Empathy, it’s a term that is used a lot in reference to autism and autistic people. It’s used in positive ways, it’s used in negative ways. It’s used to put autistics down and it’s used to categorise autistic people, often in a negative way to explain a perceived rudeness or arrogance or the like.
Funnily enough this whole empathy idea has only been around for a couple of hundred years really. The term was coined by Rudolph Lotze in 1858 in attempting to explain the greek word en- + pathos ). It is apparent that this was initially used in terms of ascribing feeling and pathos to art and objects.
Obviously it has evolved over time and has taken on a scientific and medical meaning. It is even used in terms of clinical observations and diagnostics in regard to Autism. The medical definition is:
empathy in Medicine
So there it is the definition and something of it’s origins. But that’s not really the focus of this post. It’s just there as a bit of info. The focus of this post is more about my personal experience of empathy.
I have this idea, and it could be rubbish but I have this idea that empathy is tied up in sensory experience, and I think, well from my experience anyway, that this is a factor in our success as autistic people in expressing that empathy. Let me explore that a little bit.
I watch a sad film and it impacts me quite strongly, I blub like a baby with tears rolling down the cheeks and shoulders heaving. It’s an overwhelming feeling. I have entered the world that is portrayed on the screen very deeply and am feeling this story so deeply that I am overwhelmed with an emotional response. Now lot’s of people have a bit of a cry in movies at times, but for me it seems a bit more than that. Stronger or something. It’s a deep and real feeling that is present in me physically. It’s such a deeply felt experience that I am unable to put words to it, even if at times I can see those words on the screen of my inner self.
It’s a bit like when supporters attempt to comfort me and assist me if I am in a shutdown or meltdown situation, or when I am in a state of overload in a public place due to the onslaught of sensory input. There is a rising anxiety and a sense of needing to find safety and refuge and an inability to make the words to express this.
So it makes me wonder if these two things are connected. Or at least the ability to express empathy is connected to that sensory overwhelm experience. Or maybe it’s just the connection of overwhelm that is the key here. I don’t know, I think it’s an interesting thing to think about.
So my experience with empathy is very much not about the ability to feel and to ascribe the feelings and emotions to situations, objects and people. It is in fact a very potent experience. What I do have an issue with is the expression of that empathy, the expression of that potent experience in a manner that is appropriate to the social norms of the world I inhabit.