Autism and ‘Earth’ Empathy

I guess I may have always known how I wanted to live. I grew up in rural Connecticut, on the North East coast of the USA. The woods there were quite young, the land having been cleared a couple of hundred years earlier before the settlers realised it wasn’t worth farming, up there on the stoney outcrop that was Higganum.
So trees were re-planted, and grew again, around the stone wall boundaries of the old fields. Granite rocks provided outlooks, where I foraged for berries and wondered at the shiny flaking mica that was found in the hard granite. I made up my own myths, dug deep dens, spoke to the ever-present earth spirits, and loved the land with all my young heart.

Spruce woodland at Plas Helyg 2019.

Now I live in rural Wales. The landscape is somewhat different, but still there are rocks, trees, fresh water rivers and lakes, the ocean nearby, many amazing creatures, and – most likely – earth spirits. The land feels more ancient here, perhaps because more human history resonates in these stone age, rolling hills. 

However, ultimately in either place I feel a sense of being at one. A sense of belonging. This is the earth, my home. 

That sense of oneness – of relationship – crosses all boundaries of species. I recently went on a seed saving workshop, looking at Welsh seed sovereignty. In a break, I mentioned the sense of deep responsibility I have when ‘selecting’ the strong seedlings, and ditching the weak. Several other people spoke out to say they have that same sense of care and nurture, worried about destroying the chances of life for just one little seedling.
This sense of empathy astounds me. We can care so deeply, and so much, for life that is not even our own species. And yet – and yet, we can also care so little. 

I came across another interesting example of empathy – this time directly relating to a person with autism.

I was teaching in a local college, the students were young adults. I was guiding them through the structures used to create willow sculpture. Weaving rings which then make spheres, the complexities of creating cones.
One student whom I had already decided was a little different in his approach, revealed to me very directly ‘I am autistic you know’. I took this in my stride, not liking to label people, but also having an autistic son myself, and a fair amount of experience of people with a different outlook, I also took it on board. 

Very unusually, he and I ended up arguing. The subject of where I live came up, and he was very convinced despite the fact that I live in an eco-village, and have a degree in Environmental Science (I felt had to tell him this, although it carried no weight for him!), he felt I couldn’t teach him anything about sustainability. That, however, isn’t why I am telling you about him.

He professed to being a militant vegan, which is fine. But on closer questioning, it turns out he cared not a jot for his fellow human. When pressed on the impact of purchases he might make – for example buying products that use sweat shop labour, or pesticide laden chocolate where the workers have no protections – he did not care a fig. His empathy was solely for animals, and animals only. ‘People don’t matter!’ he said. 

Now I guess in a way I am inclined to agree with him. We are indeed a plague on this earth. Our greed and destructiveness wastes all we come into contact with. I started thinking more on autism, and it’s link to empathy. 

IMG_3085.jpegThe men in my life: Ted who is now 25, has William’s Syndrome, a rare form of learning disability and autism: Nigel my husband, and David, our middle son.

It is commonly understood that autistic people, particularly those people towards the Asperger Syndrome end  have no empathy. They simply don’t feel in the same way as ‘normal people’, and cannot understand other’s emotions. I think perhaps there are some autistics like this – and probably a fair number of non autistic people too! Because looking into it further, not only does research tell us otherwise, we have other reasons to believe this isn’t the case.

Because then there is Greta…

She has taken the world by storm. Starting in August 2018, she began to strike every Friday, missing school because she felt so strongly that she had to make people listen to the crisis we are undergoing globally – that of climate change. Her small individual actions have now become a worldwide phenomenon, with an estimated 1.4 million students striking this past March, inspired by 16 year old Greta. 

She has now been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the result to be decided later in 2019. She has been named in Time magazine’s top 100 influential people of 2019. 

And the link here is that Greta also has a diagnosis with Asperger Syndrome, on the autistic spectrum. The people with Asperger that I know, find it very hard to express emotion. They find it impossible to be anything but logical. So does Greta possess empathy? I believe the answer is of course – yes. Autistic people are now proven to be able to empathise, it just doesn’t manifest in the same way, because empathy itself is a complex emotion. 

The question for me is – does Greta do this for the people? Or, like my autistic student above, does she do it for the animals?  Or does she have something bigger – a sort of ‘earth empathy’, something global that transcends all of our anthropocentric arrogance. Is this perhaps key to our future?

Greta has certainly made practical steps. She has become vegan, and insisted her family does so too. She has also stopped flying. But her emotions are clear, she feels something far larger than love for her family.

She has said that “I feel like I am dying inside if I don’t protest”. What is the upsurge inside of her, that drives her to act so fearlessly?

gretaPhoto: from Instagram, via Plant Based News

I can only surmise that an ‘earth empathy’ must be a major part of her motivation – an empathy for the entire planet. This can’t be exclusive to someone with autism, however Greta has another talent that many of us do not possess.

Greta, in common with many other people with autism, says what she thinks. Her speeches are already legendary, her prose is astonishing for a girl that is also a selective mute.

When she needs to say something, her social constraints don’t stop her. She appears to be totally unafraid of ‘what people think’. She tells it exactly the way she sees it.  

I know that autistic people can have a very hard time too, so I don’t mean to paint it all rosy here. However with a diagnosis, and support from family and friends, people with autism can model behaviour we all could benefit from learning in these difficult times. 

Myself – I find it hard to speak out. It takes me quite a while to build up courage, and then after I have done the deed I await punishment in the form of criticism. Unfortunately my boundaries with others are incredibly thin. Even if someone doesn’t say something – I can usually feel their disapproval anyway.  

I need some of Greta’s incisiveness, her surety, and wow! – and some of that ability too speak only when necessary! That wouldn’t go amiss for so many of us.

I think this amazing combination of earth empathy and autism is just what the world needs right now.

So empathy and autism? Certainly, they are close acquaintances, just perhaps not in the same way that ‘the rest of us’ expect. Autism can be a gift – Greta thinks her’s is.

And like any talent, it all just depends what you do with it.

To end – a little quote from Greta from January 2019;

“…we can’t change the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed. Everything needs to change, and it has to start today.’


Nine by Five Media ‘Why we all need to be more like Greta’

Plant based news ‘Vegan Activist makes it onto 100 most influential people’

Greta Thunberg – Wikipedia

Financial Times ‘All my life I’ve been the invisible girl’

Seventh Voice: New study finds people with Asperger…empathise too much

NB I have also read many other articles on Autism and empathy, but haven’t directly quoted from them. If interested please get out there and have a look yourself! And if you think a person you know may have Autism but isn’t diagnosed, please contact your local autistic support group. It could really help. I believe diagnosis leads to better understanding – and – you got it – empathy.



  1. I think many people with autism empathise ‘too much’ in a way that is painful, we just don’t always show it, or show it differently. I think we also sometimes perceive more clearly, as all the ‘social stuff’ as Greta says, doesn’t get in the way. I for instance, think psychopathy is at the route of all the world’s issues currently….watch ‘Fisheads:Corporate Psychopaths’ if you have the time (it can be found on youtube), and agree that autism and empathy is just what the world needs, instead.
    Thank you for writing this and spreading awareness. You write in a considered, honest and heartfelt manner, and I agree with what you say.

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