Empathy is a complex system of emotional empathy and cognitive empathy and multiple transitions between the two. To help clarify this issue, I wrote an article for PsychCentral discussing the difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy and how you can help your loved one bridge the empathy gap. I’d encourage you to click here to read the entire PsychCentral article. (And while you’re there, will you share this information from your favorite social media platform, too?)
Most Neuro-Typicals make the transition between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy very easily, and thereby strike an easy balance between the two. Aspies, on the other hand, find it very difficult to accomplish this. The resulting disconnect between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy really defines Asperger Syndrome.
They struggle to recognize where someone’s distress is coming from (Cognitive Empathy) and they struggle with knowing how awful someone is feeling (Emotional Empathy). And they can’t easily move between the two and they’re unable to put personal needs aside for the moment and reach out to comfort another. Another factor is that true empathy also requires the ability to talk about this integration.
Don’t misunderstand. Those with Asperger’s can be deeply moved by life experiences. Yet they’re unable to speak to those responses through their own mental reasoning. And because those feelings can become so intense without having any way to express them, those with Asperger’s shut down to protect themselves. They avoid eye contact, because it adds to the emotional overload. It’s hard for them to hear your words and change their focus when their feelings are so overwhelming.
Because those with Asperger’s can’t bridge that gap, family member must make a bridge for them with comforting, supportive and loving words. One way to reduce the emotional overload for Aspies and NTs alike is to have a calming and knowledgeable professional to help sort things out.
If you anticipate an emotionally trying time approaching, such as the death of a loved one, a psychologist can help your Aspie reason through what’s happening to himself and to the dying loved one. An objective professional can put words to the emotions that well up. If you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA, please contact my office and schedule an appointment. With practice in therapy, your family may be able to talk about the events to come and plan a course of action, thereby averting the need for, and the resulting trauma of, any unprepared sudden emotional transition.