Can an empath be autistic?

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… since the one purportedly means being over-empathic and the other lacking empathy? Let me start by saying that both these definitions are wrong, and then tell some stories.

The gossip

Last year, a close friend of mine moved out of her ramshackle town up to Ottawa. She is not only diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but also the most emblematic and at that psychically gifted empath I’ve met so far. Her mother literally makes a living as a medium.

Now living the city life, she located a support group for women with Asperger’s, took the plunge and went, despite her lifelong trauma surrounding social events. For a change, she returned – not run-down, overstimulated and ready for three days in bed – but enthusiastic.

She said a large number of people in the group were empaths. How often do you even get more than one empath into a meeting by chance? Unless you are organising an empath meet up? … Or an autistic meet up?

The confessional note

This friend took it upon herself to educate me about autism and (although she claims she doesn’t) convince me that I must have Asperger’s because despite having earned academic degrees to death I don’t have a real job, a real house, and don’t know how to talk to most people – unless they are highly empathic or passionate about the same things.

I don’t have a personal opinion on that, as I’m not sure how a label helps me at this point, unless it’s a spell filled with poetry and power. But psychiatry – tfeh! Let’s say I’m from a country where that is regarded as witchcraft (and the dark kind for that matter).

The meat

Being a philosopher, that didn’t stop me from reflecting on the matter though.

I’m not sure to this day what autism is (and that’s not for not having read up), but the general conception seems to be that it’s related to not reading body language and social cues the way most people do (and on the other side of the coin not getting correctly read by others).

However, the way it’s often presented is as an empathy deficit – not being able to take the perspective of others, at least intuitively. For a person on the autism spectrum, that requires extra cognitive effort (brain power) and sometimes explanations from others. So you may for example offend other people unwittingly by simply saying what you think in a matter-of-fact way, not realising what other people typically read into that type of statement, or that “softening” and “packaging” are socially expected here. You maybe do it after a lot of trial and error, or an explanation – while other people don’t need to be told.

Being able to figure out what a situation looks like to another person is often called cognitive empathy.

The other component of empathy that has been researched is called emotional empathy and refers to what I have elsewhere discussed under emotional contagion: getting “infected” with the emotional states of others through instinctively (unconsciously) mimicking their expression (at least this is the current scientific understanding of it; it’s know to happen in newborns and the animal kingdom as well).

It’s considered entirely possible if not common for a people on the autism spectrum to show both cognitive empathy skills (because these are acquired skills in everyone) that are less developed than in a neurotypical person and stronger than usual emotional empathy. (Reference)

So understanding that distinction, it is certainly possible for a person to have both empath experiences and autistic traits.

Autism isn’t a lack of empathy.

I’ve always found this description dehumanising, and certainly false concerning the people with an official autism diagnosis that I know. I’d say if anyone lacks empathy, it’s the people propagating this type of pathologising language (see a related point in this article by an empathy researcher).

Why did my friend bump into so many empaths in an aspie meeting?

Let me be non-scientific for a moment and generate wild hypotheses from a finding in a very small sample of people.

I have elsewhere described in some detail how growing up with an abundance of empath and intuitive experiences, I never quite realised that other people didn’t have those. I didn’t know that’s possible. However, since somehow I never bumped into reality hard enough to falsify my child’s mind’s assumptions, over time I had to go to ever greater lengths to make sense of other people’s behaviour (or sometimes lack thereof). I actually do identify with a lot of the descriptions of what (mild) autism supposedly feels like – or how incomprehensible the world looks to you. But I’m not sure that’s because I could be legitimately classified as autistic – I sometimes think if it’s possible to look that way when you are simply growing up in a parallel reality because your senses and mind function differently, and consequently what is natural and comfortable for you isn’t so for others.

I have similarly at a point read a study stating that an unusually high percentage of autistic kids is also transgender; and an unusually high percentage of transgender kids show autistic traits. (Which is also true of me.) And I wondered if a similar story could be at play here – when you are trans or seriously gender non-conforming, in a sense you also live in a parallel reality; especially before you realise that others perceive you in a completely different way that you perceive yourself.

So what I’m wondering about is whether being different and growing up in cognitive isolation, so to speak – having intense perceptions that others don’t share, but realising that only after you’ve already missed out on connecting with them and “learning their speak” in childhood and teenage – may frequently enough pass itself off as autism, or actually create autism-like behaviours and symptoms.

There actually exists research that suggests that sensory and social overstimulation is what drives autism – see the intense world theory of autism and a newer study here (trigger warning: animal study). Since sensory and social overstimulation – coming from sensing other people much more intensely than usual – is also what drives empath overwhelm, this could be one clue explaining that strange overlap in the guest list at that Ottawa party.

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4 thoughts on “Can an empath be autistic?

  1. I thought it was common knowledge that autism is about “feeling more” and not about “feeling less”, and only some days learned that this was only recently “discovered” and now in your article I learn that it is also not scientific consensus apparently.
    For me, that was always the theory that made most sense to me, and that is also consistent with my experience (as a person potentially diagnosable with being somewhere on the autism spectrum) and with what other people on the spectrum share. And this also means in my view, that “high sensitivity” is a kind of mild or non-clinical form of autism, which also makes a lot of sense to me. So, in IT words, it is a untypically low input signal compression.

    As for the perceived “lack of empathy”, I think part is the difficulties around social codes/norms. At least for me, I have sometimes trouble understanding what someone else feels, when the issue at hand is related to social norms – for example a perceived incompatibility to a social norm that was not explicitly named, but assumed that I know. Then I might not be able to understand what the other person’s trouble is about. Another one might be related to an inability to react empathetically because of an emotional overload or because of not knowing what a socially appropriate reaction would be. That definitely happens with me, I sometimes go into a freeze or generally do nothing because of not knowing what is the socially correct way to show I care in a certain situation – which then might be perceived as lack of empathy.

    Which brings me to the question why people on the autism spectrum often have problems with social functioning – reading social cues and behaving in socially appropriate ways and sending the right social cues. It’s not completely clear to me. A part of it is probably the fact that we experience the world differently (synesthesia anyone? for example) and that creates a barrier in interaction with other people – there is simply less shared knowledge to base that interaction on. So that’s the cognitive isolation or living in a parallel world issue you mention in your article. And that definitely is a hindrance in social integration, and thus in learning and integrating social behavior.
    Another, more abstract one, could be that social codes and concepts happen at the end of the input signal processing pipeline: the sensory information is processed step by step (for example from separate eye nerve signals to the concept of a tree and of sunlight) and at the end of it, for neurotypical people, there might be concepts like “I should fix up the garden now” or something like that, whereas “we*” might end with experiencing the sunlight and nature. This is probably not a really good example (kind of obvious since I don’t understand social stuff to well 🙂 ), but maybe I get the point across.
    Related to that might be another thing that I have observed quite a bit: effortless social functioning is only possible when you internalize social codes and concepts. You don’t think about them anymore, you simply believe them as truths and perform them as an integral part of your personality. And that is something, people on the autism spectrum often don’t do or are not able to. Social functioning is possible, but it is work, all this decoding and performing has to be done on purpose, it is not automatic. Often I observe some kind of resistance towards these social codes, also in myself. I often find them silly or even morally questionable, so I do not want to do them, and especially do not want to believe in them (which would be necessary for internalizing them). So obviously, effortless social functioning is not possible, because it requires internalization. And I really don’t know: do we disagree with the social codes because we wouldn’t be able to perform them? Or is it because they don’t make sense with our different perception of the world? Or are we actually one step further than neurotypical people in the sense that, since we do not internalize them (because we are not able to), we can actually see the sillyness (and often destructiveness) of them which neurotypical people cannot see because they perform them unconsciously?

    As for the correlation between autism and trans, there has been quite a bit of thought on the issue, including silly stuff (like the extreme male brain hypothesis), but afaik, no conclusion. And it is important that there is no causation identified, just correlation. One idea is, that since people on the autism spectrum are not that well integrated socially in the first place, they have an easier time to step out of social norms with regards to gender as well. I really like this article on the subject: https://the-orbit.net/alyssa/2016/09/05/trans-autistic-weird-common/, even though it doesn’t explain much.

    Anyways thanks a lot for your thoughts, I really liked reading them!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Tina, thanks a lot for the detailed comment.

      What you write on autism and sensitivity also seems fairly obvious to me, at least from knowing the few people I’ve seen who have an official autism diagnosis. I also thought it’s obvious and thought similarly about HSP-ness. I also thought of autism as an extreme-high Vata condition in Ayurvedic terms (and the things that help seem to be pretty much in line with that as well).

      Just since a friend sent me reading about autism, in part academic stuff, I couldn’t digest so much of it as I found it both stigmatising and – weird. Unlikely. Now I’m by no means an expert on that, but just some apparently “mainstream” views seemed simply odd to me.

      On “lack of empathy”, i agree. also wrote about this in another blog post – basically being overstimulated can make you appear unempathic. Happens to me a lot. Also perceptual differences can make you appear unempathic – your attention is simply focussed on other aspects of reality, so you may overlook things that other people “obviously” care about a great deal; however, the situation is sort of symmetric i.e. I’d say that people who are unlike you will do the same thing towards you. So it’s not like the person with autism is less capable of taking another perspective – because I’d say that few people who are “neurotypical” find it easy to really take the perspective of someone who is sensitive to the point of autistic. So why would one be a “lack of empathy” and not the other?

      “A part of it is probably the fact that we experience the world differently (synesthesia anyone? for example) and that creates a barrier in interaction with other people – there is simply less shared knowledge to base that interaction on.” => Yup, more or less the lines I was thinking along. Because my experience is that when I find people who are on a similar perceptual wavelength, the “social codes” issue sort of tends to disappear. Simply. I.e. now someone can suddenly find me exceptionally warm and empathic – because somehow my social instincts match theirs, when just before another person found me cold and distant. Though not always, but I still think it’s a thing.

      “So obviously, effortless social functioning is not possible, because it requires internalization. And I really don’t know: do we disagree with the social codes because we wouldn’t be able to perform them? Or is it because they don’t make sense with our different perception of the world? Or are we actually one step further than neurotypical people in the sense that, since we do not internalize them (because we are not able to), we can actually see the sillyness (and often destructiveness) of them which neurotypical people cannot see because they perform them unconsciously?”

      Thought about that too. For me personally, some social codes definitely just don’t make sense. With the way I feel things, and with the way I prioritise things – which is probably in part guided again by how I perceive and feel.
      I also think that some codes are an effort to perform, and maybe for some people less so than for others. In my case some feel so artificial that I’d rather take the social backlash of not doing them than drive myself crazy trying to. Then apparently, for some people they aren’t artificial at all (I was really surprised to find that, e.g. related to female gender presentation … I thought how do women pull that off without going nuts? then i realised many would feel deprived without it).

      i don’t really have a personal answer to the internalisation question though. i do think codes grow in part out of what’s natural for (a certain group of) people, and they always suit some segments of the population better than they suit others. e.g. even coming from socialist Poland, my father has many stereotypically “autistic traits” which in his time and place were read simply as being gifted in specific areas and less gifted in others, and respected in an environment that valued academic performance a lot and didn’t care much about being “outgoing”. i think dominant social codes always suit some people more than others, and if they happen to not suit you you will pay the price for that somehow, i guess, unless your environment is very open or you find or create a “bubble” for yourself.

      just some thoughts, not sure in how far they’re verifiable.

      i do also think though that the stronger forms of autism – where e.g. sensory overstimulation is a constant problem to the point where you can’t function or learn or focus – and that’s regardless of the norms in your environment – are probably related to bodily imbalances (as also e.g. i’ve read many examples, and seen for myself, that e.g. diet and lifestyle can help balance that kind of thing). again tho no hard opinions on that.

      feel free to share thoughts if any others arise.

      Like

  2. With all the amazing topics discussed and comments made, it feels like I have little to contribute to the conversation.

    However, speaking as someone medically “diagnosed” with autism, and familiar with the implications set forth by the medical community. I’ve grown very concerned with it’s definition and adaptation within our society. Originally, Autism was reserved for those who were incapable of expressing themselves in extreme ways, such as being completely mute, and usually accompanied with extreme sensory difficulties as well. The aforementioned label was a way to categorize a group of people who lacked what most of society could accomplish with ease, especially regarding following social constructs, communicating properly, or capable of living a “normal” life.

    The problem with this results in the “autistic’s inability to explain his or herself, especially in the early diagnosis-developmental stage. The people being diagnosed probably couldn’t say if they had empathic capabilities, they probably were unaware of what these feelings even meant. From their perspective, the world may have come across as one raw nerve of confusing sensations and emotions.

    Cut to the current state of the diagnoses. More people who are not as extremely hindered are beginning to make their voices heard, and the definition is becoming more varied by the year. Unfortunately, from my experience, many people in north America view the concept of being an empath as the problem, and being autistic as the solution. Your question asked “can an empath be autistic”, when I think the focus should be, all are autistic people simply empaths of varying degree, and if so, what could be done to embrace the concept? I know to some changing the focus of the question has little meaning, but I argue it presents a change in perspective, regarding which should be considered the importance of focus.

    Throughout my life the idea of spirituality, psychic powers, being empathic, all seem to fall under an umbrella of delusion, usually by those lacking any interest in the subject matter. There are a lot of other women I’ve met with gender fluidity, as well as empathic abilities, but instead of considering they might be a different form of person, one less restricted in some ways than others, they immediately take heed to the diagnoses. I’ve seen a lot of natural talents disregarded or ignored because the person would rather have the accepted label of being autistic (one that unfortunately carries a degree of weakness and pity), than that of an empathic person who’s simply hyper-sensitive (usually viewed as crazy or eccentric by society).

    Sure there are scientific papers and tests describing potential differences in brain functionality between someone with autism and neurotypicals. But what if it’s simply a result of the empath’s capabilities? What if, in order to widen one’s senses and ability to perceive, the brain’s structure needs to be different from that of neurotypicals? I’m not saying this results in every empath being considered autistic. But I would be curious to see the brain structure of heavily empathic people, in comparison to those on the spectrum. Maybe the difference in being diagnosed as an autistic, or being considered simply an empath, is one’s ability to play the part of a “normal” person, as well as take care of themselves financially.

    As much as it disappoints me to say, I was one of these people for quite some time, who used autism as a crutch to rationalize my empathic tendencies, and “normalize” myself within the public’s eye. Additionally, from my experience I find a lot of people who are hyper-sensitive also lack the ability to properly socialize because one, having difficulties greater than those around you will most likely lead to isolation (thus a lack of learned social skills), and two, it can be very difficult to understand, acknowledge, or even sense your own emotions when in situations involving other people (especially if those people are very emotional or they are in a high-stimulation environment). When this process happens, leaving the empathic person confused and disoriented, they lack the ability to respond properly (or at all) and are officially deemed broken, weird, mean, etc.

    So I guess what I am trying to say, very long-windedly it seems lol, is that it’s my belief is most (if not all) people who are empathic could be considered autistic, if for no other reason than the definition of autism has grown to the point of encompassing any “weird” or “unique” traits and personality habits developed by usually empathic people, as well as anyone with hyper-sensitivity to either the energetic or physical. These definitions mind you, are often based on socially constructed ideas of what is considered appropriate or normal, and how society feels a brain should function.

    Personally, I would like to see the title of Autism done away with all-together, simply because it carries a weight of self explanation and lack of worth among communities. When no one should feel the need to explain why they act the way they do, and having traits such as hyper-sensitivity or difficulty processing certain emotions shouldn’t be considered a disability, but another way of functioning (one with it’s own benefits).

    Liked by 1 person

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