Inside and Out: A Few Words About Empathy

Got empathy? I do. And from all the testimonies I have read and heard, so do many other individuals on the autism spectrum.

Shocking? It might be, if you’ve believed up to this point that Aspies and other folks on the spectrum lack the capacity to empathize with other people – in other words, if you believe that we cannot feel or care about your pain.

There is lot of misinformation about autism spectrum disorders to begin with. What’s particularly damaging here is that some (and I emphasize, some) in the medical and mental health professions keep insisting that we lack empathy. For one thing, on many of the lists of symptoms and traits related to Asperger Syndrome I continually find such phrases as “lack of empathy” or “difficulty with empathy”. Another example is this article on the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP) website which cites a particularly damning quote from a 1999 article in the International Journal of Psychology:

“ …it would appear that both Asperger syndrome and psychopathy…share some common characteristics, notably the total absence of human empathy…”

What a load of bullshit! I thought. And I kept thinking this as I came across similar kinds of assertions in my later reading. What also got me thinking about this subject was an interview with Dr. Tony Attwood on this AWA Radio broadcast which I listened to last Sunday: he and the host mentioned recent studies that suggest that those on the spectrum are hypersensitive to the emotions of others — in other words, overempathetic (more about those studies later in this post).

I began considering the whole ball of wax with empathy. I remembered that in the past, when other people hurt, I hurt too. For example, there’s an incident that still sticks out in my mind from a prayer meeting that my fiance and I used to attend: there was a woman praying in a language I didn’t understand, but I could feel every bit of her words, which became more urgent, impassioned, and painful as the prayer wore on. I was crying by the end of her prayer.

And my capacity to hurt still rings true now. I ache when I find my stressed-out fiance at the end of a day, overloaded from dealing with caring for his elderly parents. I ache when my coworkers experience deaths in their families or other difficulties in their lives. I ache when I hear the pain inside the work of some of the poets in my community.

And it doesn’t seem to matter whether I know the people personally or not. Last week, a mural artist in our local poetry community died as a result of a lung condition. He was only 39. I’d never spoken to him, and my fiance and I had just seen him a few times, sketching in the corner at one of the local poetry nights. And we’d seen his work, which is phenomenal and vivid (and I do it injustice by even using those words to describe it) up and down one of the streets in town, on the sides of several buildings. But I literally hurt when I read the news posted on the pages of several of my friends on Facebook.

I’ll go even a bit further: I have trouble sometimes watching TV shows or movies that are emotionally evocative. It could be as simple as feeling embarrassed for a character on-screen, or it could be feeling hurt at how someone is being treated (for example, when watching the movie Office Space I literally wanted to jump through the screen and beat the crap out of Lumberg, the boss in the film for how he treats Milton, one of the computer programmers), or being unable to watch a movie more than once because it rips me apart inside (case in point — the 1991 Oliver Stone biopic about the The Doors: I could only tolerate watching Jim Morrison destroy himself once on screen).

So you can understand why I began challenging the conventional wisdom about empathy and Asperger Syndrome. I knew I was not emotionless and cold, and not lacking empathy. And wouldn’t it stand to reason that if this was true for me, it would be true for others Aspies as well? So I read, thought, and read some more, upon which I found two distinct causes of the so-called problem that folks on the spectrum have with empathy. Both of these are directly related to what goes on inside; in short, they explain part of the inner world of a person on the spectrum as follows:

  1. “Theory of Mind” difficulties. This basically means that someone with Theory of Mind problems with be less easily able to work out what someone is thinking or feeling. Humans typically do this by reading tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, and other non-verbal kinds of communication — something that people on the spectrum typically struggle with. This leaves them with a reduced ability to “read” people or situations — this includes things that I’ve mentioned such as tone of voice and facial expressions but which also leads to a difficulty reading subtle social cues.

  2. Hypersensitivity. This can come in a couple of different forms, but I’m calling attention to emotional hypersensitivity in this post. This 2009 article from The Star (Toronto, ON) reveals recent research findings that counteract the conventional wisdom that those on the spectrum lack empathy: in fact, the researchers suggest that they undergo “a hypersensitivity to experience”. In other words, not only can people on the spectrum sense the emotions of others, but they are be overwhelmed by them.  This idea is in line with the “intense world” theory of autism, which suggests that our nervous systems are hypersensitive and thus we experience stimuli more intensely than neurotypical individuals. More on the “intense world” theory in a future post. 

Now that I’ve unpacked the two reasons behind the misconception that we lack empathy, I’ll put the pieces together. If you consider the fact that we have difficulty reading people in varying degrees, you quickly understand why we may not immediately respond empathetically in some situations. Sometimes, it may not be so obvious to us what you’re thinking or feeling: me, I’m good with immediately understanding basic, bold print expressions of emotion (anger, happiness, and frustration) — but I tend to miss the subtleties.  But once I know, I do care. I do hurt. And in the earlier article from the GRASP website, the researchers who were exploring empathy in individuals with Asperger Syndrome came to the exact same conclusion:

“…our data shows that people with Asperger syndrome have a reduced ability to read other peoples’ social cues (such as facial expressions or body language) but once aware of another’s circumstances or feelings, they will have the same degree of compassion as anyone else.”


Also, there’s something else to be considered about theory of mind difficulties: they could lead to the problem of initially not knowing how to respond or responding incorrectly. Lynne Soraya mentions this very thing in this post over on her blog at Psychology Today:

“From a young age, I incorporated that axiom ['do unto others as you would have others do unto you'] into my belief structure.  But here’s where the problem comes in – what I would want ‘done unto me’ is entirely different than what another might want.  Likewise, ‘Putting myself in the other person’s shoes’ would have me doing something very different than what another person might envision doing in a similar situation.”

What I take this to mean is that I am more likely to assume that someone else wants the exact same thing I would want in the same situation. This may work great in some cases, but lousy in others. A perfect illustration of this is a big mistake I made when I was in high school with a classmate one day: he looked like he was down, I thought he wanted to talk and get whatever it was off his chest (just what I would want in the same situation). I was quickly rebuffed. I walked away, confused — and never found out what was wrong. Of course, as Soraya points out later in her article, neurotypicals make the same kinds of mistakes. So what’s so different about us? Are our viewpoints, approaches to the world, mental states, etc., different enough from neurotypicals that they result in more or more obvious kinds of misunderstandings? I am not sure myself what the answers to those questions are — and I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

But now, let us next consider the emotional hypersensitivity aspect of Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders. The article from The Star that I cited earlier has more to say about empathy:

“Studies have found that when people are overwhelmed by empathetic feelings, they tend to pull back. When someone else’s pain affects you deeply, it can be hard to reach out rather than turn away. For people with autism spectrum disorder, these empathetic feelings might be so intense that they withdraw in a way that appears cold or uncaring.”

So if even neurotypicals tend to pull back when confronted with the pain of someone else, what of us on the autism spectrum? Perhaps our pulling back or lack of response is a result of an intense inner response to the pain of others. One only needs to look to our various sensory difficulties to infer that a sensitive nervous system that has trouble with things such as florescent lighting, loud noises, itchy clothes, and light touch would also have trouble with filtering and processing the emotions of others — which of course, the evidence of such would come in through  the same sensory channels that process all of  the other stimuli I mentioned earlier. Or as my fiance put it when we discussed this issue a few days ago (he’d read Soraya’s article about Asperger’s and remorse before our discussion), how can the same person who has extreme reactions and temper fits when overstimulated not also be affected by other people’s emotions? To him, the logic of someone like this lacking emotion and empathy didn’t make sense. And it doesn’t to me either.

What are we to conclude? I think it is safe to say that we are sensitive and empathetic to the point of being overwhelmed by the emotions of others, and that we sometimes have trouble “reading the signals” and maybe knowing how to respond. That is the inside. What’s outside is our reactions and behavior, from which the wrong conclusions have been drawn. Given this, the “don’t judge a book by its cover” axiom fits best here. It is detrimental and perhaps even dangerous to make assumptions about a person or a group of people unless you really know what is going on inside.

I sincerely hope that this post has shed more light about the issue of empathy with those who have Asperger’s and other autism spectrum conditions. Please, talk back to me and let me know what you think about this post via your comments below.

-Nicole

Sources and Suggested Reading:

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27 thoughts on “Inside and Out: A Few Words About Empathy

  1. The way I view empathy and Aspergers is that we certainly feel empathy but we get stuck on how to demonstrate that we do. Quite often I will feel someone’s pain, but I have no idea how to tell them I do and when I try it always seems to awkward and not what they need or received badly. Therefore, I tend not to anymore.
    I will, however, cry like a baby at any minor sadness or great happiness in a movie. That I would gladly trade away for the ability to be able to express empathy appropriately.

    • And I have had this happen to me too.

      Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a way to better learn how to express empathy, in such a way that it ministers to the person’s needs but still is/feels genuine? Thank you for commenting. I think I will deal with this in a post in the very immediate future. I just need to find that way myself. :)

  2. Wow, what an amazingly thorough piece on such a widely-misunderstood topic.

    I’ve often felt overwhelmed by my own emotions, and respond by either overreacting (in the case of anger or anxiety) or underreacting (in the case of sadness). Even more perplexing, sometimes I genuinely feel “numb” in situations that others would find really distressing. For example, last week my son temporarily went missing after his speech therapy appointment. He’s autistic, too, and prone to run away without responding to anyone or any thought for his own safety. There was a real possibility that he’d run out of the building and into the road. And yet.. I didn’t feel scared. I felt completely calm and collected. It was surprising.

    I, too, have issues expressing empathy in the correct way. I find online communication much easier in this respect, because I can see what others say and adapt it, without the usual robotic movements.

    • Thank you, outoutout. I’ve been convinced that the “lack of empathy” statements about us just didn’t fit…because I knew I had empathy, in fact quite an abundance of it. My problem seems to be a) dealing with being overwhelmed by it and the emotions of others, and b) the correct expression of empathy. I’m slowly learning, but sometimes it’s still difficulty.

      I’ve had the “numb” feeling happen to me too — I tend to freak out more about stuff that I *think* will happen but does not. But when stuff happens (unless it’s a very overwhelming or painful situation), I tend to have that same sense of calm.

      Thank you for stopping by. Hope to see you around here again soon.

      -Nicole

  3. I really liked reading this blog entry. I have only just been diagnosed with Aspergers but empathy is something that sticks out for me in a big way. I am almost incapable of feeling or showing emotion for people and have been my whole life. I just don’t care, tune out or become completely detached if someone talks about their problems or I hear something has happened that everyone else finds sad for a person. It’s difficult because all my life people have thought I’m rude and an awful person. I’m not. It’s impossible to explain that I’m physically incapable of showing empathy. I can’t do or say the right thing because inside my head I can’t focus my thoughts on other people’s problems. So you can imagine how many times I’ve said and done the wrong thing!

    About 5 years I had to go to a funeral for a colleague’s 4 year old daughter. I felt nothing and didn’t want to be there but knew I had to out of respect but I wasn’t able to find any emotion so I ended up listening to my iPod during the service. No need to tell you how rude people thought I was.

    Yet like Riayn said when it comes to TV or movies then I can cry like a baby at the slightest sad or happy part. I cry until I’m sobbing when a character in a film or tv show dies or something good happens to them. I’ve never understood and still don’t get how I can feel those emotions but none for people in real life.

  4. This is an interesting post! I’ve always theorized that it isn’t that we don’t know empathy – but rather we don’t know how to communicate our understanding in a lot of cases. I’m the same way as you it sounds – I sobbed like a baby at Titanic, I can’t watch The Office out of embarassment and I cry at weddings. Yet if someone were to talk to me about a deep problem they were having I would be at a loss. Am I supposed to just listen to them? Am I supposed to provide support? I love the hyper-empathetic idea that you write about though. It really does make sense.

    • Hi Robin:

      Thank you for stopping by. It seems a lot of us find ourselves in the same pickle — having empathy but not knowing how to communicate it or what to do about it. I keep thinking that maybe we shut off or shut down when overwhelmed, and it’s not even a cognitive thing — maybe something that happens automatically for us. It is definitely a challenge, and something I would like to find answers to as well.

      Again, thank you for commenting. I look forward to seeing you here again. Please feel free to comment any time.

      -Nicole

  5. I am a 47 year old woman and have just recently self-diagnosed myself as having aspergers. What a relief! I seem to have a delayed reaction of emotion, and honestly don’t think some things are as horrific as non-aspies think. My neighbor had a miscarriage at about 3 months. She was a wreck, people visited her, brought flowers, etc. To me, it seemed so much of a show and fake. I felt like, “Get ahold of yourself! Okay, we all know you’re a loving and sensitive Mother now…” Mind you, many years ago, I miscarried my 18-year old son’s twin at 6 weeks along (alone in the bathroom). I’ve often wondered what he or she may have been like, what went wrong, etc. and my 3 children are all aware I lost Brian’s twin. My Father is 81 and I already know, when he passes, I won’t shed a tear at his funeral. I’ll miss him dearly and will probably remember more details about him than either of my siblings. One of my biggest hurdles is feeling guilty for not measuring up with my emotions as compared to non-aspies. It’s quite exhausting to try and be someone I’m not…and I’m so glad I now know why I’m different. Thanks for your great site!

  6. Hello Cynthia:

    You’re very welcome — and thank you for visiting this site. This post seems to strike a lot of chords and I’m beginning to understand why. We are different in our degree of emotional expression and how we show empathy towards other people — and I honestly am beginning to wonder if there is any “right” or ‘wrong” in this department.

    Please feel free to stop back by again. Your comments are always welcome.

    -Nicole

  7. Theory of mind just says that in theory other people are the same as you… but anyone who can separate the actor from the action and the effect will tell you, I have got a clue what there thinking… they all seem a bit crazy to me.. I’ll just say what I see as the actors the actions and the effects and not postulate with some ‘theory’, just stick to the facts think you very much.

  8. You’re very welcome — and thank you for visiting this site. This post seems to strike a lot of chords and I’m beginning to understand why. We are different in our degree of emotional expression and how we show empathy towards other people — and I honestly am beginning to wonder if there is any “right” or ‘wrong” in this department.
    Please feel free to stop back by again. Your comments are always welcome.

    See that’s in the third person. separating the actors the actions and the effects. putting yourself last.

  9. You’re very welcome — and thank you for visiting my site. Could you go any further. Your post strikes a lot of chords and I’m interested to know more.
    etc……
    See that’s in the second person to first.

    You’ve helped me a lot, that’s very much. Where did you get your information from, I’d be interested to read further.

    That’s more first person, self centric, egotistic.

  10. You also get insite and attachment.

    “Gay me like Kylie Minogue”.

    Probably gona get a few grumbles.

    Not it’s not because your a man, or woman or human yada yada… (trauma not withstanding)

    “Fish live in the sea”,
    probably won’t cause many issues:
    even though they can live out of water for a while and live in lakes and rivers and fish tanks. (they also die in the sea).

  11. Fake it!! It works. Pretend you’re an actor in a drama & how that person would act – I’ve found that watching “Soaps” is a good way to learn the proper (or expected motions). There will be, however, some moments when your fake emotions turn real & you will melt like a little puddle of ice cream on a hot July sidewalk. So don’t try TOO hard.

    What I used to do was, I would copy a girl friend, I would watch what she did & try to act likewise.

    Now that I am old, I don’t have to fake things any more. I swear the Aspberger’s tends to dwindle with age.
    My grand=daughter used the copy-cat solution & it worked for her. Her daughter is on meds. She is 8, & is having a better school year than last year.

    I wish I had known about Autism & its spectrum when my children were young & in grade school.

    • Marian, your comment reminds me of a question that I myself have struggled with, especially since I self-dx’d myself and then was diagnosed with Asperger’s last year. The question is this: what is “normal”, what does it mean, and how far should someone go to be perceived as “normal”?

      You bring up a very interesting point about faking it, and I could argue for either faking expected responses in social situations or not. I’ll be quite honest — I’m 34 years old and I’ve learned some things about the expected or correct responses in social situations, but it still feels like a script to me. If I genuinely do feel empathy or care about the other person, I don’t quite feel so bad about “faking it”. There is genuine feeling behind the actions, but some of the responses still aren’t second nature or even natural to me — I have to physically remind myself sometimes that I need to respond as appropriate. But when I don’t feel any concern, then it’s a little harder for me. Perhaps this may be my own hangup, but it is what it is. On the other hand, it may take us a while of practicing the behavior — faking it, as you put it — to learn these kinds of responses and if that is the case, then faking it might be a good thing. So, I’m not sure where I stand on this.

      And you back up one of the points that Dr. Tony Attwood has made before: women and girls observe behavior, and then imitate it.

      Thanks for sharing, Marian. See you around.

      -Nicole

  12. I have a diagnosis of Autism and I completely lack empathy. I’m not arguing a case for everyone with asperger’s lacking empathy. However this webpage has been wrote/collated in a way, that suggests everyone on the spectrum experiences hyper-empathy. Is it because you wish to avoid the stigma that is associated with lacking empathy?

    Either way, you are just as guilty as the researchers who claim you lack empathy. You are spreading a different form of misinformation, which can only result in people like myself recieving substandard treatments. The last thing I want to happen, is to have a medical professional insisting I have hyperempathy and forcing me to engage in years of pointless exercises to “help” me.

    • Hello Michael:

      The reason I even wrote this post was that I became rather tired of the assertion that everyone on the spectrum lacks empathy. Nearly every description of autism I’d read seemed to emphasize that autistics lack it, which is why I said, “What a load of bullshit.” Truth is truth. I knew that I did not lack empathy but simply have difficulty figuring out how to express it: in essence, the praxis that would normally come with whatever I am sensing or feeling. Also, I entertained the “intense world” theory of autism is because it seemed to ring true not only in my case, but in the cases of others who I have conversed with who are also on the spectrum.

      I will agree that a problem does exist when one’s measure or worth or humanity is judged on such phenomenon. What comes to mind is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Measure of a Man” in which a Starfleet court of sorts has to decide whether Data is a sentient being or Starfleet property. You could say that the same sort of thing is happening about autistic people in the “courts” of modern medicine, psychology, and public opinion which unfortunately already has a bias towards thinking of us as broken, strange individuals who need fixed. Granted, we have come a long way from certain appellations slapped onto us such as “mental cripple” (I am thinking of this 1965 Time Magazine article courtesy of neurodiversity.com about Lovaas and the beginnings of his autism research that have birth to modern ABA practices). However, the misconceptions about autistic people still remain. I was only attempting to fight one of them with this post.

      You indicate you lack empathy. I am not making any moral judgments about your experience: your experience is your experience (Your mileage may vary, that is). I am here to explore possibilities, document, and write about them, not to justify anything. And I am not suggesting anything other than what I wrote in this post — that my experience and the experience of other autistics I’ve come across is completely opposite to the current thought about autism and empathy.

      I will not respond to the accusatory statements in your comment except to say that if you would read my post carefully again, you would note that I am NOT suggesting that anyone who lacks empathy needs to be poked, prodded, treated for said lack of empathy, or anything else. Whether empathetic, or not, it is what it is. And I can totally understand your concern about receiving substandard treatment — I was not even diagnosed until age 34. When I was growing up in the 1980’s and 1990’s, all of the focus was on boys with autism, so nobody thought of my behavior as indicative of a difference in brain wiring and instead assumed that I was a daydreaming problem child, not acting normal on purpose to get attention. And I’m sure that the probably the large numbers of autistic women who cannot get a diagnosis, adequate treatment, accommodations, etc. would share your concerns.

      On this blog, I document my reality and then explore from there. I have nothing to prove. And if I’ve assumed that all autistics have some form of empathy, then that’s my own fault. You are one instance in which it’s not true. There are still large pieces of this thing called autism spectrum disorder that have not been completely unpacked — maybe the difference is caused by how the brain is wired in each individual, maybe gender plays into is, etc. There could be tons of reasons. But since we are autistic, I feel that if we sit by and let everybody else have conversations about us without us speaking about our own truth and experiences, we will never clear the myriad of misconceptions about autism.

      In closing, I will say that really to you, I am nothing but a windmill. I would encourage you to fight more worthy opponents if you wish to make a difference about how autistics are perceived — because of your strong opinions and concerns one positive step would be to start documenting, speaking out, writing, etc. if you are not doing so already.

      -Nicole

  13. Thanks for sharing these posts with me, Nicole.
    What do you think of cognitive vs affective empathy? From what you write, perhaps this is a distinction that helps. Jackie

  14. My only real reason that professionals haven’t diagnosed me is that I feel empathy very strongly. I have learned to demonstrate it by use of facial expression and tone of voice, but it took a long time to learn, imitation takes effort to demonstrate and sometimes I am told that my facial expression and body language don’t match my words – now I know why.

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