Sunday, November 2, 2014

Why is Empathy so hard for people with Asperger's Syndrome?

Empathy is often the worst and hardest part of any relationship with a person with Asperger's syndrome. You might feel that your partner lacks empathy entirely but if you could see inside their mind, you might be surprised to find that they are far more emotional than you are.  Obviously this isn't the case for everyone as we are all individuals but quite often people who display very little empathy are actually full of emotion.

So why then, is it so difficult for people with Asperger's sympathy to "show a little empathy"?

There are three major problems relating to empathy that can really cause problems for people with Asperger's syndrome;

Identifying Your Emotional State
People with Asperger's syndrome have a huge amount of trouble determining your emotional state if you don't tell them specifically how you feel.  If you're crying, then most likely you're sad.  If you have a "sad face" on but no actual tears, then who knows.  

People in an upset state of mind often turn and hide their face. This makes their body language even harder to read. People with Asperger's syndrome often avoid making eye contact and frequently avoid looking at faces.  If that's the case then there's a pretty good chance that your partner with Asperger's syndrome may have no idea that you are unhappy. This is particularly true if you use a lot of sarcasm or if you wave them away with "I'm ok" or "it's FINE!"

If you start shouting, then your partner might realize that you're angry but if you're simmering or crossing your arms or doing the "angry look", it won't be noticed. 

Nobody can offer decent empathy if they don't know what is going on with the other person in their relationship. 

Providing What is Required
The needs of a person with Asperger's syndrome will be quite different from the needs of a neurotypical (normal) person.  If things are tough, people with Asperger's syndrome need to be left alone. If they're angry, they need to be left alone. If they have a problem, they usually need to deal with it by themselves. 

Neurotypical people, particularly females, need to hug and talk things out. People with Asperger's syndrome need exactly the opposite. 

For example, if a person with Asperger's syndrome goes to a hospital, then most likely they will just want to be left alone. I can remember being in hospital on a few occasions and feeling quite annoyed with my wife or my mother because they wouldn't take the hints to leave my side.  I struggled with myself because I was feeling overloaded but I didn't want to be rude. The more they stayed and talked and touched me the more stressed I became. I think that on some occasions I snapped and they went off in a huff, feeling like I'd rejected them.

Years later, my wife was in hospital and I paid her a visit and stayed and chatted a while but after a couple of hours I started to leave. After all, I knew that's what she'd want (because that's what I wanted). She became quite angry because she felt I just wanted to go and get on with my life but really I was giving her exactly what I'd need in the situation.

Sometimes because our needs conflict so much, things which look very unempathetic and self-centered are actually intended to be empathetic and caring.  

Avoiding the Urge to Fix things
People with Asperger's syndrome tend to be fixers.  They often believe that problems are there to be solved and rather than sitting around and talking them through with sad faces on, we plan and then we fix. 

It's taken me a long time to realize that sometimes my wife doesn't want me to fix things. She just wants me to understand her position and agree that she's going through a hard time. To us, this is the same as having our car run out of gas near a petrol (gas) station -- and then instead of filling it up, we stand around and shake our heads and rub and hug the car. 

It's completely crazy to us -- it makes no sense at all. 

Sometimes what others need for empathy is just so crazy for us that we can't bring ourselves to do what is wanted. Sometimes it's so reaches the point of being so crazy or weird that it becomes a little funny and we find ourselves smiling or laughing at terrible situations. 

Sometimes when things can't be fixed we start becoming agitated. Instead of being huggy or listening, we find ourselves pacing the room, becoming annoyed or simply dropping the subject altogether and finding something else to do. This will usually be related to our special interest because this interest takes our mind off things and protects us from the outside world.  

If your partner with Asperger's syndrome appears to be ignoring your feelings in favour of reading a book, watching TV or playing a computer game, it might not be ignorance, it might simply be that they've decided that the problem you face cannot be "fixed".

People with Asperger's syndrome generally respond to their problems by "fixing" them. Empathetic responses don't come naturally. It doesn't mean that they can't provide them but it does mean that they often need reminding when the urge to fix things kicks in.

Helping your Partner with Asperger's Syndrome to Show Empathy
The best way to help your partner with Asperger's to show empathy is to ensure that they understand exactly how you're feeling and what you need. You might do this by saying;

"I don't want you to fix this, I just need you to stay by my side and tell me that you understand how I feel and that you feel sad about it too".

At first, this will feel wrong, because after all you're telling your partner what to do rather than having them figure it out for themselves. You might consider this to be "cheating" because you want those feelings to come from within.  This is not cheating though, other people can read your body language but your partner may not be able to.  If anything, then telling directly will simply be "leveling the playing field" to give them a chance to respond.

The more often that you communicate in this way, the more your partner with Asperger's syndrome will come to understand your needs. You may find yourself in the future needing only to say, "I'm feeling sad" in order for your partner to start giving you the sort of empathy you asked for last time you were sad.

One final point. Now that you understand how different your partner's needs are in difficult times, do you think that you can provide them with what they need instead of what you need when the hit tough times? After all, this partner thing needs to work both ways. 


scott said...

Thank you for this. My son and I both have Asperger's. He was sharing the other day about empathy and your article expresses how I interpret empathy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Gavin, I resonate with many of your points. I realised recently, in retrospect that I instinctively gave my (undiagnosed) partner what he needed and wanted, I think, when hospitalised suddenly with an acute condition some years back. It went against the grain a bit for me, my usual style would be far more verbal and encouraging the other person to express how they were feeling, and I wondered if I was being unsympathetic or uncaring, almost to the point of feeling guilty about it. But for him I think he needs to feel in control, of his emotions and the details, and opening up the fears and feelings about the risks is not a safe place for him to be, while a situation is still unfolding.

However, in my situation, it doesn't work the other way. While he cares and genuinely wants to be a supportive partner, he seems incapable of giving me what I need, and from many trivial examples of it, I really think he is incapable of imaging that I could feel differently and want something different. So I have learnt not to resent or blame him for that, but after 30 years together I am not sure I can keep putting myself in that place, when I am at my most vulnerable, of giving him the opportunity and taking the responsibility myself for him to learn how to support me. Experience has taught me that it is more painful and harmful to our relationship to take the risk that I will feel let down and hurt, again. The slow drip over many years has done too much damage and eroded my energy for it. And not just because it doesn't work, it is also demanding so much of him, setting him up to fail, and it is a huge risk for him to even try, that I feel it is unfair to ask it of him.

Sorry to sound negative, all I can say is to anyone else in a younger relationship, take Gavin's suggestions, start now to help your partner learn how to express the care in the way you need it. And start with the smaller, less risky emotionally loaded areas of your relationship, a much safer place to learn that waiting until serious issues are in front of you.

I have never been one to value gifts that have to be chosen and maybe even obtained for yourself (my sister commends her husband on being a great gift-giver, when in fact he mostly just complies with whatever she tells him she wants and chooses for herself!). To me it defeats the purpose, at odds with my definition of a gift, especially in the less tangible 'gifts' in relationships, however I can see that each partner has a responsibility for the giving and receiving. Maybe it is an understanding I have come to too late for this relationship. Sorry for the long comment but you have touched on some raw nerves for me.

Shannon said...

My Aspie has no ability whatsoever to feel empathy - those connections aren't made in his brain. Sometimes he knows the appropriate response in a situation, but most times the crickets come out. For the most part I deal with it all right. Sometimes it's not so easy.

We live in different countries and time zones - he's in the US Eastern time zone; I'm in Canada, Mountain time. Most of our contact is by text/chat. It's rare when I get to see his face or hear his voice. So I try to be brutally honest about what I'm thinking and feeling.

A couple of weeks ago he went through a financial issue and I didn't respond in the way he thought I should. I responded in the way I thought he needed me to. We were both wrong. Now he thinks I don't care about him. I can't separate "care" and "love". One is integral to the other, in my mind. Obviously in his there's a difference. But now, every time I try to show I care he tells me to stop pretending.

We've been together for almost a year. You'd think I'd have a handle on it by now!! I don't know what I did wrong, or how to respond the right way in the future. And he's not telling me what he needs. I don't know what to do.

Angel The Alien said...

These are good points! There is a difference between not feeling empathy, and not recognizing someone's else's feelings or not knowing how to respond. I used to have a close friend who would often accuse me of not caring about her, when she was going through some relationship crisis or another. Often it was because she expected me to offer hugs and words of wisdom, like her other friends did... but although I knew she was upset, I had no idea what to do, so I'd either try to fix the situation for her, or try to be extra cheerful and pretend nothing was wrong. Also, if she didn't actually explain to me that she was sad about something, or if I didn't see her crying or something, I wouldn't realize it. But once I did know, I did care... I just didn't know how to react!

Louise said...

Thank you Gavin, this is an excellent post. I'm female, with Aspergers, and have spent my whole life trying to figure out why my female friends got mad at me when I tried to "fix" their problems. Hugging and talking about problems never made sense to me, so I got branded as selfish, narcissistic, insensitive, you probably know the drill.

Female aspies are good mimics, so my aspergers went completely unrecognized until I fell in with an aspie man. We still have problems communicating, but at least we understand why!

Thanks, I'll be reading more.


Anonymous said...

It can be really hard as a female who is not neurotypical, because society says all women are supposed to just automatically know how to respond to emotional situations, so when we do the wrong thing- we get treated like a complete freak and unnatural.
It makes me not even want to have friends sometimes, because the men can't be just friends, but the women are not like me.

Anonymous said...

I am a female with aspergers and I disagree with some of what you said. You said that all people with aspergers want to be left alone when upset, angry etc but that is only some. I'd be angry if someone ignored my problems just because I have aspergers. If I am upset I don't want to be alone. I don't want to talk to just anyone and I might not want a hug but I want someone I'm close to to be there and show that they care how I feel. If it was my boyfriend though I would want lots of hugs.
If someone else was upset and I recognised that, its not that I don't understand that they're upset when I don't show empathy, I want to and I do care and feel sad for them but I don't know what to say or do. I don't like contact with most people so I wouldn't want to touch them, especially if they're crying. Sometimes I do it though even if it makes me feel very uncomfortable because I understand that most people are okay with contact when they are sad.

laughing helps said...

my aspergian husband does have empathy - at least for the things that 'make sense' to him - the tv character whose young child was dying of cancer, but no empathy for me when my father died because my father "was really old" and i "got to see him for many, many years" - i agree with other comments that he often doesn't know how to demonstrate his emotions - or he tells me "i didn't think you wanted my reaction" - my hubby likes to think through situations so that he feels he knows the outcome - in my life experiences foreknowledge of future events has yet to be present in human minds - premonitions, possibly - but actual knowledge of outcomes is impossible - it drives him crazy to 'not know' something in advance...

in one of my blog posts i have a great reference to the asperger/empathy conundrum

Anonymous said...

Hi Shannon, I don't know if you will ever go back and read this, but I just give it a try. I do understand your situation, I had a long distance relationship too. So difficult. But being together with my guy was even more difficult. There is a very helpful website which I want to recommand:
The best of luck to you!

Tobias said...

This thing with empathy is very difficult to explain to others, because to many people it seems like there's nothing peculiar about it. Some years back everyone around me was reading John Gray, who states that men in general are fixers, and women want to talk about their troubles and emotions instead.

I come from a culture where it oftentimes feels like being a person with Aspergers is just about being a tad more severe version of the "standard male". Apart from wanting to just fix things instead of discussing them, people here do enjoy being on their own and are quite reserved. One wife told me that very quickly after getting married he found out that if a Finnish man says nothing while he eats, it means the meal was excellent. Unless the man has learned from experience to keep critisisms to himself, this actually holds true :)

What really makes being an Aspie different here is that not showing empathy isn't about just a skill missing, but there being a lack of information on which to use the skill... And some people quite frankly won't believe it, because the symptoms are just the same.

Because of the culture, a man here might act just like an Aspie just because he might feel that acting empathetic just doesn't fit the description of a man. Add to that the fact that when enough people don't act empathetic for long enough a time, the skill to empathize in a way that actually conveys the idea to the outside is lost... Just like losing the ability to speak a language when the last guy in your family who actually spoke it lived four generations ago.

So, as said, the thing is the information on the other person's emotional state not being relayed (I recently wrote about this exact thing at And that is the terrible thing: even if you learn the skill of making the other person feel that you empathize, you may not know when to do that. And for that, I feel, you, Gavin, wrote an excellent briefing. Ultimately it's about communication between you and the person who needs your empathy, something me and my wife have been trying to learn ever since I was diagnosed.