Thoughts about empathy have been swirling around my head for weeks, and I’ve been wanting to write something about it. . . but this is a topic that could easily be researched for a dissertation. Instead of trying to write a cohesive essay I’m just going to catalog some thoughts here.
I instantly become defensive when people talk about autistics and their ability to care about others. I have reacted this way for years, even before I considered myself on the spectrum. For example, at a meeting a coworker was talking about her brother who has Asperger’s, and his reaction to someone close to him dying. I can’t remember what she said verbatim, but the gist was, “He didn’t really seem upset about it. They just don’t make that connection with other people. He didn’t want to talk about it.” Without pacing the room and waving my arms around and shouting, “I’m autistic, too! We are human! We have emotions and love people!” I quietly tried to bring a little perspective. I suggested that perhaps he didn’t seem upset because people on the spectrum often don’t understand and express their emotions the same way neurotypicals do. I added that funerals and the like can be really uncomfortable situations, with all those people crying and putting out negative vibes and maybe he was struggling to deal with that, rather than showing his own grief in a recognizable way. I also suggested that individuals with Asperger’s are often logical people who want to fix things, and he might see talking about the situation as pointless because “What good will it do?”
I think one of the problems is, how do we define empathy? I have Tony Attwood’s book Asperger’s Syndrome (1998) on my shelf, and I pulled it down to see what he had to say about empathy. A search via the index gave me this (p 55, 56):
The original list of features for Asperger’s Syndrome includes the comment that the child lacks empathy. This should not be misinterpreted as meaning that the child completely lacks the ability to care for others. It is more that they an be confused by the emotions of others and have difficulty expressing their own feelings.
But wait – isn’t “caring for others” what most people are thinking of when they talk about empathy? I get the sense from things I read/hear that a lot of people think that autistic people don’t care about the feelings of others, that they’re unfeeling robots. The almighty Wikipedia says, “Empathy has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, such as caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.” (emphasis added) Clearly people on the spectrum don’t (as a whole) lack the ability to care for others and want to help them. It’s the other aspects of empathy that can be difficult, like “discerning what another person is thinking or feeling.”
It seems like this “lack of empathy” (or perhaps we should call it, “misunderstanding others”) isn’t reserved only for autistics.
This author says it well:
I think it’s important to draw attention to the fact that this lack of understanding goes both ways. I find that when people on the autistic spectrum fail to understand someone’s reaction, this is seen as ‘lack of empathy’ – but, when someone who is not on the autistic spectrum fails to understand the reaction of an autistic person, this is seen as a case of ‘autistic people are a puzzle’ and a justification for representing us as a jigsaw puzzle piece. These double standards are unhelpful. They place all responsibility for lack of understanding on the autistic person, and create a divide between those who are on the spectrum and those who aren’t.
Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg states in her Critique of the Empathy Quotient (EQ) Test:
After all, if the statement about intuitively reading awkwardness or discomfort assumed that the respondent were looking at an autistic person, the results would come out quite differently, for two reasons: a) autistic people stand a better chance of reading one another’s signals properly, and b) non-autistic people usually find it very difficult to read autistic people’s signals properly.
NTs may be better at reading NTs than autistics are, but autistics are better at reading other autistics than NTs are.
I believe this is one of the reasons I am a good TSS. Often I’m more likely to accurately guess what’s going on in my clients’ heads than even their caregivers are. Here’s one example:
A young autistic girl was screaming under the kitchen table while I talked with her mom and her BSC. She hadn’t yet been given her medication. When her mother directed her to take the medication she refused, and so the mom told her to stand in time-out (a spot in the kitchen with us). The girl stood there for a minute but then went over and closed the sliding-glass door that led outside. Her mother yelled at her for leaving time-out. I told the women that I heard a car drive past right before the child closed the door, and maybe that was the antecedent. The BSC agreed that the girl was probably over-stimulated and the car was extra loud to her, even though the two other women hadn’t noticed it. The mom then stopped reprimanding the girl, and after getting her to take her pill she had her go to her quiet bedroom to calm down until it kicked in.
As a bit of an aside, here is a beautiful post that may help you empathize with the sadness of someone with AS – “10 Things Not to Say or Do When I am Sad.”
A wonderful example of NT/AS misunderstanding was on “The Hofstadter Insufficiency” episode of The Big Bang Theory. Starting at minute 1:45 in this video, Sheldon shares something personal with Penny.
Imagine a row of people watching an emotional movie, such as the recent version of Les Mis. Three of them are crying, and one isn’t. Would you assume the first three are feeling empathy for the character singing on-screen, and the fourth was cold and unfeeling? Maybe.
The first person is thinking about the character’s situation and feelings, and she’s empathizing and feeling their emotional pain.
The second is crying because the song was a favorite of his late mother, and he’s grieving for his loss.
The third is having memories of her own past hurts stirred by the words of the song.
And then there’s me. I’m literally thinking, “This is a really sad song. I can’t imagine how horrible it would be to be in her situation and feeling all of those things. And if I let myself think of her sadness or my own past heartaches, I will cry. I hate feeling negative emotions, and I HATE crying in public. . . so I’m putting up the wall. Look at that – they’re using a really narrow depth of field. Why don’t they keep his eyes in focus? That’s Photography 101. Obviously they’re doing it on purpose, but I really don’t care to stare at this guy’s nose-pores. This is weird.” And I focus on the cinematography and random details for the rest of the film.
The empathy issue was actually the biggest reason I thought I wouldn’t qualify for an autism diagnosis. I’ve always felt *too* sensitive to the emotional states of others, as well as their hidden feelings at times. In Rudy Simone’s excellent book Aspergirls, she says that women with AS can have heightened “psychic sensitivity” and can sense things like others’ true intentions hidden behind their outward appearance and words. Tony Attwood mentions this as well in this forward. And in this post on the topic, Tania Ann Marshall even cites the Highly Sensitive Person website that helped me so much in college. In these cases, it seems like women with AS are using this “sixth sense” to compensate for not being able to read people the same way neurotypicals do.
Here are two posts that talk about people with AS feeling too much empathy:
“Theory finds that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much”
The Hidden Autistics II: Asperger’s in Adults and Empathy
In my readings and wanderings, I also came across Aspies who fought against the push to say autistics don’t have an empathy problem.
Here’s a very short one – “Stop Making Value Judgements about Empathy Please”
“The Empathy Conundrum“- I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of the Musings of an Aspie blog. I really appreciate this post, and it gives a good balance to the discussion on empathy. In fact, re-reading it now I feel like she has much better things to say about empathy than I do, but since I’ve already typed up most of this post I’ll keep it.
One day I was reading a link someone shared on facebook, and on the side of the page saw a link to another article titled, “10 Symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.” Feeling a little trepidation about what might be said regarding AS, I clicked the link. The third symptom listed is “Inability to Empathize.”
Individuals with Asperger’s syndrome may find difficulty empathizing with others. As they age, the affected person will learn the accepted social response for interacting with others. While they may react appropriately and say the “right” things, they may not understand why the other person is truly upset. This can be an issue in childhood as the individual with Asperger’s may play too roughly with their peers or say cruel things, unknowingly hurting the other person. When confronted for this behaviour, the child may respond that what they said was true and they do not understand the issue.
Oops. I recently made an off-hand comment online that caused a dear friend to cry; that was definitely not my intention, and obviously I couldn’t see how it would upset her, or I wouldn’t have posted it. And I can’t tell you how many times (both growing up and even in the past few years) I have said something to my sister that really upset her, and my mom would reprimand me and have to explain to me why she was upset. Usually my first reaction in those situations wasn’t to feel sorry – it was to feel frustrated and annoyed that she responded that way, because I “couldn’t see what the big deal was.” Especially if I thought I was just stating a neutral fact.
Maybe I have a problem with empathy after all.