June 11, 2022

Empathic attunement: catching others’ emotions

Last updated on June 13, 2022

A persistent stereotype about autistics is that they lack empathy and do not understand emotions. While it is true that many of us often do not display our emotions in ways that those without autism understand, many of us experience typical, or even excessive, empathy at times.


Catching emotions

I have disagreed with the notion—that we lack empathy—for as long as I have been diagnosed. I have struggled with “catching” other people’s emotions my whole life. I and many other autistics described experiencing emotional pain in connection with any distressing emotion.

News articles that described traumatic experiences such as the death of a child resulted in me experiencing the feelings of the person dying, the parents’ loss, and family and friends’ grief. Other autistics I have spoken to described in detail intense reactions to other people’s distress.


Personal distress

Research has found that perspective-taking (cognitive empathy) is negatively associated with the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ). However, it also found a positive association between personal distress and the AQ. This association suggests that individuals reporting greater emotional arousability report greater difficulties with social processing and communication and may not represent a core component of empathy.[1]The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire (Spreng et al., 2009)

Put more simply, the more distressed we become from emotions, the more problems with communication and social situations we will have—however, this is not due to a lack of empathy but too much.


Unmitigated communion

Fritz & Helgeson (1998) developed a nine-item questionnaire to measure the personality trait unmitigated communion.[2]Distinctions of unmitigated communion from communion: Self-neglect and overinvolvement with others (Fritz & Helgeson, 1998) Unmitigated communion is focusing on others while excluding an individual’s self. The opposite is unmitigated agency (focusing on self while excluding others).

Respondents were asked whether they agree with statements such as, “For me to be happy, I need others to be happy,” or “I can’t say no when someone asks me for help.” They found that when people measure high in emotional arousal make concessions to avoid straining relationships. This, in turn, is highly associated with self-neglect and depression.[3]Distinctions of unmitigated communion from communion: Self-neglect and overinvolvement with others (Fritz & Helgeson, 1998)

This is something I have struggled with my whole life.


Empathy-based self-neglect

I recall an incident when I was about 5 years old when I was in Hong Kong on a busy street. As I had seen my parents do, I held the door open for another person, and more and more people kept coming through the door. I did not want to let go of the door in case it would hurt someone, so I stood there holding the door and crying. At some point, my parents realized I was not with them and returned and found me in tears—they were confused by why I did not let the door close.

There is much more empathy in an autistic
than you would see in a neurotypical

Dr. Michelle Garnett (2021)

Emotional contagion

This emotional contagion is not limited to negative feelings, but also positive ones. I love when a person is happy.  It makes me flappy happy. This combination of needing to avoid negative feelings in others and experiencing positive feelings when others do has had many repercussions. I am described as kind by people that know me and it is in my top 5 traits on the VIA. But it has caused me to give too much. I have learned that when I give to people they are happy—for a short time. This means that I have to give again and again.

In my clinical work as a therapist, it has been beneficial. It is also why most autistic females go into helping professions and excel in them. People that I have shared this with think it is a beautiful gift. And as in all the neurodivergence in our brains, it has benefits and costs. 


Empathic attunement

This emotional contagion and sensitivity to the feelings of others can cause behavioural empathy challenges. When we are swamped with other people’s emotions, it is difficult to help because we are drowning in their emotions. And so, because we do not respond as expected, we are interpreted as having no empathy.

Dr. Michelle Garrett and Prof Tony Attwood describe it as autistics tending to have a 6th sense: empathic attunement.

The clinical description is: Struggling with absorbing other people’s emotional states. This absorption creates a fog of emotions, making it difficult to differentiate one’s feelings from others’ emotions. It causes sensitivity to the negative feelings of others, and this causes the autistic to feel bad. In turn, this can create behavioural empathy challenges for autistics—when they are overwhelmed with emotions, it is difficult to simultaneously help someone else and manage their own overwhelm and anxiety.

Autistics have no defense against other people’s feelings, causing us to feel other people’s emotional states. Our oversensitivity to others’ feelings, in turn, results in autistics having difficulty differentiating their own feelings from other people’s emotions—for the autistic, there is just a fog of emotion.

When I thought about it, it just made sense that many of us would experience emotions in an overwhelming way, as many of us experience senses in an overwhelming way.


Against Empathy

Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy. In it, he describes Hannah, who has hyper-empathy.[4]Against Empathy (Bloom, 2014) | Boston Review

He asks us to consider what it must be like to be Hannah, whose concern for others does not derive from particular appreciation or respect for others. Instead, her concern is indiscriminate and is compelled by hyper-arousal. Hannah feels compelled to give in and say “yes”—and ultimately, to run away from situations that require her sympathy.

The relief of this phenomenon having a name is second only to my diagnosis. I could never explain why I felt so upset when another person was upset. I have done some things that I could not explain.

For example, when someone I love gets upset, I feel upset, and if I cannot change it immediately, I want to avoid the person. And as a result, I have been told that I lack empathy, even by my autistic partner.


My life improved after my diagnosis, and I was glad to see that research demonstrated that the psychological reaction to knowing you have autism is one of the most telling factors of how the future will play out for that person (Attwood & Garnett, 2o21).

Specifically, your life will improve if it is a relief to have the diagnosis. But if you feel that having autism is an affliction, you are better off not getting a diagnosis, as it will only worsen your life. In such a case, a good clinician will explain some of your traits without naming autism, in order to prevent harm.

So what will I do with this knowledge now? I think much like my diagnosis, I will review my life, and understand my reactions better; and I hope I will be kinder and more understanding of myself.

This article
was written by:
dr-natalie-engelbrecht
I’m a dually licensed registered psychotherapist and naturopathic doctor, and a Canadian leader in trauma, PTSD, and integrative medicine strictly informed by scientific research.And not only do I happen to be autistic, but my autism plays a significant role in who I am as a doctor and how I interact with and care for my patients and clients.

Disclaimer

Although our content is generally well-researched
and substantiated, or based on personal experience,
note that it does not constitute medical advice.

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