the empathy response

There is a myth that people who are Autistic don't feel empathy. However, I suspect like me, many people with Autism feel an overwhelm of both empathy and a total confusion about how to address the feelings in social situations. Be that because of sensory input getting mixed in with the empathy response, and vying for attention, or any number of other reasons. We are hearing so much these days about the IMPORTANCE of empathy- how could the empathy response ever be bad?

Our mirror neurons are a collection of pathways which send messages to our nervous system to guide the empathy response. Mirror neurons guide the "monkey see, monkey do" action. They are great for learning, great for empathy and sympathy and community, great for connecting us with babies and children. But in a person with many, many mirror neurons, consider something else. Consider the person who can pick up on each and every small, subtle shift in YOUR emotional states as they dance across your face. As your body stiffens or relaxes throughout the day. Think how mutable emotions are, and just how MANY emotions we, as adults, choose to ignore, stifle, or set aside for later.

The ASD person with an abundant collection of mirror neurons who is "reading" the world from this place, from over-empathy, is getting too much information. The subtlety of the world is not subtle to them, and it is just as difficult to "tune it out" as it is for the ASD person to turn the volume down (or up) on sensory input that is out of whack. Having a sense of other people's feelings is overwhelming- and the Autist may choose to do what he or she does best, to narrow things down to black and white categories in order to stay safe. Good and bad. Happy people, sad people. People I smile around, people I mask around. Remember- mirror neurons ask OUR bodies to FEEL and MIMIC the same actions and feelings as the person we are watching- so if I am swimming in your joyful face, wouldn't I want to be around your joyful face more often?

If I am swimming in a sea of faces, wouldn't I try as hard as I could to mask my face? Or, overstimulated by all those signs and signals of emotions (and most likely other stimulus that the brain is pushing right to the front, assigning PRIORITY labels to each new sound, sight, face, shrug, beep, flicker... you get the idea)... wouldn't I feel more than a little bit manic? Hyper? Perhaps (as we see in some children) very, very angry?

Remember we are wired for connection, and the Autistic person is no different. We long for connection. So, the inner magnet that draws us to other people is there. Keep in mind an Autistic person may have a nuanced tool for regarding the world around them, but not nuanced communication for responding to it.

If I am seeing a subtext of anger from you, or feeling you are stronger than me, or you are scowling, sighing, muttering, tense, what are my choices? In childhood? As a "socialized" adult? Passive aggression? Scowling? Demuring (looking away)? Scowling?

The Autistic person is capable of empathy, perhaps more-so than you realize. Is that person being socialized and taught what to do with THEIR feelings as opposed to the feelings all around them? Are they taught to read THEIR bodies before reading the room? Are they taught techniques to communicate in the face of hostility, other people's depression, big feelings of any kind, or how to communicate around subtle cues? Keep in mind, too, that when your own feelings and emotions are (confusingly) buried under the deluge of other information- it may more often than not be TOTALLY paralyzing, and/ or take a BIG emotional event to get YOUR feelings out there- to sort through all those fragments, words, thoughts and collected feelings that sort of "stuck" to you from others.

Empathy is another place Autistic people become misunderstood because their tools are often times "calibrated" on a very high scale.