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Empathy and Autism

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Hi, and welcome to this edition of my Autism series posts.

I hope you enjoy it.

If there is anything you’d like to know about Autism that I can write about, do let me know by using the contact form on the main menu, or leaving a message at the bottom of this post.


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It is regularly thought that people on the Autism spectrum can’t or don’t empathise.

I’d like to challenge that from a couple of different angles.

First, from personal experience.

Second, from the perspective I’ve read in Paxton and Estay’s book on Counselling people on the Spectrum.


I’ve worked with people with Autism for the past 11 years.

Each individual is different – as we all are – and has different abilities and personalities which make them unique and great to be around.

I’ve had empathy from autistic people I’ve supported, so I know that I can challenge this from personal experience.

A pat on the back when I seem sad.

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An attempt to make me laugh when someone has angered me.

Laughing at something funny we both happen to see at the same time, and knowing we are both laughing at that exact same thing.

Whether it’s “mainstream” empathy or not, does it really matter?


The general definition of empathy is to have the ability to identify someone else’s emotions or thoughts and respond appropriately.

Don’t the few examples I mentioned above fit into this?

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I think they do.

Right.

I think I’ve made point one quite nicely, with the help of those people that have changed my life through their particular approaches to life and relationships.


Point two – Paxton and Estay suggest that autistic empathy is more about systems than what we usually recognise within ourselves when we feel empathy towards another person.

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They say that “systemizing is described as the ability to understand and build systems, and predict how a system will perform given certain conditions. Systems can be mechanical, natural, envorinmental, technical, abstract or taxonomic. they do not include human systems – family, office.”

I agree with this, as I’ve challenged clients on the spectrum before with things such as:


“Well you say that when someone has their arms folded, it means that they’re being defensive. This might be the case some of the time. Other times I might fold my arms because I’m cold or I’m thinking and this helps me think.”


I work with people on the spectrum in a similar way that I would with anybody else, as you can see from that verbatim above. I challenge views and allow for space to think about alternatives.

In the case of someone on the spectrum, even more sensitivity needs to be used, as it has taken the individual quite a lot of time and effort to come to this conclusion.

It is by no means a wrong conclusion.

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It might just be incomplete, and my job as their counsellor would be to fill in the gaps, so that their empathic system has even more options and alternatives of what someone’s behaviour – i.e. folding their arms – might mean, and therefore allow even more responses – i.e. being defensive back or offering a blanket!


Systems help people function.

They help people empathise in a particularly clever way.

Whether someone on the spectrum empathises with you in the more “traditional” way or via the systems they’ve built, they are still being empathic towards you.

I believe there’s a lot to learn about how adaptable and how people with different brains than us neurotypicals can adapt to this world we live in.

We struggle. They struggle.

We are all human living in an imperfect world.

Let’s embrace everyone as they are. Let’s learn and grow from knowing one another, warts and all.


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4 responses

  1. Pingback: Autism/Aspergers – Working together in the therapy room (mini-series- pt.2) « Insights…from the desk of Karin Brauner

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