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Some insights on Empathy

The concept of empathy is a much discussed topic in Asperger's circles but I'm starting to wonder what all the fuss is about. You see, I feel that empathy has little to do with Asperger's syndrome.  So why continue to write about it? I guess I just want the myths understood and "busted".

Our family has just been through twenty-one days of hell and while the worst is clearly over, there's still a quite bit to come.  It has been a tense emotional and very very painful situation in which we needed all of the help and empathy we could find.  

It's hard For me to take a step back from the situation and look at things objectively but the situation revealed some surprising insights into empathy and asperger's syndrome which I feel need to be shared.

Particular insights include;

  • There is a huge learned component to empathy. In order to receive empathy, we must first teach it.
  • Neurotypcials can be far less empathetic than people with aspergers syndrome.
  • While emotions and empathy go hand in hand, they can also be mutally exclusive
  • Problems arise when our emotions are interpreted by others in visible terms - and this happens often
  • Lack of understanding of non-verbal language often poses a bigger barrier than lack of empathy

Each of these topic areas deserves to be examined in detail in an article of its own so that's where I will go from here. Please bear in mind that this situation is still quite raw for our family and I'll be writing in a way which protects them as best I can.  As a result, some things may come out more abstract than intended.


Serena said…
I hope that the situation with your family is remedied quickly and that you all find some peace.
Staci said…
As I sit here trying to find the right words to express my best wishes for you and your family, it makes me think about the topic itself. My NT boyfriend is not very empathetic at all but can say things that sound like he is being very empathetic. He can say something and I know that he doesn't really believe what he is saying. Whereas I am almost too empathetic but there are times that I just don't know what to say. Or rather, I am too blunt with expressing my thoughts. So, what I have learned to do is to say I am sorry "fill in the blank of what is going on". It is just easier to repeat back what is going on rather than possibly offend someone by saying the wrong thing.

Btw, I think a lot of NTs lack empathy and considering some things I have heard could take lessons!

I do hope things work out for you and your family!
Ken said…
Hi Gavin, I definitely agree with some of your points there. I have to say that the vast majority (if not ALL) of the people who make erroneous assumptions about my thoughts and emotions based on my affect were NT.

I get frustrated when sometimes I'm focusing on what a person is saying, but because I often have flat affect, and I'm not always doing the head nodding and adding in "uh-huh" and placing my hand under my chin etc, they think I'm not paying attention, or think I'm bored.

I also think that many Aspies have a relatively good conscience (if not strong guilty conscience) and empathy, just that it's expressed in a different manner to NTs, so they think that we are lacking in it despite us being in the minority.

Most of them don't understand how we feel, so they're lacking in empathy towards us with that regards.

Hope you're well.
Christine said…
I look forward to your posts about these ideas. I am very curious as to your thoughts on the matter. Thank your for writing this blog. I appreciate you sharing with us.
AspieMom said…
So sorry you have had a rough month. I truly enjoy your blog and learn from you and your experiences. We have a 14-year old Aspie son with sensory issues, and he did not begin expressing empathy until he was almost 10 years old, and it is still somewhat of a new emotion for him. We try to teach him as often as we can, and sometimes I have to really explain my feelings to him and just "hope" he gets it. Thanks for your blog posts, and I hope your family is doing better. Hugs from California!
Anonymous said…
"I get frustrated when sometimes I'm focusing on what a person is saying, but because I often have flat affect, and I'm not always doing the head nodding and adding in "uh-huh" and placing my hand under my chin etc, they think I'm not paying attention, or think I'm bored."

How are they supposed to *know* that you're focusing on what they're saying?

Your words and actions are all they have. They don't have ESP and can't read your mind to figure out what you do mean when you say and do things you don't mean.

I'm sorry for the difficulties your family has been going through.

In the midst of our own difficult times, I appreciate each of the points you've made on a personal level (substituting autism for asperger's syndrome).

Finding empathy outside of the greater autism community can often be difficult for my family.

In our case, not only can emotions and empathy be distinct and mutually exclusive, but for my children with autism having empathy for others is often easier than understanding and interpretting emotion (within others and even within themselves), regardless of how that emotion is expressed, but especially when it is expressed non-verbally.

I look forward to your follow up posts when you can get them up...and when I can get the chance to read them.

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