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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.

An Example
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.

Expressing Oneself
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.


Liv said…
Good post. I'm the "NT" in a 43 year marriage where my husband is a problem solving "Zero-E Aspie". I had to come to the realization that my ability to read his mind was, in our case, as equally inept as his. And couple and individual counseling did little to establish a connection. What did work was for me to observe where his empathy was easily and correctly deployed, and then use those situations as metaphors for communicating my/our feelings to him.
Tammy said…
People that don't know my son can't "read" his emotions. He shows them, but not the way an NT child would. As his mom, I can read him with no problem. I've had 13 years with him, so I have an advantage. When we were at the hospital last week, and the nurse was asking the questions on the form, she looked at him and said "no signs of anxiety." I cut in and said, yes. He is anxious. I could read it in his body language, his eyes, and his hands.
Gavin Bollard said…
Thanks Tammy, that's an excellent example.
Beth said…
I am an NT about to marry an Aspie man. He's only had a diagnosis for 6 months but just knowing that a different style of communication is needed has been immensely helpful. Now, when I need to vent, I make sure to say "I don't need you to fix anything, I just want you to listen and give me hugs". He has told me this is very helpful because previously he would feel pressured to try to fix everything for me.

Also, I try to be very clear when explaining my emotions. I usually ask "Do you know what I mean or should I try to explain it another way?" when going into detail about my feelings. And I make sure to never, ever, get impatient or upset if he needs me to explain it a few different ways. I'd rather take the time to make sure we are both on the same page than make him feel bad!
Karen at AE said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Traci said…
This is a great post about the way we deal with our emotions and empathy! I am an aspie woman, I just started a blog but because I was diagnosed later in life after alot of therapy for other things I sometimes have a hard time explaining my aspergers to others. I have however just started a blog about being a mom who has aspergers. I just came across your blog and it is great!
Lucy said…
"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". "

I honestly don't know how many times I have had my family tell me that I seem very cold and emotionless during times where they have cried, such as during sad parts in movies, sad songs, etc. Whenever I do cry, they seem very shocked. They tell me "I didn't know you could cry."

Good post, thanks for explaining this in a way people can understand. I have tried and failed to explain this...
laughing helps said…
oh how i know this situation! twenty years with my aspie hubby has taught me to try to keep tabs on steve's expressions and body language at 'formal' events - many times he's unaware of his 'opposite' reaction - laughing at sad things - being upset or even crying at happy things - we are constantly moving back & forth between short "please don't smile right now, i'll explain it later" to outright refusal to comply depending upon his mood - he happens to be very rebellious and often "doesn't want to be controlled" - many times i just go to functions by myself so he doesn't 'have to' remember how to act - we are both much happier!
Anonymous said…
Thank you Gavin, Your very specific advice was very helpful to read. I'm an NT with an Aspie boyfriend. Intellectually I know that he can't read what I need when I'm upset (a friend's cancer has just dramatically advanced) but somehow I still expect it. I realize from your article that I need to be clear and specific (use my words) right away when I need support rather than blame or point it out later. He just doesn't see these things coming and it makes him withdraw. I can see why now. It's disorienting for him too. Ironically, I'm the one who needs to practice empathy a bit better. Thanks and cheers. Lee
Anonymous said…
I given up on my boyfriend. I had to accept that I really need empathy, I don't have the stamina to work so hard to get it, and I can't love someone who can't show warmth and caring. In a recent discussion, he equated being careful with being caring. "But I was really trying not to make you more upset, I was being careful," he said, in his puzzled way. And I was like, wow, there is so much this guy doesn't know about being tender and connected, that it is way beyond me to teach him. And he is so hell-bent on being blameless, he can't see how weird and inhuman it is to respond to someone's vulnerability with cold officiousness. He's not diagnosed with aspergers. Maybe if he were I'd be more empathetic. But I just don't care anymore. I'm not moved by someone who isn't moved. I need to see cues of shared interest, excitement, concern and support. My emotional life is too important to me, too rich, to not share it with the person I love. Better to be alone than observed. Better to be alone than to make him feel bad for all that he can't give me. A part of me still wishes we would find our own secret language of shared feelings, but I've got to let that go. It's not going to happen, it's not something that he even wants. So it's time to let it go for all time. Thanks for this great post, it confirmed for me that I don't want to have to work so hard to get the empathy I need in order to feel safe and loved.
Mindvalley said…
Thanks for the post, great tips and information which is useful for all.

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