Have you ever heard the phrase, 'autistic people have no empathy'? I have. I heard it for years before my diagnosis. I've heard it a thousand times since. I might have even said it at some point. I've read it online and in books and heard it from the mouths of healthcare professionals. The autistic spectrum is vast. Perhaps there are some individuals skating the lines who struggle with empathy, but to make a definitive statement such as, 'autistic people have no empathy', is ignorant at best.
Empathy is something I have struggled with my whole life. It's something I drank heavily for ten years to dull down. It's something that strikes me down palpably, like a scalding poker singeing my skin.
My theory - and perhaps someone else will have theorised this too - is that autism is a sixth sense. We feel and experience everything so viscerally. The whole world is too much to handle, that's why we have meltdowns. We are constantly overloaded by the sensory world. I feel like I can taste smells that are too intense. Certain sounds make me vomit and cry. I have seen pictures and images on screen that have had me drinking for days afterwards to try and forget. I have had panic attacks from watching scenes that involve anything trypophobic (fear of holes). The feel of a fabric I don't like will stay with me for weeks, months, years. Even now, I can remember what it's like to scratch a bed sheet with my fingernails as if it's happening right this second. I know the feel, the sound it would make. I know it would cause a lump to form in my throat and I would begin to retch. And I would feel uncomfortable, stressed, tearful all day, the reminder of it lingering on my fingernails the way dust clings to the light.
So strongly do we feel these physical things. How could we not feel things as deeply on the inside? When a person is in pain or turmoil near me, or on the telly, or in a book, or even in a story a friend tells me, I take on that suffering. I take it in and ache as though it is happening to me. I cry for that pain. I hold onto it as though to let go would be to lose myself. I feel the pain of others as profoundly as if it were happening to me. And I need to correct it. Because, fundamentally, autism is about control. And the meltdowns and panic attacks and general every day discomfort are due to a lack of control.
Empathy is my strongest emotion.
Last night I had a meltdown. I cried all night. I couldn't stop. I was grief-stricken and frightened. Today I am still feeling the effects, almost twenty-four hours on. I was melting because two people I'd been with at work had been suffering. One with their own mental health and another with horrific life circumstances. I don't know either of them very well at all, but took on their grief and fear as though I was personally suffering their afflictions. I finished my shift and cycled home with purpose, desperate to make it to the safety of my own home. Once through my front door I dissolved. Couldn't breathe. I awoke today with a crying hangover (the only kind of hangover I ever experience anymore) and have felt tender all day.
I wonder whether sometimes we have to turn our emotions off, because we are feeling too much. Maybe it seems like we are lacking then? I know that when I am feeling a strong emotion myself, I have no room for anything else. Then I can appear selfish. I'm not selfish, I just have an order of things. I just have a capacity, and I am often at capacity. When every feeling is all consuming, life is exhausting. But know that I love you. I love each and every one of you.