Does Social And Performance Distress Make Us Seem Unfeeling?

Thoughts On Autism, Empathy, And Distance

I’VE BEEN THINKING a bit lately about that whole thing where autistic people are said to be lacking in empathy. It’s not something I’ve spent much time on, but there’s a fair amount of pushback against this idea from actually-autistic people. I’ve pushed back against it myself.

Perhaps one of the most striking moments forme was in the aftermath of my father’s death a decade ago. While I felt the vigil at his bedside at the hospital, while I felt his death, I was not experiencing some sort of emotional chaos, or even obstacle. Later on, however, when we were sitting around going through the logistics, I realized we hadn’t yet called long-time family friends, and both the fact that they didn’t yet know and the fact that they were about to know, these are the things broke me. I had to run from the room, to lose it in private. It’s not even like it was going to be me that had to tell them. That sounds a lot like empathy to me.

I’ve suggested that the issue for autistic people isn’t a lack of empathy but a reduced capacity to act upon it, and looking at my own diagnosis I’ve begun to wonder if that isn’t related to my issues with social communication and performance distress. To wit: if you’re experiencing and expressing pain to me in person, I’m going to feel it but I’m simply not going to be able to do anything about it to help you, and the distress actually dampens down my emotional empathy sort of on the fly and in the moment, as a protective measure.

It’s not that empathy is absent, it’s that my brain knows it can’t navigate it in real-time and face-to-face, and so it suppresses it. I’m therefore incapable of being anyone’s shoulder to cry on.


I cry every time at the climax of Cradle Will Rock, as the members of Orson Welles’ theater troupe emotionally struggle with mounting a public performance of a politically-charged play they’ve expressly been forbidden to perform, at the risk of their livelihoods during the Great Depression.


I cry at commercials like the one about methodically tackling a dog’s bucket list (and then again at the real dogs and their bucket lists that I didn’t even know existed until I was writing this).


I cry at performers nailing a routine on America’s Got Talent, especially if they first get off to a rough start but a judge (and host!) helps them get re-centered and start again.


I once to head off crying at Marian Call’s song “Anchorage” (one that affected me every time I heard it) being performed live at a pop culture convention, I got up from my seat and walked to stand at the back of the room.

(To be fair, I’ve also cried at her “Good Old Girl”. Another thing I see a lot from autistic people is the idea that some of us seem to empathize with inanimate objects, and not only can that song be about Serenity — Firefly fandom was my home for a decade — but also about the Mars rover, Spirit; I had a hard time listening to this song after Spirit died.)


I don’t want to give the impression that I think empathy is all about crying. It just seems the most easily illustrative behavior when talking about the empathy issue?


I don’t remember whether it was what sparked me thinking about this but somewhere recently (although it’s from 2009) I came across an article on Psychology Today about crying at movies.

So, we cry at movies because the oxytocin in the human brain is imperfectly tuned. It does not differentiate between actual human beings and flickering images of human beings. Either one is enough to kick oxytocin into high gear and impel our empathy.

For me, as I said, the distance created between me and the emotions at play is a factor in how my body and my brain is able to process empathy. Just a normal face-to-face conversation (it doesn’t matter if it’s about my own emotions or no emotions at all) can put me into distress. Another person’s actual and lived emotional experience on display in front of me? Forget about it. I’m going to retreat or flee.

There’s an interesting bit in the research this article mentions that seems relevant.

Empathy and distress were highly related in our sample and they appear to work against each other at a physiologic level. Psychologists have also distinguished between empathy and distress as motivators to help others. Batson’s empathy–altruism hypothesis posits that these affective states lead to divergent moti- vations to help others. Those who experience distress are motivated to reduce their own aversive state, while those who experience empathy are focused on relieving the aversive state of another.

I’m not entirely sure I agree with how “empathy” and “distress” are defined and distinguished here, because I feel like in both cases someone is experiencing empathy — it’s just that for one person it creates the need to “reduce their own aversive state” while in the other it creates the need to “[relieve] the averive state of another”.

In neither case do we appear to be talking about someone who doesn’t feel and understand what the other person is experiencing, just about how they react to that.

So I wonder if the issue with some autistic people, and certainly this seems to be the case for me, is that increased proximity to another person’s lived-in, emotional experience creates such distress that it overwhelms any real capacity to be of any aid because first we must by the compelling nature of our own neurochemistry aid ourselves. For me, at least, I know that this self-aid frequently will come in the form simply of shutting down, and thereby likely seeming unfeeling.

The less physical distance between me and the other person, the more mental distance I need to create just in order to avoid being subsumed by my own distress. Mediate that distance — say, through a television, or through fictionalization — and I’m able to experience the other person’s state and react to it without the distress.

It’s weird, then, that expert opinion on autistic people somehow manages at the same time to assert a sensory over-sensitivity and a lack of empathy, as if somehow autism just sort of randomly and inexplicably involves a sensitivity to some environmental stimuli but not others. It seems to me (and am I ever seeing this said over and over again as I read other people’s writing) that many autistic people in a sense arguably are too empathetic, to the point of it being debilitating in the real-time, face-to-face moment.


I’m a layman. I don’t know if the article above and the research it cites actually provides any neurochemical insight into me being an autistic person unable to provide comfort. The story it tells seems to match the story I live. Maybe it’s useful only as comparison, but comparisons, I’ve found, do seem to help other people have empathy for me.