… 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.
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).
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.