Empathy is a word often heard in conjunction with autism. I would argue that it is one of the most important words that can be associated with autism. But when I talk about empathy, though, I am not referring to the commonly held myth that autistic people lack emotions and empathy. I am talking about the empathy autistic people show to others.
The psychological condition describing lack of empathy is psychopathy, not autism. While an autistic person may have trouble reading the emotions of others from body language and social cues and may have trouble labeling their own emotions, that doesn’t mean they don’t experience emotion or don’t care about others. The Autism Positivity Flashblog was originally created because someone googled “I Wish I Didn’t Have Aspergers.” Perhaps that person was bullied, teased or abused. If so, the bullies, teasers and abusers acted out of ignorance. Autistic people are people. They have feelings and emotions and even if they cannot express it or name it in the same way a neurotypical person might, it does not and should not in any way discount their emotions.
One of my good friends is autistic. She is someone I can always rely on when I need to talk to someone about how I am feeling. Like her, I found out about my own non-neurotypicality as an adult. The understanding, guidance and, most of all, empathy she has shown to me over the course of our friendship has been incredible and I can never thank her enough.
Finding out I had a disability was a wild emotional experience for me. When I was first diagnosed, there was a huge sense of relief and even joy at the thought that perhaps everything I had struggled with and every way I had always felt different was due to something other than laziness or stupidity. But as time wore on, I began to struggle with what it actually meant to have an invisible disability. Even now, I have trouble describing myself as “disabled.” It feels like a term that should describe someone else, not me. But, whether I am labeled as “disabled” or “having certain challenges,” the truth is there are things that are difficult for me. They may not be obvious to other people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still struggle with them.
As I tried to work my way through all of these crazy emotions, my friend (who is a pretty busy person) always made time to patiently listen to my ramblings. And when she listened, she actually listened and did so with her full attention, not the superficial “yeah, yeah, of course I’m listening to you” type of listening. She understood what I was feeling. She had been there. Many times she would offer advice and answers to my questions. And when she didn’t have solutions for me, she provided the powerful, quiet, understanding type of support and solidarity that comes from empathizing with another human being. If that isn’t emotionally connecting to others – if that isn’t empathy – I don’t know what is. What I do know is that empathy, as I understand and define it, is a totally ausome thing about my autistic friend.