A couple months ago, a friend and I were sitting on my couch. We had brewed tea and I was listening to his heart aches.
Stories were told. I was there for him because I consider him as a friend and that’s “what friends do.”
We also exchanged a few thoughts on his predicament. As usual, I disclaimed: “don’t pay too much attention to what I am saying though. I have zero empathy and very experience of my own.”
He said, “I find it really hard to believe you have zero empathy. To me, it feels like you’re very empathetic.”
“I am very good at listening,” I replied, “and I have read and watched a lot. It gives me tools to understand what ails the people I care about. It is very intellectual. My disability prevents me from doing this instinctively.”
It has been many months and I still think often about this conversation. Since then, my doctor and I have talked about it; I also watched multiple YouTube videos on the expression of feelings with autism.
Today, I still believe that I rely on external information intake to properly structure my thoughts and converse with my friends. However, today I have stopped believing that I am not empathetic.
The statement that “I was not empathetic” always had sounded wrong. I know that I get severely emotional through empathetic response for certain filmed or written scenes. That it does not happen with other people in real life certainly does not feel right, but a full lack of empathy would not be compatible with my experiences.
The truth is, I do not know how to reflect on my feelings in the ways that neurotypical folk expect me to. For example, I am physically unable to reflect on feelings at the moment they occur. An emotional state overwhelms me and blocks my use of language. An emotional state induced through empathy for someone else likewise overwhelms me and make me non-functional.
So to keep matters practical, I do sometimes choose to block my empathy, and instead bottle up a conversation so I can replay it in my head later. I can then process my emotional response in the safety of my home or a known environment.
To the external observer, in the moment it makes me look like a psychopath or a robot. I knew this. But now, I can also explain.