On Autism and Empathy…

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.



Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Communication, Empathy, Relationships, Social Interaction

12 responses to “On Autism and Empathy…

  1. Lisa Monzon

    Absolutely on the nose, Carlyle. I feel the pain of others very intensely – perhaps more intensely than I feel my own pain, and it is hard for me to comfort them in any but a verbal way. I have learned to hug, but don’t always know when it’s appropriate, so I hesitate. I’ve tried explaining this to people, and now I have your post for future reference. xxoo

    • I recently had a conversation with a good friend about what I need in a relationship. One of my main points was that I need the person to help me understand how to respond to his or her feelings in a way that is positive for the relationship.

      • Kristin

        That is a good observation! When my son sees someone suffering, he doesn’t know how to react, sometimes he’ll have a real bad reaction like laughing. So now I tell him what to do, depending on the situation, something like “she’s sad, she’s your friend, you can ask her what’s wrong and confort her by saying something nice, she hurts, leave her alone a moment, she needs space, she lost her toy, help her look for it” and so on. He is thankful and does as I tell him, it helps a lot.On his own, he can only help me as he knows me well, but is at a loss with others.

      • Kristin,
        I’m thinking of writing soon on what I need in relationships, and you just described one of the most important things. I need my friends to help me understand how to respond to their feelings in a way that is positive for them and will build the relationship. I recognize this, so I will usually ask as I need to. Fortunately, hugs seem to be appropriate to almost any situation with my friends, so I don’t have to worry about saying the wrong things. 🙂
        I wish someone had helped me like you are helping your son, though. I sometimes feel I’ve learned all this about 20 years too late. I’ve only recently started having the kinds of relationships I wished for all along. With your help, I believe your son won’t have to wait so long.

  2. magerfive

    This is one of those Blogs that I read and go EXACTLY!!!! FINALLY SOMEONE GETS IT!!!! Thank You for sharing!!!

  3. BooBoo

    that’s good

  4. Kristen

    Carlyle has a hard time when I am upset, frustrated, stressed or emotionally hurt about something. It took me a while to understand that it’s not that he’s telling me I can’t experience these feelings. It’s ok , but he will feel them intensely right along with me. It can easily bring up emotional pain, he has experienced, to the surface. Don’t get me wrong, he helps me and encourages me in a lot ways, but this is just an example of the extreme empathy those on the spectrum deal with. He feels so deeply, the pain and hurt of others, that he may appear “cold” because he may not know how to deal with the emotions at that level. This is where the emotional empathy comes in. Those with AS often don’t know how to deal with their own flood of emotions all at once, let alone someone elses. Please be patient, because through experiences they learn. I can’t speak for all Aspies, but Carlyle has very big heart and he feels so deeply. This means when he gets hurt, it is very deep and wide. It hurts to the core and possibly forever.

    And just for the record… I am so very proud of you!!
    the wife!

  5. Thank you for this eye-opening post. My dad had Asperger’s, and this helps me understand a lot of his behaviour.

    • Thanks, Becky. I hope my daughter gets to understand me early on so we can always have a close relationship. It’s never too late, though. 🙂

      • Well, sadly, my dad passed away 15 months after we found out he had Asperger’s (he had lung cancer). My parents had had relationship problems pretty much all of their marriage, and in the end my mum told him they had to have counselling or she’d leave him, he agreed, and it was the counsellor that first suggested he might have Asperger’s syndrome. I was 15 at the time, and was actually tested as well (I’m borderline, incidentally, the tests the psychologist used included an emotional intelligence (EQ) test, in which I scored too high to be within the parameters).

        So learning about Asperger’s syndrome has helped me deal with some of the issues from my childhood, and understand my dad’s behaviour better, but I do wish he had known earlier, as I think it would’ve made a huge difference both in my parents relationship, and in his relationship with my sisters and I, and people in general.

        I’m so happy though, that you’re able to help your daughter understand you from a young age, and I really hope you’ll be able to have a close relationship.

  6. Emma

    Instead of perpetuating the myth, you dispel it! Go YOU! xx

  7. Pingback: About that ‘security blanket’ ~ a shout-out to the #ActuallyAutistic bloggers… (100th post) – the silent wave

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