dog was run over by a car. I pause. I have not been taught this specific scenario. Your dog is run over by a car, check. That is in my emotional empathy toolbox, but your
cousin’s aunt’s dog? I think to myself: why do you care? That is a pretty far relation. You are probably being overdramatic. I cannot imagine that you would be so close to your cousin’s aunt’s dog. Those are my true, honest thoughts. In retrospect, I understand them to be rude, but I also understand that autistic brains think in black and white. I struggle to formulate a proper response to speak to you. After what seems like years of contemplating possible answers and how to speak them, I bark out: “Well, that stinks doesn’t it.” I am proud of myself for finally getting the words out. And I think to myself: yes, that must be right. I mean, I told the truth. It would stink, wouldn’t it? I wait for you to respond but you scoff at me, turn around, and leave the room. I am frozen in the all-too-comfortable feeling of regret and confusion. What did I do wrong this time? Why can’t I get anything right? Just wait till my mom hears about this and lectures me about how rude I am...again. I leave the event, defeated.

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However hard we try to prepare autistics for any situation, it will backfire. So, do we blame them for their rude conduct? Opinions vary, but here is my truth. I do not feel much empathy. If and when I feel empathy, it is almost exclusively toward my 4-year-old cat, Flynn. Just last month, my mother was hospitalized for a serious emergency operation. What did I feel? Nothing. I sat down on my bed with a plate of dinner and a good book that night. My mind screams: Wow, what a terrible daughter! I know I should feel empathy in that situation, but I did not. Thoughts and experiences similar to these keep me up at night. I have tried to learn empathy my whole life and I can list hundreds of times where I feigned empathy, but even those sometimes backfire. Most times those interactions end in an uncomfortable failure or identity confusion. Is this really me? No, it is not, but I feel pressure to feel empathy: from society, from everyone I know, and from my own mind. Lacking empathy is soul-crushing, yet something most autistics experience. It is arguably most difficult for level 1 autistics (high-functioning) who are expected to recognize and remedy their failures. We mask so often, hiding our symptoms and relying on years of social/emotional training, that when we fail in something such as empathy,
our parents/guardians/teachers/mentors are highly disappointed, and they vocalize it. I cannot list how many times I have said “I’m sorry” for an autistic impairment. I cannot help my lack of empathy, yet I am criticized for it. Do I blame the criticizers? Mostly no. They do not understand my internal processes, especially when I mask my impairments by mimicking the actions and words of others or using scripted, learned skills. What can we do about the “empathy problem?” First, we must stop viewing it as a problem. Varying levels of empathy can hold strengths. For example, I am headed into the field of clinical psychology. A strength of mine may be maintaining isolated, professional relationships with clients. Because I do not engage in their emotional experiences, I’ll move from one client to the next without dwelling on a previous client. My emotions will not get in the way of my thinking and therefore, my work. I can withstand hearing about terrible human atrocities without having to take leave because I am emotionally distant. As with most things, there is an alternate side to this situation.
Perhaps my client will not bond with me because I am seemingly uncaring. The duality of impaired empathy will follow me for the rest of my life. What can YOU (someone without autism) do? Read this blog. Use your empathetic abilities to understand the workings of the autistic brain and the daily struggles we face. And remember: autism is invisible, so when you go out and come across someone who appears to lack empathy, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Keywords: autism, empathy
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