Empathy

Empathy

First of all, let’s straighten out what the word empathy really means. The most common interpretation is ‘to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes’ i.e. to really understand another living being from an inside perspective (and possibly even predict their reaction). This can often be arrived at by means of direct perception (of body language or other subtle cues), emotion, imagination, instinct (e.g. maternal instinct), intuition, knowledge (from a verbal or written account), experience, guessing or logic – often a combination of several of these.

Sympathy

Often empathy is thought to also encompassing sympathy, though they are not quite the same. Sympathy (= ‘co-feeling’ in Greek) can mean ‘to like’ or ‘to resonate in harmony with’ as well as ‘compassion’ (= ‘co-feeling’ in Latin) – which, at best, is what may arise as a consequence of understanding another being.

AS and empathy

There is this myth that people with AS lack empathy, which I find totally at odds with the profusion of actual empathy, sympathy and general helpfulness between Aspies on forums and in real life and with self-descriptions of empatic ability. However, not every Aspie is empathic, some are over-empathic, for some it varies, and many have it but don’t show it in the expected manner.

Here are some possible explanations for apparent lack of empathy in Aspies:

DIFFERENT EMPATHY

Interpreting body language

Difficulties interpreting subtle body language can make it much harder to figure out how others may be feeling. Many Aspies (and men!) are compassionate but not telepathic. Once the other person’s feelings are understood, many Aspies are very sympathising and quick to offer confirmation, advice and/or support.

Unless I’m in the same room and the other person shows his/her feelings in a way that can’t be missed even by me (e.g. by crying or laughing), or describes it verbally, I usually can’t figure out by myself what the other person may be feeling, or why. When people show me or tell me how they feel, I often feel some measure of compassion for them, sometimes as a direct emotion, at other times more like a mental wish for them to feel better. (Even people I dislike, I tend to feel compassion for if I realise that they’re in pain.)

Ing, site-author

Displaying body language

Not showing empathy can easily be interpreted as lack of empathy in itself.

“There is a body language component to empathy — that even if an Aspie understands and responds in a helpful way to another person’s problem, he still won’t be perceived as empathic because the typical body language isn’t there.”

‘Beautiful Dreamer’, female self-diagnosed Aspie from USA

Social cluelessness

Not being sure how to act without making things worse if someone for example suffers a tragic loss; if they want to talk about the painful event or if they don’t want to be reminded. I think it must be hard for everyone to know, but even more so for a socially clueless Aspie.

When my only friend in 5th grade lost her father I had no clue what to say or do and was too shy to ask anyone for guidance (the information about her father’s death didn’t elicit any advice or instructions from my mother, who was very young and rather Aspie herself) so I just avoided my friend for a long time instead. A shameful thing that I felt bad over for years but I can now have compassion for myself for really not knowing how to handle it.

Ing, site-author

“Aspies find it easy to get called selfish just because it doesn’t occur to us to enunciate concerns for others or to ask unprompted casual questions about them. I can remember once getting called selfish for not asking after the health of as family friend who had been seriously ill (he recovered and is alive now). It simply never occurred to me to ask after it as I knew I would hear any news I needed to.”

Maurice, Aspie from Scotland

“I also used to be very frightened of other people showing emotions. For example, I used to have an almost phobic reaction to people crying (except very young children). It was a physical reaction, with shaking and a queasy feeling in my stomach. As a teenager I somehow managed to figure out what I was meant to do and then managed to do it (turning your back and walking away is not the best when it is your best friend!), eventually I became less afraid and now the reaction is barely there.”

‘Nightshade’, female Aspie from NZ

General cluelessness

Not realizing that others have thoughts, wishes, feelings, expectations and needs, which might explain their various inexplicable behaviours and reactions, unless informed of this fact.

I was told when I was 30. That was one of the biggest aha-moments of my life! Just hadn’t occurred to me before. Only person I knew had feelings was mom because she has always reported her feelings about everything in her life, but this information was not something I could generalise to be true of everyone.

Ing, site-author

Logical empathy

For a mentally centred personality type – to which many, but not all, Aspies belong – it is natural to logically try to figure out how others may be feeling (and what may be the expected or appropriate response) instead of instinctively feeling it.

“Hermelin and O’Connor (1985), who invoked the concept of ‘logico-affective’ states, have argued that some individuals with autistic spectrum disorders are able to use cognitive mechanisms to deal with problems that are usually dealt with by affective processes. Since such problems are usually encountered in the realm of social interactions, the use of cognitive rather than effective processes could, as Bowler (1992) suggests, result in a slowing of responses, and a disruption of the subtle timing of social interactions, thereby making the person seem odd to other people.”

Jay A Seitz, Ph.D., Social deficits in children: the role of emotion and empathy

“For me it is a strange concept, empathy. I can mostly realize – by logic – that a person can feel the emotions he/she is feeling (probably I can analyze and reason quite well and might surprise the other person with how he/she came to that feeling, what other emotions are involved and what he/she could do about it if he/she wants to feel better). But I see no point in trying to feel the same way. And I think that is where our society says that Aspergers are not able to emphatize with others. I think we do, but we don’t make their emotions our own.”

Lida, Aspie from the Netherlands

Self-centred empathy

Many people try to help in ways that do not match what the other person really needs but more what one would need oneself in a similar situation. This is very common among people who are fundamentally different (e.g. Aspies – non-Aspies; men – women) and goes both ways – both parties tend to make the same mistake.

For example, a non-Aspie mother may think she is doing her Aspling a favour by trying to get him/her to go out and socialise, when that would in fact not make the Aspling as happy as the mother would be but instead utterly miserable. Or a wife may nag her husband to talk about a problem of his just because she usually feels better after talking about her problems, when the husband may have a genuine need to sort it out by himself.

”I think there may be another meaning to self-centered empathy, a meaning that has nothing to do with being selfish. It works like this.  A friend is upset and you want to do something to make her feel better.  You remember what makes you feel better when you are upset and assume the same thing will make her feel better.  Unfortunately her likes and dislikes may be very different from yours and your responses may not be thought of as inappropriate.

Ilah, probable Aspie from USA

“It happens all the time with me and my wife. I treat her as how I would like to be treated. But, it makes her unhappy or hurts her. I have to try to evaluate how SHE wants to be treated, because, in most cases it is different than me. Example: If she is cleaning the kitchen/dishes, I stay out of the kitchen, because I like to do it all by myself. She, on the other hand, likes to do things together. She would rather have me help her with the dishes.”

Dan, Aspie

Resolutional empathy

This is an example of the above. Many Aspies – and men in general – react to the troubles of others by wanting to solve their problems instead of just offering sympathy, because we see that as the most logical and helpful thing to do. Much to our surprise, this is not always appreciated… In a Swedish forum poll this type was the most common type of self-reported empathy among Aspie members (over 30%).

“A friend and I have been discussing problems that occur when an NT is venting emotionally and the person with AS, instead of commiserating as other NTs would do, goes into problem solving mode.  The person with AS usually gets accused of not caring.  This is not an example of communication for enjoyment – but still emotional…. looking for emotional satisfaction.

“When presented with a problem, we go into problem solving mode automatically. They listen with their hearts, we listen with our heads. They sit back and listen, we immediately begin to calculate how to help. We don’t recognize that the actual purpose of passing on this information was to get emotional satisfaction and not to pass on information as a request for help.  It doesn’t occur to us that we were not being asked to help, or that the person would not even WANT help.  Why wouldn’t they want help with a problem?  Isn’t that why they are telling us about it?

“Yes it is a different kind of empathy. Functional empathy. More politically correct terms: Resolutional Empathy – AS. Emotive Empathy – NT.”

Wendi, Aspie from USA

I’ve always functioned exactly like that. When someone tells me their problem, my brain immediately starts trying to figure out the reasons for it and solutions to it. I always get baffled when I realize that most people don’t seem to want their problems solved, but only sympathy for how they are feeling. The former comes natural to me, the latter I usually find rather tiresome and unproductive.

I especially find it hard to keep sympathising with someone for the same thing over and over and over… After a while I tend to get frustrated and wishing they would just solve their problem already, instead of just complaining about it repeatedly. If continued discussions of their problem include a resolutional component and willingness to change, I am much more likely to be interested and genuinely sympathetic.

Ing, site-author

Being practical

Some have a practical approach even to things that are truly distressing.

“I remember once having a discussion with a couple of my children, who were already adults at the time we had this conversation. Somehow, a discussion on what to do if someone was killed in the middle of the night came up. I responded, saying, ‘If one of you is killed in the middle of the night, don’t wake me up with the news until morning. If you’re already dead, what good does it do for me to be woken in the middle of the night?’

“Of course, everyone was appalled. I know I must have sounded callous. But, imo, why have to wake up in the middle of the night, if someone is already dead? Why not just finish sleeping and be upset in the morning? Why do I have to wake up in the middle of the night to be upset, when I can wake up in the morning and be just as upset, but not all messed up and tired?”

Anne Marie, ADHD/Aspie from USA

BEING OVEREMPATHIC

Some super-sensitive individuals – including some on the autistic & neurodiversity spectrum – are so receptive that they tend to pick up everything from their surroundings and may have to try to protect themselves from overload.

“I really enjoy caring for people, a bit too much I think so I usually just don’t show it. When I was in my mid-teens I stopped attending classes for a while because all of the sudden I became overwhelmed and felt like I could sense every person’s emotion and it was like a weight that crushed me.”

Claire, Aspie from USA

“I tend to feel other beings and things as if they were very close to me. It’s hard for me to read newspaper or watch the news on TV because quite often I’m really hit by what I read. For days I’ll think a lot about how it feels being killed or mistreated or alike.”

Hajo, Aspie from Germany

Being both sensitive and non-passionate myself, I find intense emotions from other people physically difficult to deal with, as my delicate nervous system isn’t designed to harbour such passions, so to a degree I have to turn down or off my empathic ability around intense people for self-protection.

Ing, site-author

“I often say that I’ve got extremely sensitive tentacles which catch the smallest fluctuation in mood, feelings and emerging problems. I’m not just hypersensitive to sounds, light, smells and touch, in other words”

– ‘Truly’, female Aspie from Sweden

Update Feb 2010: This has now been confirmed by a study:

A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.

People with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, are often stereotyped as distant loners or robotic geeks. But what if what looks like coldness to the outside world is a response to being overwhelmed by emotion – an excess of empathy, not a lack of it?

This idea resonates with many people suffering from autism-spectrum disorders and their families. It also jibes with the “intense world” theory, a new way of thinking about the nature of autism.

As posited by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency but, rather, a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.

“I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling,” Kamila Markram says. “The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it. There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”

Virtually all people with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, report various types of over-sensitivity and intense fear. The Markrams argue that social difficulties of those with autism spectrum disorders stem from trying to cope with a world where someone has turned the volume on all the senses and feelings up past 10.

If hearing your parents’ voices while sitting in your crib felt like listening to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on acid, you, too, might prefer to curl in a corner and rock.

But, of course, this sort of withdrawal and self-soothing behaviour – repetitive movements; echoing words or actions; failing to make eye contact – interferes with social development. Without the experience other kids get through ordinary social interactions, children on the spectrum never learn to understand subtle signals.

Phil Schwarz, a software developer, is vice-president of the Asperger’s Association of New England and has a child with the condition. He notes that autism is not a unitary condition – “if you’ve seen one Aspie, you’ve seen one Aspie,” he says, using the colloquial term.

But, he adds, “I think most people with ASD feel emotional empathy and care about the welfare of others very deeply.”

Asperger’s theory does about-face

– Empathy with animals

Like Temple Grandin, many Aspies and atypical people have an easier time empathising with how animals feel & perceive things than understanding other humans.

I can easily project my imagination into an animal and perceive the world from that animal’s perspective. I’m frequently surprised that so few others appear to have this ability. However, understanding (non-autistic) humans doesn’t come nearly as natural to me. Probably because their emotional range and reaction patterns are so different from my own.

Ing, site-author

“Given that AS people and HFAs are direct and to the point and don’t like to express ourselves in ways that cloud meaning, it stands to reason that other creatures who act as we do will be easy to read, to understand, and to get along with.”

Tom, Aspie from USA

“I don’t get why people have to own birds. I figure it’s the maternal instinct with the ownership of other animals. For instance, I feed a cat who lives outside part of the day. He goes with his gang in the streets. My sister on the other hand, owns two birds who never get along and they live in a cage. It’s like a life sentence in prison. And I have to admit, I wanted to kill those birds out of pity. They made eggs. We took them away. They sang too much. We isolated them. They pulled their feathers out. We stopped caring. That’s what gets me angry. I don’t know what they were thinking when they got those damnable creatures. I honestly think it’s a sadistic nature in people that makes them want to own birds or fish. It’s sickening. It disgusts me when I see ‘pet shops’.”

Nick, Aspie from USA

– Empathy with trees and objects

I used to feel sorry for toys when I was a child. When I see trees cut down, it still causes me much pain. This is because I consider them living beings and awesomely majestic. Even cutting necessary branches in my garden is difficult for me for this reason.

Ing, site-author

“My mom tore down 2 apple trees because they were diseased and it was a grieving process for me that took a long time to get over so I can relate.”

Nick, Aspie from USA

“It’s hard for me to throw away rubbish because afterwards I’m overwhelmed by thinking about what might happen to it at the rubbish destructor.”

Hajo, Aspie from Germany

“I can’t stand the thought of my things just being given away to charity when I die. What will happen to my grandfather’s violins, for example? They mean a lot to me and I don’t want them to just be sold at a flea market.”

Ackvelina, Aspie from Sweden

LACK OF EMPATHY

Selective empathy

It is quite natural for everyone to have an easier time understanding and sympathising those who are most like themselves. Thus, autistic/atypical people often find it easier to understand other atypical people, whereas non-autistic people seem to mainly understand other non-autistic people (especially those of the same culture, gender, age, socio-economic group etc).

“I have empathy and sympathy. But they are selective. I only have them for the experiences I can identify with. If someone (including strangers) cry because they are hurt or are experiencing some emotional pain that I have experienced then I empathize with them. Even if a bird is injured I feel bad. Or a cat does a long lazy stretch in the sun, I experience those with them. (Or more exactly – what I would feel if it were me.)”

‘Kota’, female Aspie from USA

“It is harder to become concerned for people we don’t know. Odd as all that seems, it is probably a defence mechanism. After all, if we had a breakdown every time we heard about someone dying or having an accident, life would be one of perpetual mourning.”

William, Aspie from USA

“There is a hidden communication and understanding going on between [non-Aspies] that they take for granted. When we Aspies, being different than them can’t experience it with them (nor they with us) they assume we lack empathy in general, instead of empathy with them. If I see someone crying, I can empathise because I’ve been in pain and cried so I know what if feels like. But I do think it has to be learned. The more experiences you’ve had the more you can empathise.

Carrie, Aspie from USA

“To be able to feel sorry for someone, one needs to somehow realise that the person is in need of sympathy. For that you need empathy, or to be able to come to this conclusion by logical deduction. I personally relate mainly to myself, so that the older I get the more experiences I have to relate to, and am therefore able to show more understanding and sympathy with age.”

Emma, Aspie from Sweden

Fluctuating empathy

During PMS I think many of us women are inclined to be less empathic than usual. It is also natural to be more empathic when calm and happy than when totally stressed out. Many Aspies and other sensitive people live in such a state of permanent stress from sensory overload, bullying, anxiety over how to interact socially etc., that all their energy needed just to focus on getting through the day. In that ‘basic survival mode’ it is not so easy to think of how others may feel too.

“To have feelings of gentleness, one must first experience gentle bodily comfort. As my nervous system learned to tolerate the soothing pressure of the squeeze machine, I discovered that the comforting feeling made me a kinder and gentler person. It was difficult to understand the idea of kindness until I had been soothed myself.”

Temple Grandin, HFA author from USA

Lack of pretence

A small minority of Aspies truly aren’t that inclined to be empathic, some can be quite harsh or indifferent. But they’re usually quite frank about it and not interested in trying to fake something they don’t feel. Some can still have a degree of mental sympathy or be helpful nevertheless.

“There really isn’t a doubt in my mind that people feel empathy and  sympathy. I’m not really one of them for the most part. Empathy for me is pretty much non-existent. On the Empathy test i scored a whopping 9 [out of 80]. But one can have a sympathy by simple acknowledgement that someone has X feeling about Y or some pity. Where pity would also be mostly an acknowledgement of a condition. There are certain things i can relate to, but only if it clicks with something i’ve experienced. And even then, depending on circumstance, may not illicit anything, or little, as a direct response to someone else’s expression or situation..”

‘Zardoz’, Aspie from USA

“I don’t see the need for faking sympathy when it is not genuine. That annoys me to no end. Empathy is better. That would be a simple: ‘I am sorry to hear that. That’s a tough thing to have happen.’ Something like that anyway. The point is that instead of faking emotion and sympathy, it is letting the other person know that you do care about what happened, just that you are not as emotionally involved as they are.”

William, Aspie from USA

THEORY OF MIND

Difficulty realising that others may not have the same knowledge, values etc. as oneself. Many people on the autistic spectrum develop ToM a little slower than normal.

“I think that we start out in life assuming that everyone shares our likes and dislikes and interests.  Sooner or later most people realize this is not the case.  Aspies tend to catch on to this later in life (or not at all).  For example I think of my brother who would give my mother toy cars for a mothers day present.”

– Ilah, probable Aspie from USA

“That ‘assumed knowledge’ is an Aspie trait, though like all the traits, not every Aspie may have it. This used to be a real problem for me when I was growing up since I would assume everyone knew everything I did and on top of that, could think like I did. This was a real problem since the kids I grew up with never read anything beyond their school books, and even that was only cursory enough to do their homework and then forget about it, and never watched anything but sports and cartoons. Now I loved cartoons as much as any kid but I would also watch NOVA and other science programs and read a lot. As a result, there wasn’t much we could really talk about, and that problem only grew worse as we got older.”

William, Aspie from USA

“I have always assumed that others knew what I knew, were as bright as I am, have the same values, etc.  When I come across someone who blatantly does NOT understand something as I do, I am shocked.  I’m kind of stunned and find it hard to keep functioning. An example in the workplace was taking sick leave.  One time I had an afternoon appointment.  I returned to work for the last hour and a half of the day.  One co-worker was amazed that I’d do that.  She would have taking the rest of the day off and call it sick leave.  I was stunned.  Of course everyone should be honest about work.  Blew me away.”

Linda, Aspie from USA

This is not restricted to the autistic spectrum, though. Although most people probably realise very early on that others don’t share the same knowledge as themselves, it still seems that a great many people assume that everyone feels, thinks & perceives things pretty much like themselves, and find it hard to accept that a minority may function very differently.

From the empathy article again:

When it comes to not understanding the inner state of minds too different from our own, most people also do a lousy job, Schwarz says. “But the non-autistic majority gets a free pass because, if they assume that the other person’s mind works like their own, they have a much better chance of being right.”

Asperger’s theory does about-face

LINKS

Do people with Asperger’s syndrome have empathy? by Stan P.

Center for Non-Violent Communication teaches empathy and empathic communication
Compassionate Communication articles by Marshall Rosenberg

BOOKS

Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

Advertisements

5 Comments »

  1. Karen said,

    I have always had a hard time accepting the fact that Aspies do not realize that other people have thoughts or feelings. What? I always knew the other people have thoughts and feelings–it’s just that I don’t know what they ARE unless they are very direct. Just wanted to say that.

  2. oliver stieber said,

    I still have a bad habbit of trusting untrust worthy people, even though I know I shouldn’t and quite how callous they are. I just can’t get my head around their lack of empathy and entitlement marker etc… it’s alien to me

  3. Hello, its fastidious post concerning media print, we all know media is a impressive source of data.

  4. Evan Kearney said,

    There is a bigger problem with empathy that I never hear discussed, but to me, it is very relevant. That is, that it is literally impossible to accurately share an inner experience with another human. The reason can be shown by demonstrating that if an inner experience has “n” dimensions to it, there is no isomorphism (structure preserving relation) to a mode of transmission with less than “n” dimensions. In fact, written language can be thought of as having ONE dimension (just words that is – one mode), so that is a bit frightening. Even with body language etc., the dimension of transmission will always be significantly less than that of the experience. So, how do people claim to even have empathy in the sense of knowing precisely (or even closely) what another is “feeling”? They simply don’t!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: