Empathy & PTSD

Learn more about autistic empathy here: https://www.facebook.com/autisticnottingham/posts/10158437379552634

Learn more about PTSD here: https://www.facebook.com/autisticnottingham/posts/10158121249907634

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Full paper: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/aut.2020.0013

Nothing about us without us
Who: Hume & Burgess
Journal: Autism in Adulthood
Published: 2020
Title: “I’m Human After All”: Autism, Trauma, and Affective Empathy

Research has associated autistic people with a lack of empathy for ages, which is stigmatising and often leads to the dehumanisation of autistic people, which is used to justify why autistic people should either be trained to hide their autism, or be hidden away in institutions.


Despite the autistic community stating otherwise, measures of empathy continually show autistic people as having low empathy. Why is this?

Some of this is due to “epistemic injustice”, such as measures of empathy designed by autistic people being rejected, & when autistic narratives are dismissed as researchers assume they are unqualified to speak on the subject of their own experiences, suggesting that autistic people “misperceive their circumstances.”

There are other reasons too, including flawed methodologies, emotional overload, nonnormative expression, and the double empathy problem.


These autistic researchers wanted to focus on the role of trauma & PTSD in autistic empathy

Childhood trauma which does not lead to PTSD can cause increased empathy, but when it does lead to PTSD, this can decrease the ability to empathise

A number of factors make autistic people really vulnerable to developing PTSD

“Many autistics seem to have too much empathy; it overwhelms them. They might not be able to express it in a way that neurotypicals can see, but they have it. I didn’t. And in that way, I felt alienated from most autistics. It made me feel less—less than. In some ways, I thought, maybe I was a bit evil.


Not quite human?”

“I can’t remember having emotional empathy at any point in my life, and I believed this would be my reality forever. Because I’m autistic. For a long time, I had forgotten that my life began with trauma”


“Before, there was nothing.
Now, I could feel.
I’m changed.
It feels like anything in the world could affect me now.
I feel a lot more vulnerable.
I will always treasure this experience and the woman who made it happen. She is a true heart surgeon and I will always love her for it.
I guess I’m human after all.”

“We hope that any autistic adults who feel that they have difficulty in empathizing can take heart from H.B.’s journey—knowing that what feels like a permanent trait may be a temporary response to trauma.

We would like to encourage them to address the possibility of support for PTSD with their mental health professional. If they, like H.B. before his epiphany, do not recall any early childhood trauma, it may be valuable to ask parents and caregivers about possible events known as potential sources of trauma, such as surgery, ABA, or bullying.”

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