Sunday, July 22, 2012
Learning to "Empathize in the Moment"
Long time readers of this blog will know that it's a myth that people with Asperger's syndrome can't empathize and that if a situation is explained to them, they can certainly feel emotion and put themselves "into the shoes of another". The question is, can a person with Asperger's learn to empathize automatically and without the need for explanation.
Empathy is a tricky thing to define but one thing is for sure; it isn't about feeling sorry for someone. It's about either feeling as they do, understanding how they feel or having a reciprocal feeling.
Some of the biggest challenges for people with Asperger's syndrome lie around the interpretation of gestures, tone and expression in both directions, sending and receiving. Gestures, tone and expression are the primary means of communicating the human emotional state with talking and writing being used far less. In fact, quite often spoken expression confusingly communicates the exact opposite of what the emotional state is; for example when a person says "oh, that is just GREAT!"
Given these communication difficulties, the question then becomes less about empathy and more about expression. I guess you could ask, can a neurotypical person learn to express their true feelings in the moment? Can an aspie learn to interpret those feelings and express empathy in a way that can be understood by a neurotypical - again, in the moment.
It's clear why people with Asperger's syndrome often need a detailed explanation before they can get into the shoes of another. It's just not normal for us and since we're using our own emotional state as a guide, our reactions to news and events are less empathetic of others and more interpetive of our own internal state. Neurotypicals may be surprised to hear that your own empathy towards us is usually not in a form that we want either.
We've all heard those "horror stories" about people with Aspgerger's syndrome who either act indifferent or laugh at funerals. Sadly these incidents lead people to presume that they are cold and "without emotion". The problem here is that their emotional state is not the same as the majority, not that they don't have emotions at all.
An aspie with strong beliefs may feel that a person has moved on to a much better life. They may feel that Grandma has finally been reunited with Grandpa and that they will be happy as a result. In this case, they're empathising with the recently dead, not the recently bereaved. This doesn't make their reaction any less empathetic and it certainly doesn't make them a "cold person". It's the interpretation of others who misread the target of the emotion that is at fault.
As people with Asperger's syndrome pass through life they, like everyone else, acumulate a lot of "social wisdom". Eventually they learn that their laughter, though well founded, has no place at a funeral and that the correct "group feelings" are of loss and sadness. The first time that these expressions kick in, they may be a little forced or fake. Later as the aspie begins to get into a proper understanding of loss, usually because they suffer loss themselves and have an emotional state to relate to, those expressions become real and stronger.
It's not usual to see an older person with Asperger's syndrome overwhelmed by sadness at a funeral, even one for a distant relative. Once those feelings of sadness are tapped into, it's difficult to let go and almost impossible to control the intensity of feeling. It's been said that people with Asperger's syndrome often feel emotion more strongly than others. I'd be inclined to agree with that.
I used the funeral example above to show a progression from delayed and even wrong emotion to instantaneous "empathy". Clearly it is possible for a person with Asperger's syndrome to learn how another
is feeling but they need a few key things to happen;
The Situation must be clearly stated
In the case of a funeral, it's easy to tell that one is occurring, hence a person with Asperger's syndrome can easily tap into the feelings (and rules) for prior funerals. If the feelings of a neurotypical match those of a previous occurance, you need to let your aspie know. Sad puppy-dog eyes aren't necessarily going to communicate what is needed. You need to "use your words".
The Target must be obvious
In the funeral example, the target wasn't the deceased person, it was the grieving family. Our aspie projected empathy towards the wrong target. Usually in domestic situations, the target is more obvious but just in case, make sure that your aspie knows that the target is you. Perhaps even say "can you understand what I'm feeling?" or "can you see it from my point of view?" These things will help your aspie to find the target.
The Emotion must be familiar
One of most commmon and obviously "doomed to failure" empathetic problems occurs when a woman experiences strong period pain and expects her male partner to be empathetic. We understand stomach aches and headaches, which are similar but still far from the same but that's about as much understanding as a male can bring to the table. You need to use expressive language such as; "it's like being repeatedly punched in the gut" to get the idea accross. Empathy works best when you can relate to an emotion or feeling so if you can relate your feelings back to something your aspie will understand, then do so. It's your best chance.
The Requirement for Empathy must be Stated
Aspies, and male aspies in particular, are problem solvers. Throw a problem at them and their brains will go into overdrive to solve it. The problem is that quite often their partners don't want solutions, they simply want empathy. Unfortunately, too often the need for empathy is presented in the form of a problem to be solved. If you don't want solutions, just empathy, then please say it clearly.
The moment must be Right
Picture this, you're in the middle of a fight with your partner and then suddenly he turns around and asks you if you could get him a bowl of ice cream. It's not going to happen. You're going to say "get it yourself!" The same applies to empathy. If you ask for empathy in the middle of a fight, you're simply not going to get it. Choose your moments carefully.
So, is it possible for your aspie partner to empathise in the moment without you having to spend time explaining things to them?
No. The main reason for this is that it's not yet possible for us to read each other's minds.
Is is possible for you, to communicate your needs in a short series of words and get the empathy you require without a long discussion of why? Yes, definitely yes but it will take a bit of practice. Start with longer and more expressive conversations and then over your years as a couple, you'll find yourselves increasingly able to anticipate each other's needs.
Of course, if you've already been married 10+ years and it's not happening, then there's a good chance that there is something wrong with the expression techniques that you and your partner are using. If that's the case, see a counselor - or better still go on a marriage encounters course. You'll find that a change of technique makes all the difference.