Almost empathy

I had a conversation with someone a little while ago which got quite involved. We were discussing some very deep feelings about ourselves and each other; we’d covered some difficult ground and were getting pretty emotional. And then out of the blue, apparently I showed something that was “almost empathy”.

It’s been years since I bit someone’s head off like that in public. I’ve got so used to keeping my responses under wraps. But it happened.

I’m not usually so jumpy over precise choice of words – at least not in reciprocal conversation. Having my own issues with finding the right words in the moment, I don’t tend to attach significance to this sort of thing. But the word itself and the way it came out – it wasn’t even patronising. It was encouraging, even approving. But spoken as if it were obvious to everyone present just how big a deal it would be for someone like me to be showing empathy.

Actually, of course, it’s impossible for autistic people to show real empathy*. So it was only “almost empathy”.

Empathy is something that comes up a lot in the autism literature, good and bad. It’s not as all-pervasive as it has been in the past, and many organisations and individuals are now actively refuting the misconception that “lack of empathy” is an autistic trait. But it’s still out there. And it bites.

In many ways, I would say I’m more practised than most at putting myself into another’s shoes. I feel deeply what others feel. I can’t always respond at the same time as they’re talking to me, while I’m processing their words – but that’s a multitasking thing. Often I miss the opportunity to express my response in a “socially acceptable” way; and of course there is only that one brief chance, swiftly evolving into the dangerous territory of dwelling on the subject. This, of course, makes everyone feel awkward – and ironically, will probably get me accused of insensitivity for precisely that reason! When timing is important, should you make the expression late and risk further distress to the recipient, or let it pass?

As a rule, I don’t express sympathy or empathy in group settings. It seems to me the considerate thing is to respect the feelings of the distressed person, so withholding a response that might cause further discomfort seems natural. Even one-on-one I rarely risk responding outside the few people I know won’t be uncomfortable with my delayed processing speed. There’s the fear of not being able to communicate my feelings appropriately, stepping over some invisible line to trespass onto deeper, more personal terrain. But of course, never to be seen expressing empathy can lead more confident individuals to believe I do not feel. They cannot read or respond to me any better than I can read or respond to them. Yet their ability to feel, to take perspective and to empathise, is never called into question.

You may not see it. You may not feel it. But there is nothing “almost” about my empathy.

* Sarcasm implied