Buried and mostly unaddressed in “An Expert Discussion on Autism and Empathy” from the forthcoming journal Autism in Adulthood, Dr. Christina Nicolaidis posed what for me is a crucial question.
We have been talking about double empathy and nature of empathy and the difference between cognitive empathy and affective empathy and limitations of those distinctions. One thing that has not come up is the notion of being overwhelmed by feelings of empathy. I am not an empathy researcher but in my research and discussions with autistic friends and colleagues, one thing I often hear is this notion of experiencing other people’s emotions at such a great level that it almost feels like you have to shut down or it feels like an overwhelming, overempathy type experience. Has that been studied?
In fact, I’ve raised this very possibility before, that perhaps social and performance distress causes us to seem unfeeling to neurotypical observers.
When she asks if this has been studied, I can’t speak to whether it’s been studied directly, but in my earlier thoughts on this, I suggested that proximity to the actual and lived emotional experience of another person triggers for many autistic people the fight or flight reaction, and that in fact the study “Empathy toward Strangers Triggers Oxytocin Release and Subsequent Generosity” might point to why.
Empathy and distress were highly related in our sample and they appear to work against each other at a physiologic level. Psychologists have also distinguished between empathy and distress as motivators to help others. Batson’s empathy–altruism hypothesis posits that these affective states lead to divergent moti- vations to help others. Those who experience distress are motivated to reduce their own aversive state, while those who experience empathy are focused on relieving the aversive state of another.
I did then and I still do now question the study’s positioning of “empathy” and “distress” as opposites, since the study itself makes it seem pretty evident that all the people in question were experiencing empathy, it’s just that for some the reaction is to help the other (“[relieve] the aversive state of another”, in the study’s words) and for some the reaction is to help oneself (“reduce their own aversive state”).
While this study doesn’t specifically address autistic brains, it does suggest there are ways to study how different brains react to empathetic stimuli, and therefore ways to look at autistic people in this context.
Weirdly, this takes us right back to something I only just wrote about the neurotypical narrative that autistic people tend to “overreact” (by which they really mean outwardly respond out of proprotion to the perceived severity of the stimulus), because what we generally see are neurotypical people claiming we undereact (by which, again, they really mean outwardly respond out of proportion to the stimulus) when it comes to the emotional states of others.
If we melt, or shut, down, we are overreacting, but if we can’t reach out to help when someone else is in distress (or, for that matter, delight), we are underreacting.
In reality, in all of these cases, we are reacting precisely as our brains would dictate, in exact proportion to how we feel the force of the stimulus in question. Sometimes our outward responses follow that inner reaction and sometimes they don’t, but neurotypicals don’t get to dictate the terms of behavior.
Leaving us to ask, again, always and again: just which side here is exhibiting the lack of empathy?