Category Archives: Empathy

The right question…

A week ago, my wife and I were the guest speakers in a counseling class. The topic was the impact of disabilities on the family, but when the students learned that I also have Asperger’s syndrome , they decided they would rather talk about that. It was a great discussion and the students asked very good questions, but then one student asked the question that has stuck in my mind all week: “How can we, not as counselors, but as friends, best reach out to those with Asperger’s syndrome?” I think this question is worthy of a book, which I may attempt to write. Until then, I’d like to share my thoughts from this week.

Hans Asperger wrote:

These children often show a surprising sensitivity to the personality of the teacher. However difficult they are, even under optimal conditions, they can be guided and taught, but only by those who give them understanding and genuine affection, people who show kindness towards them and yes, humour. The teacher’s underlying emotional attitude influences, involuntarily and unconsciously, the mood and behaviour of the child.

I believe this applies to any relationship. Certainly, a friendship requires some learning as we get to know our friend, and I think we are all far more likely to be interested in getting to know someone who shows us understanding and genuine affection, especially if we can laugh with him or her as well.

If you would be a friend to someone who struggles socially, whether you know they have Asperger’s syndrome or not, you have to be willing to show understanding. Especially when I am stressed or uncomfortable, my body language and facial expressions may seem to convey messages that aren’t necessarily accurate. I’ve had several friends say to me that they feel I look angry or like I just want to be left alone. Many of my high school classmates have recently told me that I always seemed like I wanted to be left alone. (Perhaps it was because high school was terrifying to me.) Try asking me if I’d like some company, even if I don’t look very open to it. I’m often unaware of the signals I give off, and I can tell you that I will usually be delighted to meet a new friend. Give me room to be a little different as we get to know each other. I can assure you that I will be whether you let me or not, and I’ll be much more comfortable if you are ok with it. I think you will find that I’m often willing to laugh at my weirdness if I know you love me no matter what.

Speaking of love (and I’m talking about the kind of love shared between friends), my wife often likes to say that I need people to “love out loud.” By this, she means that I need my friends to demonstrate affection in ways that I can “hear” and understand. Different people like to be loved in different ways, and people with Aspergers syndrome are as unique as all others. One thing that we do have in common, though, is that we have difficulty understanding the non-verbal signals that other people use when they interact with each other. I’m not able to see that you love (or like) me by the way you look at me. Especially early in the relationship, I need you to be a bit more verbal. At first, you might tell me that you’d like to get to know me or that you’d like to be my friend. My closest friends often tell me that they love me and show it in other ways as well. In short, try to express clearly in words where the relationship stands. In some cases, that may be as simple as addressing me as “my friend,” or perhaps some funny nickname you and I come up with.

Stephen Bauer wrote, “The common belief that [persons] with pervasive developmental disorders are humorless is frequently mistaken.” My wife and closest friends can assure you that this is very true. Yesterday, I nearly made a good friend spray her drink through her nose and I even got some giggles out of her son. Most humor relies on a shared context in order to be funny. Non-verbal signals often communicate that context. Consider, for example, how you might tell that someone is being sarcastic. I often miss those signals, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying humor. It just often takes a different form from what you are used to. I’ve noticed that my humor often gets a delayed reaction because it takes a moment for people to get it. Keep an open mind and let’s learn to laugh together.

My psychologist told me that Asperger’s syndrome leads to social dysfunction, which leads to social anxiety, which leads to depression, which leads to further social dysfunction. By giving me understanding and affection, and in sharing humor with me, my friends have helped me slow down, then stop, and then reverse this vicious cycle. Succeeding socially leads to confidence, which leads to further successes. I won’t say that I no longer struggle, but I’ve come a long way from the deep depression I’ve struggled with. You could make a huge difference in someone’s life. Even better, you could make a friend for life. I love my friends dearly, and I thank each of them for taking the time to ask the right question.


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

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