Autistic people are said to be (severely) impaired in their ability to empathise with other people which is reflected in the ‘mind-blindness theory’ of autism (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, Frith 1985; Frith 2003). However, contrary to the belief of lack of emotional compassion in autism, autistic individuals may experience enhanced emotionality (along with enhanced perception) (Markram et al. 2007).
There are different types of empathy: sensory empathy, emotional (affective) empathy and intellectual empathy. ‘Normal’ people have emotional empathy but some of them may be very deficient in or lack ‘sensory-based empathy’, quite common in many autistic people.
Donna Williams describes sensory-based (not mental) empathy as working ‘through resonance in a relationship between sender and receiver in which the receiver loses their own separateness in merging with the sender as part of the mechanism of acquaintance before returning to the unmerged state of its own entity’.
Thus, many autistic individuals can easily pick up the emotional behaviour of those around them (even though they cannot interpret the feelings). Often those who take care of autistic children trigger (by their emotional state) what we call challenging behaviours and then are puzzled as to what caused the outburst or meltdown. Many autistic children seem to automatically tune into the mood of their carers and instantly share their emotions. These hypersensitive individuals seem to amplify carers’ emotions and feed them back. If the emotions are negative, ‘difficult behaviours’ emerge, which, in fact, are caused by the negative emotional energy that has been ‘fed’ to the children by those around them.
Intellectual empathy is quite common in some people with autism – typically, high-functioning individuals whose sensory empathy is not pronounced but who are able to feel and appreciate emotions intellectually – through art, music, literature and other creative and artistic means. This is because, through art, emotions are translated into sights, sounds, and words. These ‘intellectually emotional people’ can become emotionally moved under the effects of art, music, literature or films.
Paradoxically, art (whether visual or music or literature) is felt experience, even if it is not consciously registered. So, these (intellectual) emotions are as powerful as sensory emotions are.
A very important feature of ‘intellectual empathy’ is that it is very logical: people can logically explain and rationalise the feelings they have in different situations.
So even if they may lack ‘affective empathy’ because of difficulty reading (conventional) signals, they compensate for it with ‘cognitive/intellectual empathy’.
Everything comes with a price. It has been noticed that sensory and emotional sensitivities are often associated with certain somatic symptoms. Psychologist Ian Wickramasekera (1998) suggests that physical sensitivity can be transmuted into such physical symptoms as asthma, allergy, chronic pain, fatigue, and so on.
Wickramasekera explains that psychological distress leads to somatisation (physical illness): when the person ‘is being…made sick by distressing secret perceptions, memories or moods that [he] blocks from consciousness’. Sharon Heller (2002) also confirms that highly sensitive individuals often suffer from such conditions as chronic fatigue, aching muscles, sleep difficulties, headaches, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, skin disorders and other problems. She explains that environmental stimuli that would be unnoticed by the majority often cause a chronic stress response in these individuals, and ‘eventually the immune system is depleted and the body succumbs and breaks down’.
All these somatic symptoms have been reported by autistic individuals who experience sensory and emotional hypersensitivity.