Imagine you are lined up on a starting line in a large, open field, your competitors lined up on either side of you. The field in front of every runner looks like the same firm, level ground. Everyone is experiencing the same local weather, everyone is starting from the same point on the field and has to progress to the same finish line at the end of the field. Everyone will start running at the same time. For the moment, all factors seem equal.
But when the whistle is blown and the race begins, some participants quickly realize that the stretch of field in front of them, despite appearing outwardly as the same firm ground in front of every other runner, is actually quicksand.
Not only are they now competing against the other runners to see who can reach the finish line first, they are now competing against the tremendous (and unseen) forces of gravity and suction pulling them down with each step.
When the runners who are slowly sinking in quicksand call out for help from the other runners around them, those who have solid ground under their feet roll their eyes and say dismissively, “I don’t know what you’re whining about – the ground is firm enough to run on! It’s not like it’s easy for any of us, you know! We’re all working hard to run this race! Why should you get any special treatment? Stop being lazy and looking for handouts!”
For the runner who has only ever run on solid ground, who cannot see any visible cause for another runner to be struggling to run across their own stretch of field, who has never had to race through quicksand a day in their life, the complaints and pleas for help from these struggling runners seem far-fetched and even reprehensible. When they look around, they see many more runners who are able to run across firm ground than they see runners who are struggling. They therefore conclude that the runners who are struggling are not trying hard enough, lying, or both.
They cannot experience empathy in that moment because they do not have the same subjective experience of those participants who are trying to run in quicksand. The concept of running in quicksand is so foreign to them as to even seem unreal.
Such people, when encountering expressions and opinions that they find to be incongruous with their own subjective experience, then express the opposite of empathy: denial of the other person’s reality. The thinking goes, “I’ve never experienced those same things in those same circumstances, therefore, that experience and the emotions and perceptions which go along with it cannot possibly be real.”
Empathy can be defined as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another… without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. also : the capacity for this.”
What I find particularly compelling about this definition is the last bit: “… without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
According to this definition, empathy is the ability to accurately perceive or imagine the “feelings, thoughts and experience of another” without those feelings, thoughts and experiences being directly communicated.
This suggests that an innate understanding, based on shared subjective experience, forms the basis of our ability to both experience and express empathy for another person. Without that shared subjective experience, and without the knowledge of how that experience might shape thoughts and feelings, of course it is impossible to anticipate and react to those thoughts and feelings with empathy. It’s even virtually impossible to believe that another’s experience, which bears no resemblance to one’s own in the same circumstances, could even be real.
For example, neurotypical people and neurodivergent people very often experience the same grocery store in vastly different ways.
Most neurotypical/nonautistic people aren’t particularly bothered by the lighting, the sounds, and the general commotion of a grocery store, when these things can be overwhelming and even incapacitating for many autistic/neurodivergent people.
Neurotypical people, on the other hand, can be very bothered when the environment is “too quiet,” when to a neurodivergent person, it is neither bothersome nor truly quiet, as we can still hear the hum of electricity, the buzz of fluorescent lighting, dogs barking far off in the distance, etc.
Of course, these sensory discrepancies can happen on smaller scales even within the same neurotype. We are, after all, individuals, and there is natural variance even amongst those who share certain neurological predispositions.
However, the magnitude of divergence tends to be much larger between members of different neurotypes, to the point where our experiences can be as different on running a race over solid ground (having no sensory issues within a grocery store) and running that same race in quicksand (experiencing sensory difficulties within that same grocery store that may even be so severe as to be incapacitating.)
How often have we said, “I know what you’re going through,” in order to comfort someone who is experiencing something difficult? This is the very essence of empathy. It is saying, “I, too, have experienced something similar to what you are experiencing now, therefore I understand your feelings and recognize your experience as valid.”
But what if you experience the world in a wholly unique way from those around you, as autistic people do, and most people don’t know what you’re going through, and you don’t know what the majority of people are going through?
What if your sensory perceptions, and the brain that interprets those perceptions, were tuned into a different frequency than the majority of others, as autistic people’s sensory perceptions are?
What if even the way you interact with others was divergent from “the norm,” as is the case for autistic people?
You would be shunted off of the path of mutually synchronous experiences, and as such might find that you have been in similar circumstances as another person, yet had a completely different experience than they did.
If you also speak a different social language from the majority of people around you (not just spoken language but body language, as well) you may never even pick up on the cues that others are sending which, per their own social and behavioral vocabularies, nevertheless are meant to communicate distress and a request for empathy.
But do these things translate into a person who is incapable of experiencing or expressing empathy? Or do these things simply suggest that without explicit, clear communication of another person’s “feelings, thoughts and experiences” that there is sometimes insufficient shared experience between individuals of distinct neurotypes for one to be able to experience empathy for the other? And is this inability to decipher cues from a foreign social language a true one way street, or do the native speakers of each of these social languages have difficulties deciphering and empathizing with the experiences of the other?
The simple fact of the matter is that the majority controls the narrative and the parameters of the status quo are set by the most common experience. When neurotypical people outnumber neurodivergent people 49 to 1, their experiences are what is considered to be the standard for “normalcy” and any experiences that diverge from these are considered to represent “abnormal” and, often, “undesirable” variance.
But as Morticia Addams famously mused, “Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.”
Normal is an illusion. It is nothing more than those things most people hold in common. This explains why, rather than being recognized as a difficulty experienced wherever neurotypical people and neurodivergent people intersect, the narrative has been, “autistic people are incapable of empathy.” The unspoken subtext has been, of course, “autistic people are incapable of experiencing empathy with/for nonautistic people.”
But ask most autistic people about their experiences interacting with nonautistic people and you will not hear stories of compassion and empathy. You will hear, most commonly, about the autistic person’s reality being rejected, mocked, disregarded, and disbelieved.
“Oh, come on, it’s not that bright in here!”
“It’s not too loud for anyone but you! You’re the only one complaining.”
“I just felt your socks, they’re not scratchy. Put them on and let’s go, we’re late.”
“There’s no way you’re autistic. You’re nothing like the autistic characters I’ve seen on tv!”
Sounds a lot like, “I don’t know what you’re complaining about – the ground is firm enough to run on!” Yeah, sure, the ground is firm enough to run on… for the runner with the solid ground. That does not mean that their experience is everyone’s experience. True empathy between very different groups of people can only begin to be cultivated once we accept that another person could be on the same field as us and yet not experience the same firm ground (or quicksand) as we do.
Who deserves empathy more than an autistic person who is experiencing genuine distress as a result of sensory overwhelm? Yet, because neurotypical people, in the same environment, under the same circumstances, don’t have the same experience as a neurodivergent person, they fail to feel or express empathy for the neurodivergent person when it is, indeed, genuinely needed.
But because they are the majority in the society, this is not seen as a lack of empathy.
Instead, comments like those above are seen as perfectly normal expressions of frustration when dealing with individuals who are “too sensitive” or who are “too dramatic” or are being “too difficult” (which might as well be translated into their most basic meaning: “too different from the sensory norms of the majority” or “too abnormal.”)
The fact is, autistic people experience a tremendous lack of empathy from the nonautistic majority on a daily basis, yet are accused of being the only ones who are incapable of experiencing or expressing empathy.
In reality, neurodivergent and neurotypical people are equally bad at both a) picking up on one another’s social cues that indicate empathy is expected and needed in that moment and b) using our own vastly different experiences as a basis for empathy for members of the other neurotype when these experiences are not shared with members of another neurotype and when these therefore do not apply.
The answer to the question of who is really the one with the empathy problem, neurodivergent or neurotypical people, is both of us.
Each neurotype experiences the world and their own minds in phenomenally different ways from one another. Each neurotype may go through the same situation with the same circumstances but come out the other end with widely diverging experiences and so, fail to understand that the same circumstances might have been upsetting to the other.
So, maybe it’s time to stop blaming the disconnect entirely on autistic people. Maybe it’s time to stop interpreting neurotypical experiences and world views as “normal” and the experiences and world views of other neurotypes as “abnormal.” Maybe being the majority does not automatically confer cognitive or moral superiority and maybe we need to stop acting as though it does.
Maybe, through learning one another’s social languages and being better able to interpret one another’s social cues, and through opening up our minds to the possibility that others can go through the same situation and experience it very differently from us, we will be better able to experience and express empathy between neurotypes.
In short, maybe it’s time to stop projecting a mutually held difficulty solely onto neurodivergent people as if we are the only ones who struggle to empathize with members of another neurotype.
We can all, neurotypical and neurodivergent alike, practice better empathy for one another by embracing and holding space for our differences, by extending one another the benefit of the doubt that we really are experiencing what we say we are experiencing, and respecting one another enough not to deny one another’s reality when it differs from our own.