I am Autistic and I feel deeply about the feelings of others. I look at situations from the perspective of others. I consider how I can best help others. Does this mean I am Autistic, and empathetic?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, empathy is defined as the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.”

By this definition, I would call myself – and many other Autistic people I know – empathetic perhaps even hyper empathetic.

There is a widespread misconception that Autistic people either lack empathy, or are unable to show any empathy at all.

While this may be true for some Autistic individuals, as is the case with non-Autistic people, a blanket stereotype that too often defines Autistic people as non-empathetic is not only unfair for the Autistic individual, but it can have wide-reaching consequences on their potential and wellbeing.

Types of empathy

Renowned psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman have identified three components of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate.


This form of empathy is defined as seeing another’s perspective or point of view, and being able to put yourself in someone else’s place. It is a rational and logical form of empathy.


People displaying emotional empathy quite literally feel the other person’s emotions alongside them, be it distress or joy. It is almost as if one has ‘caught’ the emotion of another.


An ability to understand and sympathise with what another person is going through and respond, by taking action to help resolve the problem. This form of empathy is considered the most appropriate.

Challenging conventional empathy

While some Autistic individuals experience varying amounts of empathy within these three components, many exhibit empathies in other specific and meaningful ways. As each Autistic individual is unique, so is their demonstration of emotions, including empathy.

During our A List Social Hubs I have witnessed immense displays of empathy from Autistic youth towards each other in social interactions, sometimes falling outside what ‘conventional’ empathy looks like, yet just as valid. I want to share some of these examples with you.

Empathy recognition

While many autistic individuals do experience and express empathy, there are sometimes challenges associated with identifying this. Understanding the nuances around how empathy is expressed by Autistic individuals will help neuro-typical people identify displays of empathy, in turn helping them become more accepting and empathetic towards the Autistic community.

I have seen a genuine desire of the teens within our A List Social Hubs to understand each other and in doing so have witnessed participants expressing empathy in various ways – by offering practical support, in the form of honesty or a straightforward solution to a problem.

One of our teens arrived after a day at school where they had been severely bullied.  They were upset and needed space.  Moments after they arrived, they headed to the park outside and sat on the stone wall.  One of our other teens went and sat a metre away from them on the wall and said nothing.  Just sat with them.  Let them be.  After some time when the upset teen was feeling better, they offered to go through a frisbee with them. The upset teen felt understood, supported without any words being exchanged.

Intense emotions

A well-known trait of autism is a heightened sensory radar, with many Autistic individuals experiencing increased sensitivity to sounds, lights, smells, tastes and tactile experiences. In this vein, it is reasonable that a heightened sensitivity to the emotions of other people is common for Autistic individuals, sometimes leading to more intense empathy than the neuro-typical.

A research study by Fletcher-Watson and Bird (2020) showed Autistic individuals have a remarkable capacity to mirror, or amplify within themselves, how another person feels. As one of the participants in that study said, “We express empathy differently.” 

Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett said we are not yet certain how this level of capacity is achieved, but quotes from Autistic adults may provide an indication.

“I am able to distinguish very subtle cues that others would not see, or it might be a feeling I pick up from them.”

“There’s a kind of instant subconscious reaction to the emotional states of other people that I have understood better in myself over the years.”

We see this at every session of our Social Hubs.  Imagine coming home from work or what it’s like when your kids come home from school, and they are ‘full up’ from the challenges of the day.  This is how our teens arrive at the hub.  One of them goes straight to a swing alone to ‘swing off their day’ and our other teens have an intuitive sense of when to leave him swinging and when to include him in the group.  They know when each other are angry and will burn off energy on the oval.  They see when someone is sad, and they will go talk to them.  The fluid nature of their connection to one another is inspiring.

Consequences of empathy stereotypes

The more we can increase society’s understanding of autism – including the range of emotions and how they are displayed – the more inclusive and interesting our world will be! The consequences of stereotypes for Autistic individuals, including lack of empathy, have significant impact on their lives.

It can lead to:

– Increased bullying and stigmatisation

– Exclusion and isolation

– A perceived limiting notion of what the person can achieve

– Reduced social connection

– Poor performance and lower confidence

It’s well and truly time for stereotypes and misconceptions to be dropped so Autistic people can live their best life, and just be themselves. I’m calling for more empathy from mainstream society for the Autistic individual and the unique challenges they face on a daily basis.

I would love to hear your stories about autism and empathy. Reach out here.

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