Think Autistics Lack Empathy? Typical, Neurotypical

“Often, empathy is absent.”

Almost every autistic person alive has contradicted or negated this claim in some way, shape, or form. And, yet, neurotypicals have not fully realized their folly, choosing instead to argue amongst themselves about the meaning of empathy or the extent to which empathy presents in autistic people. Their error is not simply the continuation of the empathy myth, but also in not listening and believing autistics who offer information. Liken the situation to mansplaining or ableism or call it what you will, the immortal autism empathy myth lives another day because of the glacial pace at which neurotypical perspectives change. 

Neurotypicals have controlled the trajectory of all things autism (including, but not limited to, the scholarly investigative narrative, etiologically driven medical research, the agenda of social appropriateness, and the diagnostic freaking criteria) for as long as they have recognized autism. They have a stranglehold on autism, over the construct of social appropriateness, and over whose voices matter. They are the power players because, as the majority, they have deemed their experience of social interaction as gospel and the definition of what is socially appropriate.

Interacting with autistics and valuing the viewpoints and experiences of autistics challenges the singularity of the NT social experience. NTs describe autistics as empathy impaired because NTs are uncomfortable. Autistics describe themselves as empathy atypical because NTs control whose comfort reigns supreme. The “empathy is absent” myth seems to be an example of the neurotypical culture defining the negative space of an interaction to justify what NTs need to feel comfortable in a situation. Put another way, autism has been constructed from the discomfort NTs experience when interacting with autistics. 

The contradiction has been highlighted before —  the supposedly socially atypical minority is expected to learn and adapt to typical (read majority) social patterns. Put another way, the responsibility of maintaining how comfortable or not neurotypicals feel when interacting with autistics rests with autistics. It seems unfair and irresponsible to expect autistics to be charged with alleviating the discomfort of NTs when they have their own discomfort to contend with. In this light, autistics are doing double duty, and neurotypicals are still complaining that is not enough. 

Neurotypicals have defined autism as an undesirable negative with little chance for autistics to say otherwise. They believe that the NT experience is the right experience, the desired experience, the preferable experience. For autistics to have a voice in their own narratives, neurotypicals have to consider that they cannot control the definitions of all things social. 

If neurotypicals stop worrying about their comfort levels around autistics, everyone can begin to value different social outcomes. We can do away with the hackneyed tropes of emotionless, devoid-of-empathy robots who have no concern for anyone outside themselves. We can blur the meaning of social characteristics like socially awkward, aloof, friendless, oblivious pawns used for comedic value. 

We can upend stereotypic characterizations of autism. 

We might also upend the meaning of neurotypicality.