On Empathy

It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that the neurotypicals are at it again.

Tomorrow is Autism Pride Day, so of course today Twitter has been dominated by responses to a stupid tweet from a neurotypical journalist “thinking out loud”. She’s deleted the tweet and issued a fauxpology, but what she said was that Theresa May has no empathy because she’s a “super-functioning” autistic person.

So, just to make things very, very, very, clear for the ten millionth time:

Lack of empathy is not a characteristic of autism. Some autistic people have no empathy, just as some (most?) people with neurotypicality do, but most autistic people have a far, far higher degree of empathy than most people with neurotypicality.

Autistic people sometimes have difficulty in reading other people’s emotional states. That difficulty is not due to a lack of empathy. It’s a perceptual difference, and is roughly equivalent to a blind person being unable to see someone smiling, or a deaf person being unable to hear tone of voice. If you don’t think that blind or deaf people lack empathy, then don’t think it of us, either.

And this is not something that is limited to autistic people. People with neurotypicality have *exactly the same difficulty* in reading autistic people’s emotional states. The main difference is that autistic people are punished for this inability, while people with neurotypicality are given a free pass. We’re forced to conform to neurotypical forms of expression, and told we’re doing it wrong anyway. When it comes to emotional communication, autistic people are like native French speakers being forced to communicate in English, and being told that any time we speak with an accent or misunderstand an idiom it’s because we’re literally subhuman and don’t have the basic human quality of empathy.

When autistic people do understand someone’s emotional state — when the person with neurotypicality has managed to learn to communicate successfully with people who are unlike them, or when the autistic person has expended massive amounts of mental effort to become emotionally bilingual — they are usually far more empathetic than people with neurotypicality. (I say “usually” because the things which stop people having empathy can coexist with autism just as they can with neurotypicality. Autism isn’t a magic wand that makes you into a good person).

For many autistic people, in fact, we are over-sensitive to other people’s emotional states. I can become so overwhelmed by someone else’s sadness that I lose all ability to function and will do literally anything to help them. Most of the autistic people I know are so aware of injustice and hurt around them that they put all their energy into fighting injustices that many people with neurotypicality are completely unaware of. Distance-diagnosing people is pernicious whenever and wherever it’s done, but I’d say that figures like Gandhi or Albert Schweitzer show far more of the characteristics of autism than May ever has, and are far more typical of how autistic people respond to injustice.

People with neurotypicality seem far, far, more likely in my experience to only show empathy for members of a particular group with which they identify (white people, English people, men, Christians, heterosexuals, members of their own family or whatever). It’s certainly not true for *all* people with neurotypicality, but as a crude generalisation they separate people into in-groups and out-groups and only care about in-groups. Autistic people, on the other hand, very rarely see ourselves as members of a group at all, and don’t often distinguish in the same way between deserving and undeserving targets of empathy. Which of those actually sounds more like Theresa May?

(Yes, I’ve just done precisely that separating in-groups and out-groups thing, and unfairly demonised an out-group based on it. Hurts, doesn’t it? I actually took about twenty goes to write that paragraph because I didn’t want to unfairly hurt my friends with neurotypicality, even though I think that kind of paragraph is absolutely necessary as a rhetorical device in this post.)

Theresa May is the Daily Mail made flesh, a perfect living representation of the views, values, and behaviours of middle-class, middle-aged, white, suburban England. She is stupid, cruel, and appears to have no hinterland whatsoever. These are not characteristics of autism, but characteristics of privilege.

Evil is not a disability, and disabled people are not evil.

And this matters for two reasons. The most obvious one is that this is being used to excuse May, and she does not deserve excuses, but blame.

But more importantly, this kind of bigotry kills people. Autistic people die, on average, sixteen years younger than people with neurotypicality (for autistic people who also have epilepsy, it can be much, much younger than that — if I were one of the twenty to forty percent of autistic people who have epileptic seizures, my current life expectancy would be about four months). For autistic people without comorbid neurological conditions, the two biggest causes of death are stress-related heart disease and suicide.

As someone on blood pressure medication because stress has at times raised my blood pressure to 200/100, and who has suicidal ideation caused by depression on a semi-regular basis, this is a statistic that holds a very personal meaning to me. I would quite like to live past my mid fifties, if it’s all the same to neurotypical broadsheet journalists who complain about others’ lack of empathy.

(Meanwhile of course there are “autism charities” which suggest that more empathy is needed — for parents of autistic children who murder them.)

And the only way to increase autistic people’s life expectancy (other than prompt treatment of comorbid conditions like epilepsy and diabetes, which we are at very high risk of) is to remove the stress which comes from living in a world designed by and for people with different brain architectures to ours. And the very, very, smallest, most trivial, first step in that process is to recognise that we are human, and that we share the human capacity for love, for empathy, and for decency.

There are a lot of words I could use for what Theresa May is, none of them complimentary. And none of them are “autistic”.

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2 Responses to On Empathy

  1. patrickhadfield says:

    Thanks for writing that!

    “Theresa May is the Daily Mail made flesh, a perfect living representation of the views, values, and behaviours of middle-class, middle-aged, white, suburban England. She is stupid, cruel, and appears to have no hinterland whatsoever. These are not characteristics of autism, but characteristics of privilege.”

    That is just brilliantly put.

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