The “Communication Without Empathy” Myth That Needs to Disappear Into a Black Hole

A white flower on a black background with a mirror image of itself with text that reads "The communication without empathy myth that needs to disappear into a black hole."

Warning, this isn’t a post, it’s a rant.

I received a comment on one of my posts that really triggered and upset me.

A reader commented that “communication without empathy” causes misunderstandings all around.

I’m sorry, but the whole “autistic people lack empathy” idea is getting WAY out of hand. Unless you’re brand new to the entire concept of neurodiversity, this very dangerous myth about autistic people shouldn’t even be in your mind.

From what I understand, NTs view empathy as somebody saying, “I understand how you feel” when having a discussion or an argument.

This means that the NT will not believe the autistic person has any empathy or cares about them AT ALL if they do not hear these words or similar during a disagreement.

This absolutely must happen, or the communication breaks down completely.

OK, so here’s my issue with that. I do understand that a person wants to feel heard and have their emotions acknowledged. I get the need for that.

So, when you’re in a heated discussion or even just a casual one, it is absolutely imperative and critical for the person you are speaking to to acknowledge your feelings by saying, “I can imagine that must be hard for you” or, “I can see how you took what I said that way”, or, “It sounds like you had a really hard day”.

Those are phrases that make you feel heard and safe and connected to another person. OK, NTs, I’ve got that, and now that I’ve got that, I can do that.

But here’s the thing: It’s not natural for me. Because I “lack empathy”? No. Because I show empathy in an entirely different way.

(Article continues below.)

The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

Before I knew about these phrases, conversations between myself and another person would go like this:

Person: “My car broke down on the highway. That’s literally the third time this month! I don’t understand it! I don’t have the money for another tow truck, or I won’t be able to even make the rent this month!”

Me: “I know a mechanic who can look over your car. I really trust him. He’s been working on my car for years. He’s really fair and gives detailed explanations of what’s going on with your car. Also, AAA is awesome. You won’t have to pay for each tow, it’s just $60 bucks a year, so you’ll save a ton of money that way, too!”

Person: “You don’t even CARE how I feel, do you?”

Me: *Looking like a large-mouthed bass with my jaw hanging open in shock while the person walks away in a huff.*

And this is just a pleasant example of a minor misunderstanding. Here I am, trying to help, and somehow, some way, I have irritated the person even further. How? Why? What twisted alternate universe is this??

I’ve lost friendships, relationships, and jobs over these types of misunderstandings my entire life.

– Jaime A. Heidel

Arguments that would last for hours and result in crying and screaming and sobbing and much worse. Horrible, traumatizing things.

Finally, about 5 years ago, somebody actually took the time to tell me, “Yeah. When I tell you something that’s going on with me, I’d like you to acknowledge how I feel by saying you understand how I feel. I don’t need you to offer advice.”

You haven’t seen a larger set of eyes on an anime character when it finally clicked for me.

That means that all this time, every friendship, every relationship, every misunderstanding, and every lost job is because I tried to fix the problem instead of saying, “Awww! That sucks!”

So, all of these hours-long, deeply traumatizing conversations had to happen just because not one person took 5 minutes out of their day to explain that’s what they wanted and needed to hear?

“Awww! That sucks!” is what could have saved relationships and stopped the Titanic from sinking, and not one human being ever thought in their raging tirades at me to mention it?

Do you have ANY idea how painful that feels? To know that you have tried every single solitary thing you can think of to make communication work between yourself and another person, and it was something THAT SIMPLE the entire time?

Autistic people don’t know to communicate that way. Our natural inclination is to fix the problem. It’s our way of not only empathizing with you but trying to make sure you never have to go through it again!

To us, and it may not feel this way to NTs, but to us, “Awww! That sucks!” sounds horrible! It sounds so trite and contrived and meaningless. It literally sounds INSULTING! Like we’re saying, “Well, life sucks. Oh, well. Anyway, did you see that new reality show?”

And that’s what you’ve needed this entire time. That’s the glue that holds NT relationships together and makes you feel as though the person you’re speaking to has empathy. That’s the secret that nobody bothered to clue us in on while they were firing us, breaking up with us, abusing us, or mistreating us in some other way.

That is what gives NT people who don’t know much about autism believe that we don’t have empathy because we didn’t know we were supposed to use those words or similar to acknowledge your feelings before offering advice or instead of?

That’s why some people are trying to destroy us? That?

I’m sobbing writing this.

Neurodivergent people (most of us) have empathy in spades. Too much of it, in fact. And these misunderstandings could have been so easily avoided if just one person told us what NT people expected.

I wouldn’t know now if it hadn’t been for my ex. I would not have a clue in this world, and people would still be raging at me, and I would not know why.

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