Imagine that you are engaging in an activity that you enjoy that requires the use of your hands. Now, imagine that you have arthritis and it hurts to use your hands. At first, you might adjust your technique in hopes of avoiding some of the pain, but eventually, the pain will exceed your enjoyment of the activity, and you will begin to avoid the activity altogether. It is likely that many of my readers will know someone who has experienced this. Some of my readers will have experienced it themselves. Personally, I know people who have given up motorcycling, an activity that I enjoyed with them, because of arthritis or other conditions that made it painful for them. I feel the pain of their loss.
There is a widespread belief that autistic people, including those with Asperger’s syndrome, lack empathy because they do not express it as others do. I disagree. I definitely feel empathy for others, but I struggle to express it. There is a reason for that.
Among the criteria for Asperger’s syndrome in the DSM IV is “marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction.” Let’s think about how empathy is typically expressed for a moment. It is sometimes expressed with words, but those words are usually accompanied by nonverbal behaviors.
Impairment in the use of nonverbal behaviors is only the beginning, though. In their 2007 paper, “The Intense World Syndrome – an Alternative Hypothesis for Autism,” Markram, Rinaldi, and Markram propose that “The autistic person may well try to cope with the intense and aversive world by avoidance. Thus, impaired social interactions and withdrawal may not be the result of a lack of compassion, incapability to put oneself into some else’s position or lack of emotionality, but quite to the contrary a result of an intensely if not painfully aversively perceived environment.”
What if you had some condition that made interacting with others painful? Can you imagine that? In much the same way as with arthritis, you might try to find ways to avoid the pain while still interacting, or you may avoid interacting altogether. That’s my struggle.
As with mild arthritis, there are ways to mitigate the pain. A motorcyclist with mild arthritis might adjust the controls or use heated gloves. He or she might also wait for the best weather. For me, interacting with others is less painful in quieter and less crowded settings, so I avoid it when it is more crowded or noisy. I don’t think that will surprise anyone, but what may surprise you is that I feel empathy intensely. I struggle when people have intense personalities or are expressing themselves with intensity. I won’t say that it is wrong for them to do so, but I would appreciate some understanding for how it affects me if such a person needs to interact with me.
I think the real problem with autism and empathy is that it is difficult for others to see the world as we do. I hope I’ve helped you see more of what we see. Feel free to ask questions if I can help you understand further.
This is a huge topic, and there are quite a few very talented autistic writers who would love for you to hear what they have to say about it. I would appreciate it very much if you would take the time to visit my friend Rachel’s site, Autism and Empathy.