Notably, there was a high proportion of hyper-empathic experiences. Many respondents reported their empathic responses to be overwhelming, or even distressing. These different experiences of empathy contrast with societal expectations of empathy, which often result in additional labor for autistic people as they navigate the non-autistic centered world.Autistic People’s Experience of Empathy and the Autistic Empathy Deficit Narrative | Autism in Adulthood
I very much relate to the experiences of hyper-empathy shared in the study, “Autistic People’s Experience of Empathy and the Autistic Empathy Deficit Narrative | Autism in Adulthood”. Tidal waves of affective empathy flood my neurology.
We updated our “Empathy” glossary page with selections from the study.
However, a majority of participants reported experiencing hyper-empathy and extreme empathic responses. Seventy-eight percent of participants responded yes to the yes/no question about whether they had ever experienced hyper-empathy or extreme levels of empathy. This also came through clearly in the qualitative comments. Participants who reported experiencing a lack of empathy might have referred to understanding thoughts and feelings (i.e., cognitive empathy), whereas those who reported a surfeit of empathy were more typically speaking of emotional resonance or affective empathy.
For example, “I have experienced overwhelming empathy most of my life”; “Some people on the spectrum are incredibly empathetic, almost to a fault”; “I absorb other people’s emotions, and I almost know how people are feeling before they are aware of it themselves.”
One participant framed her empathy in positive terms (“I consider empathy my superpower”), whereas most used relatively negative language. Many talked about feeling overwhelmed (“It is like a huge wave of emotion that sweeps me off my feet”; “It is emotionally overpowering”; “I often feel overwhelmed with anger/grief/happiness on behalf of other people”) and experiencing an emotional response that is so powerful and uncontrollable that it causes distress (“[It is a] deep sad feeling”; “It feels crushing”; “It is overwhelming, makes me feel anxious”).
Often, this sense of distress was somatized as participants described it in terms of pain or other physical manifestation (“I feel nauseous”; “I feel empathy so much that it’s painful”; “I feel physical pain in my body”; “I feel a horrible sensation in my body like my innards are being twisted”). Participants also reported negative consequences of this distress (“It is all encompassing and can be debilitating”; “I get a surging emotion from deep inside that renders speech difficult”; “It makes my knees feel as if they are about to buckle”), most commonly in terms of a withdrawal response (“Sometimes I get overwhelmed and shut down”; “[I] find it hard to deal with, which causes me to shutdown”).
This “shutting down” is a functional (avoidant) coping response to an aversive emotional state, but one participant reported a more long-term and adaptive coping journey: “With anti-depressants and years of therapy I now can cope with most of my empathy.”Autistic People’s Experience of Empathy and the Autistic Empathy Deficit Narrative | Autism in Adulthood
This study aimed at exploring both autistic experiences of empathy and the response of autistic people to the empathy deficit narrative using qualitative analysis. The main finding is that the autistic experience of empathy is complex. In contrast to a simple deficit narrative, most participants rejected the idea that autistic people lacked empathy, and many reported experiences of hyper-empathy. In total, seventy eight percent of participants indicated having experienced hyper-empathy (yes/no question) and this was reflected across many of the qualitative comments.
This finding may align with quantitative findings that autistic people have, on average, a heightened affective empathic response relative to non-autistic people. Experiences of hyper-empathy are common anecdotally among the autism community, and have been picked up tangentially across the academic literature. As yet, however, there has been limited theoretical and empirical work looking at this as a specific phenomenon worthy of study in its own right.
The predictive processing account of autism, which suggests that autistic people tend to be more attuned to new sensory information that deviates from predictable patterns, may be useful here. Empathy-triggering social cues undermine environmental predictability, and they might add further predictive uncertainty if one has to consider the potential consequences of one’s own behavioral response to those cues. As such, they may lead to sensory overload and a heightened, potentially aversive, emotional reaction. Outside of the autism literature, Leonard and Willig have thoroughly dissected the functional consequences of hyper-empathy, which can be either beneficial or maladaptive.Autistic People’s Experience of Empathy and the Autistic Empathy Deficit Narrative | Autism in Adulthood