Hyper-empathy, mirror-touch synesthesia, and the Autistic experience of pain
Autism is often conceptualised as a neurocognitive style that leaves a person entirely more concerned with their needs than the needs of others. Autistic people, in particular (when compared to attitudes around non-Autistic people), are often positioned as lacking emotional and cognitive empathy. However, for some Autistic people, their experience of empathy can be so intense that it is almost debilitating. Where this gets interesting is when it instersects with synesthesia, more specifically, mirror-touch synesthesia. Let’s start with some explanations of what we are discussing.
Emotional and cognitive empathy
Cognitive empathy allows us to imagine what another person might be feeling. This is essentially the “what would you feel if you were in their shoes?” question. Emotional empathy then is when we experience another person’s feeling as our own. We feel their feelings with them. This can be a complicated experience for alexithymic people who already struggle to identify and express their emotions.
Hyper-empathy is quite common amongst Autistic people. Unsurprisingly, a Google search will turn up various medicalised and pathologised takes on such a phenomenon. However, this can be understood as experiencing greater levels of empathy than expected.
Synesthesia is the experience of one’s senses crossing over with each other. One might hear colours or see music. While not unique to Autistic people, synesthesia is significantly more common within out community
Mirror-touch synesthesia is a specific kind of synesthesia where a person can feel the sensation of another person being touched. For example, if you saw someone be poked in the arm, you may also feel a poke in the arm.
As you might imagine, the intersection between the experiences of hyper-empathy and mirror-touch synesthesia can be quite intense. Seeing someone injured themselves can trigger anything from a nervous jolt at the site of the person’s injury, through feelings of every nerve in your body firing or literally feeling their pain. When we consider overestimated states of emotional empathy on top of this, a person could literally go through someone’s else’s traumatic accident as thought it were their own.
This is interesting to consider and has far reaching ramifications for therapists working with traumatised Autistic people(and we experience a lot of trauma!) Not only do we have to manage our own trauma, it’s possible that we have to now process trauma we have witnessed. Given the neuronormative nature of the medical field, this opens us up to a great deal of invalidation and gaslighting with regard to our own experience.
Aside from this, there are other considerations to make. Some Autistic people report having this experience while watching films or other media that contain violent content. Should we now be considering that some forms of media may add to the trauma load that a person is carrying with them?
It raises questions about the ethics of depicting violence in creative media.
Whatever your experience, existing on this intersection can be exhausting, leading to burnout and deterioration in one’s mental health. We need more research to consider these kinds of issues that have an impact on our quality of life.
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