A recent experience has me rethinking and challenging some commonly held beliefs regarding autism and empathy.
MJ received a phone message this week from a friend who was clearly distraught over the loss of something important to him. When MJ called him back, he quickly stepped into a role in which he was offering support and advice. At one point I heard MJ say “I know you’re upset and I don’t want to hang up until I know you’re feeling better.” Clearly MJ was expressing empathy.
I relayed the experience to my wife later and she responded that she’s seen MJ often express empathy, but almost only when the other person was in a worse situation than MJ. Once again, my wife had made a very perceptive observation on something I had overlooked.
This observation struck a chord with me and I realized that I, also tend to express more empathy when someone was in a more serious situation than I am. I do it at home and I do it at work. I took it a step further and realized that this is a fairly typical behavior. The examples are countless. We complain about our busy days, but if a neighbor or family member is ill, we find a way to help. I’ve seen colleagues overburdened at work, but if a another asks for assistance, most are likely to stop their own work to help out. We donate to charities because there are people who need money more than we do. In the days following the 9/11 attacks (in an area of the country not directly impacted), I noticed that almost everyone behind the wheel of a car began driving incredibly politely. The change in behavior was obvious and observed by many. The selfish acts of cutting people off and running red lights and stop signs disappeared. Instead people waved each other into the flow of traffic and patiently waited their turns at intersections. People knew that every other driver was carrying a similar and weighty burden and deserved to be treated as such. Prior to, and after that period, it would be easy to conclude that most drivers completely lacked empathy for each other.
So perhaps the autistic demonstration of empathy is not all that different from the neurotypical expression. Perhaps the perceived lack of empathy does not reflect the capacity for empathy but rather reflects the ability to understand another’s situation. If one cannot understand another’s situation, empathy is unlikely to be displayed. If the situation is understood, perhaps empathy is present more than we expect.