Empathy and autism

This is an issue and a topic that comes up time and time again when thinking and discussing autism spectrum disorder/condition and neurodiversity. In this article, I will share some of my views on empathy and shed some light on why this issue continues to come up and why many medical and health professionals are still using out-of-date and problematic misconceptions and misrepresentations on autistic people and empathy. 


The importance of empathy

Before being diagnosed with autism, I trained as an integrative counsellor. In my training, we were taught about the core conditions and how they are the very basis of any counselling relationship and, as therapists, we must work hard to embody these qualities. They are empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.

Empathy is widely understood as the ability to understand something from the perspective of another person or to attempt to walk in another person’s shoes.

If you find it difficult to relate to people and their perspectives the ability to empathise becomes more complex. Autism can be an alienating condition, as it is rooted in being different and being divergent from normal expectations and societal standards.

I think differently from most people and that means that my trying to guess how people may cognitively process certain scenarios or situations is going to vary and probably not align with most people. What I do know from being a counsellor and working with lots of people, is that when people explain their inner world and they describe how they experience things and I listen, believe and accept their reality completely, that is when I can empathise strongly- but it must be made explicit, they must communicate it to me. 

For many neurodivergent people, their perceptions are different to their peers or most people, and they may struggle to relate or connect to the realities and perspectives of those around them. This problematises empathy, but it problematises it for all involved, not just those who are neurodivergent. Therefore, I believe the double empathy theory is a step towards greater inclusivity and acknowledgement of diversity as opposed to viewing empathy as a fixed activity, which autistic people may struggle with.

What is double empathy theory?

This theory states that those who are very different to each other will struggle to relate and empathise with each other and this has been my experience of being neurodivergent. For many people, if they cannot relate to a person, it can be much easier for them to discount, reject, silence and alienate them. People feel more comfortable with those who think they them, act like them and who share the same values and viewpoints. 

I remember listening intently to the experiences and thoughts and inner worlds of my early clients and the huge effort I made to see the world as they saw it. I believe that by listening to their experiences, honouring their realities and most importantly, believing every word they said, that was when I got a glimpse into how their world differed from mine. It was the attentiveness and effort that created my ability to empathise with their situations and experiences. I tried to see the world as they saw it and this took skill, time and energy and that is why I now believe empathy is connected to effort more than anything else.

Maybe I see empathy as effort because I am neurodivergent and I naturally see the world from quite a radical and alternative perspective. It takes effort to see things from the other person’s perspective. I also believe that no matter how much effort I make to empathise, I will never truly know what it is like to be another, because I haven’t lived their life, had all their experiences nor considered where all their values, beliefs and knowledge comes from. But I do know that empathy helps lead us to understand each other better and being understood is what makes many people feel loved, cared for and can give them a sense of belonging. 

One of the most alienating and difficult aspects of being autistic or being on the spectrum is being misunderstood and misrepresented. I will never truly know what it is like to be somebody else, but if I try then I can begin to relate and understand them more deeply. I do not have issues empathising with others because I am neurodivergent, it just means there are people who I will understand and relate to more easily. I think we could all try harder to understand each other more, but we need to start accepting that being empathic is a skill that can be developed and requires effort.

Professionals, writers or health care workers telling people they can’t empathise or will have problems with empathy because they are autistic is unfair, damaging and inaccurate and it needs to stop now. People are different, they will empathise differently and that is wonderful. Let’s celebrate these differences and make greater efforts to understand and connect with those with different perspectives and realities rather than alienate, belittle and misrepresent them with damaging and outdated narratives and viewpoints.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stewartstown, County Tyrone, BT80
Written by Louise Taylor, PhD, MNCS (Accred), MA, B.Soc.Sc, FdSs Counselling
Stewartstown, County Tyrone, BT80

Louise Taylor lives in Northern Ireland with her family. She is a co-presenter on Therapy Geeks and is co-working on a project called Mind Our Kids. She is doing research with Queens University Belfast as part of her PhD on Nature and Mental Health. Louise is a private practice therapist specialising in ecotherapy and neurodiversity.

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