Friday, October 19, 2007

The Aspie and Empathy

A little while ago, when I was being particularly difficult, my wife said to me "that's right, you're an aspie, so you can't empathize". In fact, nothing could be further from the truth - so Empathy is the focus of this post.

It's a well documented fact that women are empathic creatures while men are problem-solvers. You can read all about this in "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" by John Gray. This isn't an aspie book but it is good reading for aspies because it contains a lot of useful information about how and why people react the way they do. It's also a good book for anyone in a long-term relationship because you fall into traps and stereotypes after a few years.

Now... back to the point.

When I was a kid, I couldn't really empathize well. Without realizing it, I would say things that hurt people's feelings (I still do). The aspie doesn't really "think on the fly" during conversations. There's a delay and we often don't pick up on non-verbal or non-obvious cues that we're hurting someone.

That said, aspies are the first to notice when people are obviously upset or hurt.

Obvious and Physical Hurt
When people are physically rather than verbally hurt, aspies tend to be quite concerned. I've seen that behaviour in my eldest child (7) at school and at play. I've also seen it in myself. It's not that we don't understand emotional hurt but rather that we have more difficulty determining that it has happened.

In adult and teenage aspies, there's an extra dimension to concern for others and the aspie needs to learn that there are times when they should not become involved.

This is particularly important when, for example, the aspie is displaying obvious concern for other adults, particularly those of the opposite gender.

Such concern could easily be misinterpreted as romantic interest and this could lead to unintended entanglements, or if either person is already "entangled", open hostility from partners arising from jealousy.

"Empathy" in its Truest form.
When an aspie is listening/concentrating or deliberately trying to be emphatic, they achieve a level of empathy well beyond what neurotypical people experience.

For example, when watching a movie, I find myself emoting with the characters to a huge degree, even when they're CGI, Cartoons or fluffy muppets. I can't help it. Often when I'm explaining things to my kids, I'll get a lump in my throat because I'll suddenly remember something about my childhood that links to the moment.

Empathy with the non-human and non-living
This is where it gets weird... but I wouldn't trade the gifts of aspergers for anything.

In aspergers, empathy doesn't just mean "put yourself in my shoes" it means "become me", "feel as I feel" and "see as I see". I'm sure that this is at least part of the reason why aspies are often good at acting.

When I have a reason to (usually in problem-solving). I can see and feel as the non-human and non-living objects do. Rather than using one of my own examples for non-human empathy, I'll direct you to Dr. Temple Grandin's Web Site.

Dr Grandin's Asperger's condition helped her to design a revolutionary and humane cattle handling system.


My Example of Non-Living Empathy
Non-Living empathy may seem bizarre at first but I have a good example.

I'm in the information technology field and I do a lot of development and troubleshooting with computers. One way in which my aspergers helps me is in the determination of what is "visible" or "known" to the code.

In problem-solving situations, I'm frequently telling my colleagues. "Hang on, lets just walk this one through". I then pretend to be a piece of computer code and say "ok,... now we're going through subroutine x and at this point I don't know about y".

Invariably, it results in a change to the computer code to make the application work.

I used to have problems understanding why my colleagues would look at me strangely instead of joining me on the trip but now that I understand my aspergers condition, I just take this as a gift and run with it.

Closing Comments...
Aspies don't lack empathy, we have oodles of it and not just the human kind either. If an aspie has trouble understanding your emotional state it's probably because it's not visible enough for them to start looking deeper.

Perhaps some hints would help at this stage?

27 comments:

Beth Hatch said...

Just read your post, as I was searching for "Aspergers and empathy", because I was looking for info about my friend who has it. She recently upset me over asking for a receipt for a gift I had given her, basically saying she didn't want it. I couldn't understand how she couldn't see how that hurt my feelings...maybe now I get it.

Ian Pulsford said...

I have been wondering if I am borderline aspergers lately because I fit many of of the characteristics but the one that I don't is that I think I can empathize and read body language. When I was a kid I remember being overly sensitive to people's expressions. As a teenager I bought a book on body language, perhaps it's something I have learnt consciously.

Gavin Bollard said...

Ian, Remember that Aspergers is a spectrum disorder, you could be proficient in one area only to be worse in another.

It sounds like you've got the empathy and body language reading sorted, though this could be because of your reading.

The best way to evaluate your aspieness, short of visiting medical practitioners is to take the aspie quiz.

Anonymous said...

Empathy is such a spectrum even in the NT world.

But I really feel it is a myth that ASD have no empathy. It is just a different kind of empathy and doesn't fit social norms to my thinking.

I have noticed I have no trouble being empathetic with fellow Aspies, and I also I think that about the body language as well. Fellow Aspies or people with Aspie traits can often read each other quite easily.

This all goes back to another article you have written about Asperger's being a "difference". But not to say that we don't need extra help and assistance in everyday life to get on in this very social world.

Em (aka emc2)

Josh said...

I find that empathy is a difficult kind of problem. From my experience I have seen that empathy is a much deeper thing than havingjust the ability to say "how was your day?" it is wanting to know about that person and as it says above "feel what they feel." My theory is that a lot of people with aspergers actualy want to have that innate compassion, but do not fully know how to express it, in an understandably neuro-typical way. A lot of things I have said and still say or do come have always come across differently from how I meant them, it's like saying something and then having an echo in your head afterwards saying this is what i meant...
I am a partially self diagnosed aspie, (as most people seem to be) but still trying to root out the cause of my condition.
Anyway rant over. Thank you for the artical.

Anonymous said...

I have asperger's myself and i sometimes hurt people without knowing it. Later (much later, often) i come to realise that i've hurt them, and i feel bad but people won't understand.
It's very hard for me.

Anonymous said...

Nope, don't buy it at all. After being with an aspie for many years and finally getting away, I have to say he was the most heartless man I'd ever met. He didn't even like his own kids and had no problem saying so, in so many words. A control freak who only knew anger as an emotion and everyone in the world was stupid but him.

Gavin Bollard said...

Everyone is different. Aspergers isn't the sole cause of emotional issues, the individual plays and important part too.

AdronsCatherine said...

I am so glad to have found this post! My baby is definitely not "normal", and we are trying to get early intervention started with him. He's showing distinct signs of Aspergers, with the exception of the empathy. Any time he sees another baby crying, he looks concerned, pats their head, kisses them, and gives them a toy (he's 8 months). I keep hearing that he couldn't possibly do that if he's an aspie. Now, I'm totally 2nd guessing those opinions - it's not like he's picking up on someone being disappointed, he's trying to comfort someone who is *obviously* upset. And once he realizes the situation, he goes above and beyond what other kids his age could possibly do.

I know it's early, but I'm actually looking forward to this journey, and discovering what a neat little guy he really is. Thank you for a positive viewpoint - they are too few and far between!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying that aspies have empathy. My aspie son is very empathetic. He genuinely cares if other people are upset or having troubles but he has difficulties picking up on social cues, usually due to lack of eye contact. When he was little he did not like children fighting and tried to stop fights. Wouldn't it be good if everyone was like that?

Rebecca said...

I'm glad to see that your empathy (in regards to the Aspergers) is working. I was wondering on any insights to help develop that. My husband just informed me he is an Aspie, our son is PDD-nos and we have two other daughters. While finding out his being an Aspie answers a LOT of pain (unintentional now that I know) it also gives me lots of questions. How can a marriage work with Aspie's? The difficulties in such an intimate relationship with a person who although excels in other area's lacks so much in my understanding towards others. My husband told me bluntly I have concern for you but no empathy. (it explains why he is upset at most emotions. They annoy his day)Being a woman I am very full of emotions and mostly empathy; the need of. So how (from an aspie to a NT) can I change to help my husband and our marriage? (For any questions yes I thought for some years things were strange but he was very good at hiding a lot, but a person can only hid things for so long, especially from someone so close as a spouse) So now, what can I do to help us?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this...it has really helped me to understand this whole issue of empathy and Asperger's. I am pretty sure that my son who is 4 1/2 now has Asperger's. I am in the process now of trying to have him assessed, but have not yet seen a pediatrician. The whole topic of empathy had me confused, because it seems my son is empathetic at times. But, when I think about it now, it is mostly times when there is something very obvious or visible going on...like if my husband and I are arguing, or if I bump my toe and say ouch. But he doesn't necessarily pick up on social cues or emotional cues. If I am having a bad day and I am upset, he doesn't notice at all, he goes about his activity like nothing is wrong, but my older son would notice right away. When my baby daughter cries, my young son doesn't seem to understand why, he just gets mad and says it hurts his ears. But my son does understand what emotions are. He can read faces if we are focusing on it...like if I say, what is this face, and make a sad face, he knows that is a sad face, etc. But he doesn't seem to understand when he hurts someone, like he can't put himself in someone else's shoes...I know he's only 4, but this is a skill that I see other 4 year olds practicing. My son has so many traits and characteristics of Asperger's, but it seems they are milder in nature. He is pretty functional in some areas, he's extremely bright, has been reading since 3 1/2 years old, has incredible rote memory, and such, but can't handle it if you sing a song and miss a word in the song. All this time, I thought he was just being ridiculous, or that his tantrums could be stopped with discipline, or I thought that scolding him into listening or seeing it my way would work...but now I see that I was going about it all wrong, and I just hope I haven't messed things up too much. In any case, I thank you for writing this, because it makes it just a little easier to understand why my son behaves the way he does sometimes.

Jeanne said...

I have just about had it with my partner who has Asperger's. We do not live together but it is a partnership. I have come to realize that I always do the calling, he never calls me and he does not say "How are you?" He likes to visit on Tuesday and Thursday nights and weekends and he started arriving at 10PM TTH. I felt so bad as I sat there and noticed he was coming later and later. He likes to linger at work and listen to politically fired up talk shows and play computer games at the same time. I told him in no uncertain terms the other night to leave when he came at 10PM. I told him to arrive by 9:15 or don't come. I gave him time to play around. My brother said to tell him to at least be there by 8 or 9PM. As it is, I have stopped phoning him at his addictive computer games sessions and I am alone a lot. Too bad.

Gavin Bollard said...

Jeanne,

You're doing the right thing by telling him to come by 9.15 but it might be better if you tell him when he has to leave work.

I'm hopeless at getting places on time but I'm good if I'm told... "You have to leave the house at 7pm".

Set the time accordingly and allow him (without telling him) a little leeway but seriously, you'll probably have to enforce the rules a few times before he gets it. (ie: "Nope, sorry you're too late so can't come in "- or... "no, you
have to apologise/get flowers before you can come in".

Regarding saying "how are you". He's unlikely to ever "get it". I certainly don't. It's built into my coming home checklist routine now, so I always say "how was your day" to my wife but it's because it's a routine, not because I want to ask it.

Just blurt it out. That's what aspies do. That's what he expects you to do. If you've had a hard day, tell him - don't wait for him to notice the signs and ask.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible for aspies to have selective empathy? My husband and I are separated and he is about to undergo diagnosis/discovery after a very brief and, for me, painful marriage, and months of denial of any problems relating to him at all. My question is, how come he can notice other women's emotional pain and respond to them very caringly but I am invisible to him, even when plainly distressed, which most often comes as a 'last straw' reaction to his coldness and emotional detachment.

MJ said...

Since my Asperger's self-diagnosis at 33 years old (assisted greatly by my wife) I have read many things that made me say "I thought I was the only one". The part in this entry about not relating in an empathetic fashion to people face to face but being brought to tears by (for example) Toy Story is one of those things. Every post that makes me believe that I'm not crazy is a gift, so thank you.

Anonymous said...

A little background about me - I was diagnosed with Aspergers at age 15 (11 years ago) while living in a group home. It is entirely possible for an aspie to have empathy, and plenty of it. My problem is that my body language and facial expressions don't adequately convey my thoughts. For example, my girlfriend is upset and she is unable to tell that I'm concerned for her unless I physically go over to her to comfort her. I've always been a very sensitive person. I've been known to cry over the misfortunes of people I don't even know because I, often against my will, feel what I think they might be feeling at the time. Currently I am living with a partner of over 6 years with whom I've fathered a child who is 5 years old. Things are going wonderfully as I've found someone who understands and accepts me and goes well out of her way to accommodate my "aspieness." Although I feel very awkward in public, I have made leaps and bounds since my early teens in consciously trying to emulate "normal" social responses. I still struggle with eye contact - usually trying to establish the line between staring and looking enough to show that I'm interested in what a person is saying to me. There is plenty of room for improvement for people with aspergers with education, family/friend support and most of all - time. Good luck to all of you and best wishes :)

Jessica said...

I also just came across this blog as I was Googling Asperger's and Empathy. I have recently begun to research Aspergers as it relates to myself, and am finding that I am very possibly an Aspie. As I do not have anyone in my life I can discuss this with, the internet has become my research partner. Although I have many many similarities with the Aspie traits, I do happen to be very empathetic. Socially I am a total loser, but I am an ER nurse, so empathy is actually my job! Sometimes I feel empathy so fiercly that it's almost physically painful. At work I am easily able to distance myself from the emotional tangles of reviving someone, working a code, or putting a little baby through the stress of recieving an IV or staples or some such painful and terrifying procedure, but I frequently have problems making friends or having emotionally "deep" discussions because although I know how I feel, I just can't express it in words! I am so glad to have this outlook on Aspergers and empathy. I have always felt like a fish out of water, like there was something wrong with me, that I was... broken, somehow. It' such a relief to know that there is something 'different' about me, not 'wrong'. Thank you so much for helping me continue to figure myself out!

Christina R. said...

I am 27 years old and was recently diagnosed with Aspergers. I completely agree with you that Aspies don't lack empathy we just don't always recognize when it's needed. Personally, I find emotions to be quite intense it's like a radio with only two modes full blast or totally off. So when other people's emotions are especially strong, it overloads me and I tend to shut down which can look like I don't care. But that's not the case at all. It's as if I care too much and can't deal with it. I have done a lot of reading on body language so I have learned to recognize expressions and non-verbal communication better but it still takes more intent than intuition. Thanks for your post. I found it very insightful!

Kacey said...

Lately I've been thinking I have demonstrated symptoms of Aspergers. I started researching it after watching "Alphas" on syfy. One character is high functioning autistic, and some of the mannerisms he portrays were kind of familiar. Most of the symptoms and signs fit, except for the lack of empathy. I'm in college studying to be a social worker, and the 'lack of empathy' doesn't meld with that. Your post really helped me to wrap my head around what I've been feeling. I've been told countless times that "You can't help them any more" or "You're too emotionally involved". This post was so helpful. Thank you!

jmemac said...

I live with this conflict every day. Your post is impossibly accurate. Thank you!

rekall said...

i am also professionally involved with computer programming... and i too 'put myself in the computer's shoes' to figure something out... it's definitely more gift than curse :)

Anonymous said...

i have often wondered about this former friend of mine if she was an "aspie." there were so many times that i was frustrated with her total lack of empathy that i thought her to be a selfish b-ch. i finally had to ditch her as a friend a year ago because it was not in her to say sorry even when she was wrong. it hurt me a great deal. it hurt me because i had invested so many years on a selfish witch who did not know the meaning of friendship. but now i wonder...

Caitlin said...

My husband is an Aspie- while a situation is happening he can't empathize with the emotion I'm having, and focuses solely on the words, arguing semantics, etc. Later once I'm REALLY upset, he can all of a sudden empathize with the emotion. So it's just like you said.

Question- IYO, can an Aspie learn to empathize 'in the moment', rather than way later, when often times the damage is done? Or is this dependent on where he is in the spectrum?

Kaitlyn said...

Caitlin (nice name, by the way)-

As to learning to empathize "in the moment", I don't think that's possible. Reading your story with your husband, it reminded me of arguments I've had with my boyfriend (except I'm the Aspie in this situation.) I can say that if an argument started from a semantic misunderstanding, it makes sense to us Aspies to focus on that one detail. That detail is what made the argument in the first place, therefore, we see it as the most important aspect. We're used to being misunderstood on a regular basis. We often have to clarify what we mean, since even though we talk in a straightforward way, others tend to assume there is something else to it. Sometimes they think our literal or blunt words mean we're trying to be sarcastic, when we're actually being completely serious. A lot of times we're unaware of how our tone of voice is conveyed, and people assume we're angry when we're really content. It's a bit difficult to explain, but you can search for "Asperger's verify and clarify" to get more info. Long story short, the exact words that are used mean a lot to us. If another person said one thing but meant something else, and we took what they said at face-value, we feel that we were in the right. If something went wrong because the other person didn't want to just communicate what they meant and an argument started up from it, there could be either (or both) of the following happening- 1) The Aspie doesn't see that you are getting upset, and/or 2) They don't understand WHY you're getting upset. It's irrational for someone to get upset at another person over a misunderstanding that was their own cause. Therefore, we don't understand why it would hurt you. Only afterwards, when we see the eventual aftermath, might we realize that something went wrong. If I caused my boyfriend to be upset after an argument, my response would depend on which of the above two cases was happening. If I simply hadn't realized I hurt him, then I feel really bad and I try to comfort him. If, however, he started the issue in the first place, I'm much less sympathetic. I'm more likely to go to another room by myself and wait for us both to calm down. I then expect an apology. Lacking one, however, we eventually return to our normal life anyway... Just because some things are too silly to keep a grudge over.

Anonymous said...

Thankyou so much for your personal insight. My 11 yr old grandson is becoming more and more agitated about the classroom expectations of him to have feelings about differing subjects, especially when he has to empathize with other's pain or sorrow. He is newly diagnosed with AS and hasn't begun any formal therapy to help him with social cues and social behaviors. As he struggles and relays information to others he appears to be socialpathic in his seeming lack of feelings for other's emotional pain. However blatent injuries to the body, or extream emotional pain he steps right up to the plate with understanding and encouragement. Animals are another thing altogether. He is imediately defensive, protective and understanding of any slight pain or discomfort he sees with his dogs. We are all looking forward to him getting help to "fit in" only because it causes him so much distress to feel so out of place and "different"..also "bullied" as he puts it, in his school setting.

Anonymous said...

I work for a woman who I believe has Asperger's, but I'm not sure she knows it (her child has recently been diagnosed with it though). I have been reading about AS for weeks now, and there is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that my boss has it. I'm really glad to have come across this blog where there is such a wide variety of people who either have AS or don't, or have a friend/relative who has it. I'm hoping I can get some answers from you.

I've read numerous articles about how Aspies can come off as rude and mean when in actuality they don't mean to be. My boss seems to lack empathy in some situations (ie. I was in a bad car accident and she never once asked me how I was doing, if I needed the rest of the day off, etc.), and then feels extreme empathy for other things (ie. people who have very mild anxiety or depression). I can appreciate that it's normal not to be able to completely understand how someone feels if we haven't been through the same things ourselves. But, myy question is, how can the rest of us recognize if people with AS coming off as rude is really them being rude, or if it's just them not being able to express themselves more empathetically? Sometimes my boss does or says something so outrageously inappropriate and blunt that I can't help but wonder if she really is just one mean, selfish person.

Every day when we have lunch she goes on and on about herself, tells me every detail about her weekend, what her children did, how she cleaned her kitchen, or starts listing all the appliances she has in her house. After 10-15 minutes I feel completely exhausted, and after a year of working for her, I am out of questions to ask her about her stories in order to have a conversation with her, and not just listen to a very monotonous monologue. Of course, she does not at all notice my lack of interest in her stories, and the fact that I'm not even listening to her anymore (ie. I'm be playing with my phone and she's still talking in the same tone of voice). Deep down, I know that she's a good and compassionate person, and so I'd really like to connect more with her.

If she were a friend or a co-worker, I think I would find the courage to mention Asperger's and ask her if she ever thought that she too, like her child, might have it. But, since she's my boss (and a doctor herself) I dare not say anything. I am actively looking for another job, but I would rather face the problem than run away from it. I have also found that she does listen when someone is talking, but interrupts the other person a lot (makes it difficult for us to have a dialogue and for me to finish my sentences), and is not at all good with confrontation. She sulks a lot if you hurt her feelings even a little and doesn't really know how to defend herself. So I'm afraid that if I say anything to her, even in the nicest way possible, she will feel so deeply hurt and disappointed, and I will not be able to live with myself later.

Maybe I've rambled on too much here, but I AM DESPERATE for help. I'll be grateful for any piece of advice.
Thank you all.
P.