Some myths die harder than the lovechild of Bruce Willis and Deadpool. For instance, ask around pretty much any rural town in Australia and you’ll hear stories of the local big cat that escaped from a circus in the 1960s and still roams the bush nearby. Likewise, the old chestnut that people on the spectrum lack empathy just refuses to choke out.
But these misconceptions don’t just spring forth from nowhere. To use the big cat example, such legends are fueled by the fact that feral cats grow much larger than their domestic cousins, and that the back end of a swamp wallaby disappearing into the bushes looks eerily like the back end of a panther.
I think one of the biggest contributors to this idea that autistics lack empathy is, paradoxically, that we can feel it very strongly. At times, perhaps too strongly. As a child or even a teenager, I could be brought to tears by a classmate killing a moth or a spider. To this day, reading about injustices and inequality can make me intensely angry and upset. (In my experience, those of us on the spectrum often have strong feelings in this regard; we know what it’s like to be discriminated against, so we don’t like seeing it happen to others)
Just as people on the spectrum can feel overwhelmed by sensory stimuli like bright light, loud noises, and crowds, so too can we feel overwhelmed by intense emotion. In the face of such an overload, one of the mind’s defence mechanisms is to withdraw.
And so we try to suppress our empathy sometimes, in order to protect ourselves, in the same way that one might cover their ears against an onslaught of noise. We don’t lack empathy, any more than the person covering their ears lacks hearing.