The stereo-type of somebody with autism seems to confuse difficulty with understanding emotion, with being almost psychopathically devoid of emotion. Being autistic doesn’t mean that a person has any less emotions. It simply means that they can’t always express, and understand them as they might be able to do if they were neuro-typical; just because feelings aren’t written across somebody`s face doesn’t mean they are not there, just under the surface. And in fact, many parents and siblings of people with autism claim that it is their autistic family member’s capacity for empathy that they view as one of the most positive traits of their autism.
Somebody with autism may struggle to understand their own feelings, and to express those feelings accordingly. And some people with autism will simply not be able to recognise, name or understand feelings in other people. This is simply a case of misunderstanding, and not any sinister lack of empathy on their part. But sometimes it is not that the person with autism doesn’t recognise feelings in others, simply that they don’t know an appropriate reaction. Normally people`s emotions are kept in check because they are understood, and can therefore be controlled. But a person with no understanding of their emotions can easily lose that level of control. This is part of the reason why autistic people`s reactions are not always in proportion to the situation. But it also means that people with autism can feel things more deeply than others. For example, because autistic people often don’t differentiate between how they react to strangers, and their family members, news stories can often provoke incredibly empathetic reactions. It is not uncommon for somebody with autism to react just as strongly to a sad news story as they do to something in their own life. This is because they don’t always have that filter that neuro-typical people have that assigns a level of empathy and sympathy to various people based on how important they are in that person`s life. The feelings are simply there, and certain things trigger them off, sometimes meaning that autistic people can be even more empathetic.
It is also becoming more apparent that many autistic people can have special relationships with animals* The bonds formed between these people, and their pets or other animals in their lives completely dispels the myth that autistic people are incapable of feeling empathy. Perhaps the empathy is more readily expressed because animals are easier to deal with than people on an emotional level as they are much simpler, and demand less. But many autistic people do feel empathy, and sympathy for animals.
In conclusion it is important not to mistake a lack of understanding of emotion, for a lack of emotion. It may well be that the autistic person doesn’t fully understand somebody`s grief or pain, but this doesn’t stop them empathising and feeling for the person in their own way. It may also be that the person with autism just doesn’t express what they are feeling when they do feel empathy or sympathy, the same as they might not express other feelings. Much of the time people with autism are happy to simply let feelings go on inside their head, without needing to vocalise them, or share them with others. Again, this shouldn’t be mistaken for not having those feelings at all. Empathy is always a positive trait in a person, whether they are autistic or not. And should be viewed as such, however it is expressed.
*I am writing a book about the benefits of animals for people with autism. If you would like your story to appear in the book please send it to me (photo optional) at firstname.lastname@example.org This can be any animal, not just cats and dogs