Empathy, And Why It Comes In Cookie Form

Image alt: chocolate chip cookies. Photo by Paul.

If you’ve spent any time interacting with me online, you’ve probably noticed a strange little emote I do.

*symbolic cookie of empathy*

The Symbolic Cookie of Empathy is a shorthand I’ve developed to express a large and difficult set of feelings.

The Cookie says:

I care about your feelings, I recognise that the feelings you are having may be unpleasant or unwelcome. I am not good at comforting people, but I want you to know I care.

I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. I don’t want to minimise your feelings or experiences in an attempt to reassure you. I don’t want to come across as unsympathetic by offering unsolicited solutions to your problem.

I don’t have a script for this interaction, but I will not ignore your pain.

I know a cookie, especially a virtual one, isn’t going to fix anything. The cookie itself won’t make you feel any better, but it’s the only way I can express that you matter to me. It’s a placeholder for the supportive conversation I can’t have with you.

I’m glad that those around me on Twitter understand The Cookie, but I worry that non-autistic folks who aren’t close to the autistic community will take my cookie script as laziness. It’s not that I can’t be bothered to formulate a “proper” response. It is an accommodation I make to ensure that I communicate my empathy without accidentally causing offence. This social awkwardness is part of how autism disables me.

This disability has been called an absence of empathy, a different kind of empathy, mimicry of empathy, lack of Theory of Mind. It is none of those things. We know you feel, most of us can imagine how you feel, and we want to express that. What we often don’t know is how to express that empathy appropriately.

Empathy is rather like a magic trick. Imagine a trick in which a person writes a secret word on a piece of paper, and the magician predicts what that word wilk be. Is the magician really reading the volunteer’s mind? Of course not! The volunteer is a plant and the word or selection of words pre-arranged, a secret signal and good showmanship is enough to fool the audience.

Now imagine trying to do the magic trick with a real volunteer, not a planted agent. Without some elaborate camera rig, or a lot of manipulation, you aren’t going to be able to predict what they’ll write down.

This is an analogy for how empathy works. Between two non-autistic people, the person interpreting can assume that the person broadcasting is of the same neurotype, and therefore will think and react in a similar way to themselves and other members of the non-autistic community.

Between an autistic interpreter and a non-autistic broadcaster, though, the illusion fails. Ourexperience of the world, how we process it and how we react is fundamentally different as a result of our neurotype. This means that our mental model of your mind, and your mental model of ours, is likely to be flawed.

There’s a communication breakdown, which the dominant neurotype gets to define as they wish. In the case of autism and empathy, this has been historically defined as a character flaw on the autistic person’s part.

So here’s to the empathy cookie, and may the hobnobs be ever in your flavour.


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