I heard a brief snippet on the radio today (sorry I have no source for this). It was from an adult with autism. The context was the perception that people with autism lack empathy and interest in social contact. This man said that as a child, direct one-on-one communication with people was too intense for him, so he shut down. Far from lacking empathy, he craved social contact, and felt too deeply others moods. He said the intensity of direct eye contact was similar to how he felt from other sensory overload. He said it was like sticking his hand into a fire: he simply could not do it; it was too painful. I am remembering my YoungSon's response to being in a bowling alley when he was about 10. The crashing noises, loud music, bright lights - he just couldn't take it, and went nearly catatonic. Then major meltdown. I mean of epic proportions. He has avoided bowling alleys ever since. If social interactions created the same intensity of feeling, I can see why avoidance would be a typical and appropriate reaction.
This makes so much sense to me. YoungSon keeps a huge emotional distance from everyone but me. With me, he is hyper-tuned to my moods and emotions. If I get teary at a sappy TV commercial, he gets honestly upset. He hates running into anyone he knows (in town, at the shops, whatever), because they not only may greet him in the moment, they might say something to him at school the next day. Even these "minor" social interactions are stressful for him. It isn't that he needs to learn the social conventions for how to handle this interaction - he really does know. But the intensity is just too much.
Does anyone else relate to this paradigm? For years, I have wanted to argue that my boy with autism indeed DID feel empathy. I just didn't know how to explain it.