I just read a post, On Sensory Empathy by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, that got me thinking: do people in general only consider the emotional aspect when they talk about empathy?
I believe that inferring another person’s emotional state based on what they say and how they act is the easy part – even I can do it to a certain extent. What is difficult is experiencing sensory stimuli as another person experiences them. When I listen to somebody speak I see a wonderfully rich progression of images – to a large extent my understanding of language is wired through the visual part of my brain. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not like watching video with the volume switched off – the images may be fleeting or they may persist, they may combine and evolve, they may be concrete or abstract. The images are the meaning to me – rather than going from sounds to words-and-phrases to meaning I go from sounds to word-and-phrase-images to meaning. How can somebody who experiences language in what I would consider to be a less rich manner ever properly understand – empathise with – my sensory experience?
And how could they understand the physical discomfort and pain that some stimuli can cause unless they can find some analogue, some equivalent within the realm of their own experience. I can tell people that I can’t stand to hear a certain sound, breaking glass for instance. They don’t know why I can’t stand it, how it feels for me to hear that sound. How it is physically painful because it overloads my senses – it is too intense. Note that I’m not saying too loud or too high-pitched – it’s too bright, like a sudden flash of direct sunlight into my eyes. Try to imagine seeing and hearing a bottle smash on the ground in front of you and – at the same time – it reflecting a flash of the full brightness of the midday sun into your eyes. You physically feel the force of it hit you like a wave. That is approximately how the sound feels. That is what I mean when I talk about it overloading my senses.
Can somebody who is not a visual thinker appreciate how I think about things? Can they develop a model – a theory – of my mind without having any experience of how it really works? I will admit that it is conceivable – after all I can imagine thought without pictures. I imagine it must be something like being blind. Other faculties would have to compensate. I have read that someone who is blind can still experience images in their mind, so I could reasonably expect them to be able to imagine having sight. But I wouldn’t expect it to be easy or necessarily accurate. In a similar way I do not expect non-visual people to be good at imagining what the world looks, feels and even sounds like to me.
I view neurotypical people in a more understanding way now that I realise this. I recognise that they often have talents in areas where I have trouble, especially when interacting with the average person in the street. They seem to be able to intuitively read other NT people’s emotions. But with me, and other people on the autistic spectrum, they seem a bit lost – a bit mind-blind. They don’t often react to us as if they properly understand what we are thinking or feeling – they have trouble with empathy. They don’t spot the signs when we are having trouble with sensory overstimulation and sometimes even add to the overload. But humans don’t come with a user’s manual to explain all this. I feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be open to the idea that there are people out there who experience the world in a different way: to be patient, understanding and to make allowances.