A few weeks ago a friend asked me some questions about Asperger's and specifically brought up the topic of 'empathy.' Specifically it dealt with the widespread misconception that people with Asperger's and autism are incapable of empathizing. To put it nicely, this is a gross over-generalization. After letting my friend's question percolate, I barfed out this collection of thoughts I've had on the topic. I'll shape them into a proper chapter for my book at some point. For now, I feel it's important to share, especially since it's been a big talking point in the autism community lately that autistics feel that their feelings are largely ignored and disregarded by the neurotypical professionals and researchers that work in the field of autism therapy.
The trouble with empathy is that it’s so-called expert practitioners take the skill so much for granted that they are pretty cavalier about judging other people’s deficiencies or perceived lack thereof.
They seem to think that empathy is a simple, straight-forward thing and you either have it or you’re irrevocably broken. They tend to overlook the fact that empathy is actually a complex and multifaceted group of abilities, each with its own range of proficiency within the so-called normal, or neurotypical population. And yet, it is accepted as common knowledge that women tend to be more emotionally sensitive than men. Without even seeing that this one gross generalization acknowledges that there exists an accepted normal range of empathy, they are quick to make judgments about what lack of empathy means.
This was one of my own big questions when I was looking at myself. I felt like I didn’t lack empathy, because I could appreciate that others had emotions. I've long felt that those emotions are important, and that honoring others’ emotions (when I recognize them) and taking them into account in my interactions was a valuable skill that I possessed.
In order to figure out what empathy really is, and what it really means to other people, I had to do a lot of thinking and reading and observation before I started to get a good sense of the several different skill sets that come together into this one thing that people call empathy. In working with special education populations, which very much became a vehicle for self knowledge, I got experience not only working with kids on autism spectrum, but with students in emotionally disturbed (E.D.) classrooms. I also reflected on people I’ve known in my life who were bipolar. And I looked at myself in ways I never had before.
I’m going to give a quick outline of the key, big deal things about empathy I’ve figured out. This will obviously have to get expanded into a whole chapter.
1) Recognizing facial expressions and other non-verbal communication. For various reasons, some people do not pick up the subtext of a lot of subtle body language. There is the common aversion to looking people in the eye (I had to train myself to work harder at this, beginning in high school with a sudden awareness that I was walking around with my head bent toward the ground all the time, and that might look weird. Some advice in something I read, it might even have been Wolverine in an X-Men comic but I don’t remember for sure, got the message through that looking people in the eye was important. I often fake it by looking at people’s glasses, or eyebrows, or chins). If it’s hard to look at someone’s face, it follows that you’re going to miss some subtle facial expressions that indicate emotion. And it’s confusing for the other person, because they are accustomed to these non-verbal cues being picked up. They tend to assume that you don’t care about their feelings, when you don’t notice the cues.
2) Expressing emotions. Often, because of varying factors, someone with ASD or Asperger’s won’t display the expected body language that accompanies emotions. I have had a few moments where someone’s commented on me having a flat affect, or not properly responding to bad news. Or just being confusing. The truth is, I do try to keep up a neutral expression a lot of the time, because, otherwise, I would be expressing discomfort and agitation almost constantly. Also, sometimes my emotional responses have to do with something deep inside that isn’t obvious to others. I get in trouble with my daughter because, sometimes when she’s working so hard at something that she’s at the point of total frustration, but she’s pushing on anyway, I’m so proud of her that I can’t help but chuckle. Then she gets mad at me for laughing at her when she’s having a hard time. Poor kid. I’m working on that one.
3) Perceiving emotions vs interpreting them. I think people with Asperger’s and ASD perceive a lot more emotional information than they credit for. I would say that most are really good at picking up fear. They might not always know how to respond, but when people around them express fear, or anger, it can escalate negative behavior. And I’m talking about the entire spectrum from non-verbal to math genius. They obviously pick up on those emotions, so saying that they can’t because they don’t have empathy is bullshit.
4) Emotional information in the face of all other information. One of the issues with having a neurodiverse brain is that incoming information is processed differently. Some of the filters neurotypicals have aren’t in place for the neurodiverse. Where a neurotypical can quickly hone in on the social and emotional information in a situation, someone with Asperger’s might be having trouble filtering out visual, aural, and sensory stimulus of all kinds. The emotional information coming in can often be lost in the flood of everything else, while neurotypicals are apt at tuning in on the emotional.
5) Mirror neurons. There are these things in the brain called mirror neurons. They respond to what someone sees other people doing. If someone smiles the other person automatically smiles back. If someone is seen to be crying, the observer feels a little sad as well. It probably also has something to do with why yawns are contagious. It’s a big part of empathic reactions, but I also think it’s a big part of creepy crowd behavior and peer pressure. Mirror neurons don’t respond as strongly in AS brains. This is part of why I hate pep assemblies.
6) Sociopathic lack of empathy versus autistic lack of empathy—two absolutely different phenomena. One of the English teachers I observed, when I was going through my teacher certification program, taught literature from a psychological perspective. She was having her students analyze characters for traits that might indicate they are sociopaths. The terms sociopath and psychopath are pretty interchangeable and mostly indicate where you are in terms of the nature vs. nurture debate. One of the attributes of the psychopath/sociopath is labeled a lack of empathy. In the case of the psychopath/sociopath this means that the person understands the feelings of others, but doesn’t care. They can be master manipulators, con artists and leaders of industry (the percentage of CEOs who test as psychopaths is higher than the percentage in normal population as reported in the book The Psychopath Test). The psychopath, however, understands exactly what kind of emotional responses they are creating in other people, and they understand how to mimic expressions of the emotions they want to manipulate others with. They’re driving it. When lack of empathy is being used in description of someone with autism or Asperger’s, it’s in the context of the ASD person not understanding what the emotions of another person are, not responding to another person’s emotions appropriately, and being unaware of how their actions affect the emotions of others. Obviously these are two very different kinds of lack in empathy. Having worked in ASD classes and in ED classes, I can safely say I’ve worked with both autistics and psychopaths. Totally different worlds. And yet, they get this same, imprecise description of lack of empathy applied to them.
7) Personally, I started looking at my own empathy quirks pretty seriously. Most of the time, I really do care about other people’s feelings. I don’t want to upset other people. I try to be agreeable, helpful, and dependable, because people appreciate that. I’d like to think that counts. For a while, when I was misdiagnosed with depression (a doctor thought I was depressed because I wasn’t having an expected emotional response to bad news) I was put on Prozac. Prozac made it so I absolutely didn’t give a shit about anybody else’s feelings. I didn’t like being like that, so I stopped talking the drug. I have trouble figuring out when someone’s being nice to be nice, being nice to get something out of me, or are romantically interested. It all kind of feels the same, and I’ll rapidly cycle between the possibilities until I’m hit over the head with which one it really is. Arguments based on purely emotional appeals don’t hold much traction with me. Manipulative people just confuse me. They tend to switch tactics trying to find the right emotional button to push that will get me to agree with them, but to me is just seems like they are talking in circles and contradicting themselves. I’ve learned to smile and nod and try to be as diplomatic as possible. Usually the manipulator gives up and goes to bother someone else. It’s only when the someone else talks to me about it later that I figure out what that confusing person was actually trying to do. I tend to pick sides in a conflict based on how I understand the facts, rather than how the people involved are connected to me. I’ve gotten in trouble for being disloyal because of this.
Basically, feelings are just as important to autistic people as they are to everyone else. There are some blocks to how feelings are communicated and shared, but we have them, and we do care about the feelings of the people in our lives. So, when neurotypical people and professionals tell us that our feelings don't count, or are a lesser kind than their own, the autistic people aren't the only ones who are having an empathy failure.