Writing Autistic

Writing Autistic – The Problem With Empathy

[I am currently moving all of my Writing Autistic posts over from My Autistic PoV. This is one of those posts.]

So, one thing that keeps happening since I got my autism diagnosis is being told that I should watch a show because it has an Autistic character. Don’t get me wrong – I want to see Autistic characters. I have wanted that since before I had a word for what I wanted. It’s one of the things that made me want to be a writer.

But I rarely see it done well. I see an “autistic” character and I don’t see me. I see some weird, funhouse mirror image. Bizzaro Lucy.

One show people keep telling me to watch is The Bridge.

There are several different iterations of the show. There’s a British/French version called The Tunnel and an American/Mexican version, also called The Bridge. The one I’m talking about here is the original Scandinavian version that my mum and housemate watched.

The show revolves around a dead body being found on a bridge between Sweden and Denmark, meaning that the two police departments have to work together. The Swedish detective, Saga, has Asperger’s.

I will readily admit now that I have not seen the show. This is not a critique of the show, because I haven’t seen it. I wanted to talk about why I haven’t gotten around to watching it yet.

When my mum was trying to get me to watch it, she described a specific scene which she felt epitomised Saga’s Asperger’s.

There’s a man and a bomb. It looks as if they might not be able to disable the bomb, in which case the man will die. The man is, understandably, distraught and Saga has to try to get him to calm down. And she asks him why he’s upset. She tells him that if the bomb explodes, he will feel no pain. So he shouldn’t be frightened. She has zero sympathy or empathy with him.

I’m sorry, what?

Now, this might not be doing the scene justice. This is me reiterating something my mother described to me.

But the basic implication behind this scene seems to be that Saga, due to her Asperger’s, doesn’t understand why someone would fear death.

Excuse me while I face-palm for a few moments before deconstructing the issues here.

Because, while this scene may not have gone down like this, I’ve seen many that have.

And it all comes down to empathy.

But first, just a clarification – Autistic people still fear death.

Of all of the things we might not have in common with Allistics, this is at the bottom of the list as far as I’m concerned.

This feeds into the problem of empathy in Autistic characters.

As in, they’re shown to have none.

We’re shown to not be able to understand even the most basic of emotions.

Now, it’s easy to see where this problem comes from, but in media you often get the Bizzaro image of a real problem people with autism have.

So, let’s break down what’s happening scenarios like this.

Person 1 (Allistic) has an emotional response to a situation.

Person 2 (Autistic) responds atypically.

Person 1 is further upset/offended by the atypical response.

This happens in real life. It is actually one of the major hurdles in Autistic/Allistic interaction. The problem is that what’s happening from the point of view of the two people is very different.

Allistic people often put the atypical response down to a pure lack of empathy.

Which is weird because empathy is an ambiguous concept to start with.

But Autistic people are often portrayed as being unable to understand that Allistics experience emotion. At all. Even when they’re being told, straight up, how someone is feeling and why.

This is untrue and narratively lazy.

There are many reasons why Autistic people would have an atypical response, and none of them are that we have no functional understanding of human emotion.

Here are just some of the reasons I could think of:

  • Person 1 (P1) didn’t express their emotions in a clear manner. I’m going to pick up on someone crying because that’s a well-known and visually obvious cue. I would also pick up on a sharp tone. I wouldn’t, however, easily pick up on subtle changes in facial expression or tone. Meaning that I might not realise someone is upset at all.
  • Person 2 (P2) wouldn’t be upset by the thing which upset P1. If P1 is crying, P2 isn’t going to completely disregard their feelings just because the incident wouldn’t upset them. However, if P1 isn’t being clear, then this is a reason why P2 wouldn’t pick up on it. And, even if they are crying, P2’s attempts to comfort them may be made clumsy by their confusion, but the effort would still be there. A flip side of this which you can use is P2 getting angry/upset on P1’s behalf over something which would bother them, but which doesn’t bother P1. Or P1 having a “lack of empathy” with something which upsets P2, which happens quite often.
  • P1 might misunderstand P2’s attempts to comfort them, but they’re still there. P2 might go for practical approaches. They might try to offer solutions, when all P1 wants is to vent. They might, after realising that there are no ways to fix the problem with words, offer P1 a physical comfort like food, or they might try to distract them with a fun activity, which could be seen as rudely changing the subject. Often in this situation, an Allistic would offer meaningless platitudes. An Autistic might do this, but it’s likely to be because they remember that it’s the social norm. This isn’t because Autistics don’t understand that Allistics receive comfort from them, but because they don’t and so when you run through ‘what makes me feel better?’ it doesn’t come up. You have to remember.
  • P2 might be hyper-empathetic. I personally struggle with this problem. I feel another persons’ emotions just as strongly, if not more so, than my own. This means that pushing through their emotions in order to be the calming presence can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Especially if it takes me close to being non-verbal, which feels like trying to swim while the water you’re in turns to treacle and, eventually, concrete.

“Lack of empathy” is something Allistics have observed and yet not a lot of thought has gone into why there’s this perceived lack. Hopefully this provides you with a better explanation in your writing than just a lack of understanding of basic emotion.

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