Monday, July 6, 2015

The "Unlikely" Combination of Autism, Social Work, and Empathy

I almost ruined this past Thanksgiving because of a news story.

The day itself was fine - all the guests showed up, the food was good, nobody got in each others' faces about hot-button issues (a miracle considering the Ferguson protests dominated the news cycle at the time), and I managed to get along with everyone perfectly well. As far as family events went, it was a good one.

Bu after the meal was over and the guests left, I checked my Tumblr feed and saw a  story about two British policemen facing charges for chasing and assaulting an autistic Pakistani man.

My entire demeanor changed from being okay to sobbing beyond belief. I couldn't believe the cruelty these men had afflicted on a person I didn't even know. That story combined with the Ferguson coverage made me upset at people's cruelty and it all spilled out in tears. A family member found me crying and while she understood how I could be affected by such a story, she was perturbed that I would let a news story would make me break down.

In short, I may have let my empathy take over to the point of unhealthy display.

One of the most common misperceptions of autistic people is that they lack empathy. This comes from autistic people generally having a hard time reading non-verbal social cues (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.) and reacting accordingly. Ergo, most people make the (seemingly) logical leap that if autism comes with a lack of social cue understanding then they can't be emotionally affected by others' emotional states. The reality is that social cue reading and emotional affect are two different kinds of empathy and the two get easily conflated into the general definition of empathy.

Let's break down these two different types of empathy:

Cognitive empathy is reading and comprehending the non-verbal expressions of someone's behavior and reacting in an appropriate manner.
Affective empathy is being emotionally affected by someone's emotional state, like being happy by someone's success or sad when someone else is going through a hard time.

Now it is possible for someone (autistic or not) to lack both cognitive and affective empathy, but lacking one type of empathy doesn't mean autistic people are completely unmoved by others' situations. It's a matter of how they express it. In fact, general hypersensitivity autistic people experience can lead to having extreme emotional reactions to others' feelings and thus not knowing how to process and express it appropriately. So I'm not exactly an unfeeling person - I just may feel a little too much.

But if my social work studies have taught me anything I have to balance that emotional empathetic expression very carefully. Throughout my four years of graduate school, my professors drilled into my fellow students and I that empathy is more than just being able to express the cognitive and affective aspects. Empathy in social work is listening to others' feelings and life experiences, and being able to validate them. It's sort of a combination of both cognitive and affective empathy while understanding that you might not be able to personally relate to their experience. I like to think of it as the following quote from To Kill a Mockingbird:

"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...Until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."

This has taught me a lot about how I currently relate to things and how to better relate to them. If there's one thing I've learned from my family it's to always hear people's stories out - you have no clue what someone else's life is like unless you hear it from their own mouths and give them credit for it. Is that difficult? Absolutely, but it's difficult for everyone autistic or not. To be able to step outside your own experience to understand someone else's is not a widely taught skill people are expected to master. Yet through my own life and working with others on the spectrum, I see more autistic people capable of that precarious craft than non-autistic people. Every autistic person I know knows they're different than others and that seems to lead to an understanding that everyone in the world experiences the world differently. And knowing that is quite extraordinary.

I know it's "controversial" to say autistic people don't lack empathy. But I think we as a society tend to define empathy too narrowly in simply reading other people's affect. It's about understanding what the person is going through, and being selfless enough to feel for them and validate them. And I honestly think society at large lacks that level of empathy. We all are taught to say "I'm sorry" when someone expresses going through something tough but not to actually process it past a surface level. We are not intrinsically taught to value others' life experiences to be as valid as our own. That lack of insight feeds into misunderstanding, fear, and hatred of things we do not personally know. And at worst, it can lead to bigotry, violence, and murder.

Assuming autistic people lack empathy is a perfect example of not being empathetic to others' experiences. So I would say when you see an autistic person not displaying commonly accepted signs of empathy, be respectful and ask them how they feel. Hear them out and understand that their expression is just as valid as yours, even if you don't personally get why. But most importantly, take them at their word. Listening to autistic people will give you a better understanding of autism than almost anything else. And listening and accepting an autistic person's point of view will strengthen your own empathetic muscles.

Empathy means a lot of things, but we will never truly understand or accept autism until we stop making assumptions about it and actually exercise it with autistic people.

Here's a good video demonstration of autistic expression of empathy:

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