Empathy is discussed a lot with regards to autism and whether it is recognised and expressed within the condition. For many, it seems when they first meet someone with autism they believe they do not have the ability to show or feel empathy. I wanted to look at what empathy is in definition and in reality.
Empathy as defined in the English dictionary is:
The ability to feel or share someone else's experiences by imagining what it would be like to be them, so as to compare.
- attuned to, commune, communion, emotional intelligence, empathetic, identify, project, rapport, relate, self-discovery, sensitive, sensitivity, sympathetic, understand.
Living with a person with autism means I get to really observe and learn about topics such as this. Others whom care for people on the spectrum know empathy is not lacking, it is the opposite to that. The truth is it is so completely overwhelming to feel someone else's feelings, whatever they maybe that often the only way to cope is to completely shut down and avoid the situation altogether. From the outsiders point of view it looks like that person is being rejecting or does not care at all. This is completely wrong. To be able to empathise with someone for most humans is a small sensation we can cope with. At worst we can cry with them or laugh with an (as real as you can get when are not that other person) understanding. Particularly if you have been through the same experience.
Yet, really and honestly it is impossible to really feel what another person is feeling from an experience they had as we all see the world differently, through our on filtering system. For instance, while some may see a colour such as green with such certainty another will swear blind it is actually blue! no one is right or wrong we do all see the world differently.
When you have sensitivity as attuned as those with autism, why would you choose to feel what others are feeling? Being on the planet and existing is enough for a person to cope with, outside stimuli from everyone and everything, including the environment. Some have said to me adding the feelings of others to that on a one to one level is intense and all consuming. Alien feelings of someone else overtaking every part of your being. I dont know about you, but that sounds exhausting and scary.
You see it is not unusual for a person with autism to say that when they walk into a room or are out and about they feel EVERYTHING at once. Imagine that for a second if you can, let's empathise with that notion. Most of us cannot empathise with it because we simply do not experience it on any level near what they are speaking of. Does that mean we do not care?
To empathise with another human is deemed to be a positive thing, a kindness, the 'right way to be' in order to be a socially accepted caring human being. Personally I feel that empathy is useful to another only to a certain point. Mostly because another cannot fully feel what another is feeling as I have already mentioned but also because if we stay in empathy no-one gets anywhere past that feeling. If it is an unpleasant experience or traumatic, surely to help someone move away from it, to begin to heal two people feeling the same levels of emotion can be counteractive? I feel that compassion is more beneficial to another person when they are having a tough time. Lets have a look at the definition of compassion as far as the English dictionary states:
Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. Sympathy, feeling, empathy (?) understanding, care, concern, solicitude, sensitivity, tender-heartedness, warmth, love, gentleness, mercy, leniency, tolerance, consideration, humanity, benevolence.
I have seen people of all ages with autism express kindness and affection when someone was feeling sad or hurting. Gentleness and tolerance in abundance is given from those on the spectrum. Given without any fuss or expectation of anything in return. Compassion and love is given in it's purest form. Completely selflessly without exception.
Jeorge our son was 3 years old when he comforted a family member who was going through a really tough time. He did this by simply laying across his lap for an hour! Jeorge is non verbal and do did not speak in word communication. Instead he gave his whole self in laying across the lap of a deeply distressed human.
He was comforting him in a way so deep and powerful in silence in a way that was completely selfless. An hour of his undivided attention and love.
Over the years I have listened to and read books of others with autism and Asperger's say how they find emotions very difficult to read. This can lead to an assumption that there is a lack in caring for others feelings. The truth is they said they found the energy of the emotion so powerful that often the sensory overload prevented them from acting in an obvious or expected compassionate way.
There are many unseen kindnesses and acceptances I have witnessed over the last 11 years, they are so subtle that most miss it completely and focus only on the 'learnt, typical' reactions and interactions of human to human. I have seen people with autism hold a space for someone in distress. Simply supporting them by not speaking or asking for an explanation, instead giving a loving space for the person to weep and simply be.
Others have explained that they can feel an energy and even see from the person exactly what is being felt but their words are expressing something different. This is so intense for the autistic person to feel it is very difficult to be able to approach another, mostly because they fear giving the wrong response.
Yet I hear of many situations where an autistic person will hold a hand or stroke a cheek ( one of Jeorge's favourites ) non verbal people with autism will give love and compassion without others noticing as they can do this energetically whilst carrying on with their usual activities.
- Compassion and love is given abundantly by those with autism . I see it everyday with Jeorge. He does this without words and without a need for recognition from anyone. Being in the presence of a person who is autistic means you are not judged or ridiculed for anything. You are who you are... This is real compassion and real acceptance. Selfless in it's purity asking absolutely nothing in return.A person with autism can see someone is sad and understands on a higher level than most of us that this is the other persons 'stuff' and action is not necessary . Acceptance of someone having their moment in whatever emotion they are feeling at the time. This does not mean they do not care instead it means they acknowledge the need for space and support without fuss. Most psychiatrists and therapists know of this skill and the benefits of it.Remember autistic people are incredibly sensitive beyond many of our comprehension. To feel as deeply and intensely as they are capable means getting close is so overwhelming it can be impossible for them to do so. This does not mean they do not care. The same notion for a non-verbal person, does not mean they have nothing to say...