Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style

Autism is defined by a lack of social reciprocity.

Empathy is a tough concept to explain to Neuro-Typicals (NTs), and those on the Autism Spectrum alike. I have made several attempts to define and describe empathy in my books. In fact most recently I published a book on what a serious lack of empathy looks like, “WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to Stop Those Hell-Bent on Destroying You.” But in spite of my efforts I still get readers who find it confusing at best, or even hotly disagree with me. Mostly my NT readers give me an “Ah Ha,” when they recognize that Empathy Dysfunction (EmD) is at the heart of their relationship problems.

This time I thought I would look at the concept of empathy from the polar opposite view, from the perspective of someone who is autistic. According to the DSM-V (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”) autistics do not have empathy, or as defined in the manual, they lack in “social reciprocity” and other interpersonal communication skills. Yet time and time again, “Aspies” assert that they have empathy. In fact, some are even angry that I would suggest otherwise.

In a response to one of my blogs, an ASD woman wrote:

“I have Aspergers and am highly sensitive and empathetic to the right people. It’s just that I know neurotypicals are generally jostling for social position or running on an impenetrable and often very obvious and boring program. Why should I be empathetic to that? They are not empathetic to my need for autonomy and to live in a healthy world.”

There is a lot of anger and hurt revealed in her comment. Clearly she feels marginalized by the Neuro-Typical world and she is fighting back. But there is a lot more. I want to take my time to unpack the meaning of her words because I think it will clarify what empathy is and is not.

Empathy is like an orchestra.

Is it sensitivity, intuition, kindness, or compassion? No, I don’t think so, even though those are elements that contribute to empathy. 

Is it consideration for others? Or perhaps, a sense that you should give someone space to be just who they are? Maybe, but that certainly doesn’t explain it all.

How about those people who say they are an “Empath,” because they sense the “energy” in the room and seem consumed by it? Nope, that is not how I would describe empathy. It is so much more.

There are so many parts to empathy that if you are missing just one element, you don’t really have empathy. It’s a sophisticated amalgam. I sometimes compare empathy to an orchestra that is composed of the musicians, the composer, the arranger, the director, the soloists, the concert hall, and the audience. There is some ineffable quality of a concert that just “comes together” with the right mix. We all have had this experience. Aren’t you in awe of the concert when the music reaches deep down into your Soul — and you are inspired?

Empathy is more than the sum total of the parts.

Another simple way to look at empathy is that “Empathy is greater than the sum of it’s parts.” Empathy includes all of the adjectives above, but it is more. Empathy is the ability to hold onto yourself (your thoughts and feelings) while you acknowledge the thoughts and feelings of the other person. Further, it is the ability to add to the mix of emotions and thoughts, words that describe both what is going on with yourself and the other person. It is the ability to take all of this information and formulate a plan that creates a win/win outcome. Both you and the other feel understood and appreciated. And yet even more, empathy is the ability to process all of this information in milliseconds. 

“Aspies” cannot do this. They may have many of the qualities of empathy as I have described them, but they struggle to integrate the parts into the whole, in the right time, with the right response for the situation. This profound disability leaves Neuro-Typicals not only feeling misunderstood, but feeling rejected — even bereft.

Empathy is so much more than sensitivity.

“I have Aspergers and am highly sensitive and empathetic to the right people.” [the first sentence from my blog reader].

Many “Aspies” believe they have empathy because they are sensitive, or compassionate, or kind. In fact, they usually tell me that they are so sensitive that they just can’t function in a room with chaos, or the roar of the music, or more than one person speaking at once. On the other hand, true empathy is the ability to function in all of those conditions, while maintaining one’s cool and being there for others.

I had an ASD (Autism Spectrum) Scottish marriage and family therapist tell me that he accepted that he has no empathy, but he felt it was irrelevant. Instead he teaches his couples that the Neuro-Typical (NT) should do the work of understanding his or her ASD partner. This therapist maintains that the autistic spouse needs so much more understanding than the NT. 

Choosing who should have empathy, or with whom to be “empathetic” is not empathy. Empathy is a neutral skill. It is the ability to integrate the parts of the orchestral performance into a whole that is much more than the sum of the parts.

Missing the subtle nuance of communication.

“It’s just that I know neurotypicals are generally jostling for social position or running on an impenetrable and often very obvious and boring program.” [the second sentence from my blog reader].

Without the ability to empathize, or integrate the parts into a whole, it is no surprise that “Aspies” develop some interesting ideas on what empathy is. I want you to think about how difficult it might be to understand empathy, when you have never experienced it. Not easy, is it?

My blog reader thinks empathic communication among NTs is “jostling for social position,” and “. . .running on an impenetrable and . . . boring program.” I can understand completely that she misreads the intentions of NTs. Empathy isn’t always so easily observed because it comes from an inner knowing. Because empathy skills are not strong for “Aspies,” they rely on cognitive observations, which miss the subtle nuances — and the intended meaning.

Here are a few examples of how some “Aspies” described their NT partner’s empathic behavior.

  • “When she talks with me it’s like confetti. I just wait for the confetti to fall to the ground. When she finally gets to the point, I listen.” From an “Aspie” husband.

 

  • “My wife gives a lot of back story until she gets to the point. I am a very good listener so I try to follow all of this back story, but I usually get lost. I never know where she is going.” From an “Aspie” husband.

 

  • “In order to make my writing more interesting to Neuro-typicals, I have learned to add all of these extra words to my manuscript. It’s like they need these curly-Qs, for some reason.” From a woman who writes fantasy novels.

Empathy is definitely not treating another person’s words as if they are confetti, or back story or curly-Qs — or impenetrable and boring, but at least these “Aspies” are trying to connect. They know the NTs in their lives want more and they are making an effort to figure it out. Nevertheless, empathy is still a mystery to them.

Why“Aspies” feel marginalized and disconnected

“Why should I be empathetic to that? They are not empathetic to my need for autonomy and to live in a healthy world.”

Can you blame this woman for being angry? She wants acceptance for just who she is. Without the ability to read between the lines, she has spent her lifetime being misunderstood. Good intentions don’t come across well in the NT world, when they are missing the empathic touch, something she calls “impenetrable and . . . boring.”

We NTs believe that all people have empathy, or that they should. When the “Aspie” misses an important social cue, or puts their proverbial foot in their mouth, we are aghast. No one helped us understand what autism may look like in an intelligent, quirky, high functioning individual. So, we fail them. We dismiss their behavior as rude or ignorant. We can do better.

On the other hand, “Aspies” need to accept that they do lack empathy, and that this is unnerving for NTs. For example, my former spouse made an off hand comment one day, in front of our guests. We had people over to play board games. At the completion of one game, Trivial Pursuit, I won. My then spouse looked astonished and said, “Wow! You really do know stuff. I always thought you just pretended to know things.”

I found his comment offensive and my guests were unnerved. In fact, because he lacks empathy and a theory of mind, he had no awareness of what I know or do not know. He only knows what he knows. He did observe that I won the game fair and square, but he didn’t congratulate me. Nor would he be able to ever acknowledge in the future that I had a mind (and knowledge) that is different than his own.

Building an interface protocol.

One man with ASD form the UK is a faithful follower of my work. On the release of my latest book he said, 

“The Aspie person always sounds like the villain in your writing, Kathy.”

That hurt. I don’t want him to believe I consider him the villain. Blaming someone else for just who they are is certainly no solution. It doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. It is such a delicate balance to explore the dynamic of Empathy Dysfunction (EmD) in order to enlighten people, and yet not blame. 

My goal is to enlighten and to search for the elusive interface protocol, so that even without empathy, “Aspies” and NTs can connect.

28 Replies to “Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style”

    1. You are so welcome Anne. I hope my summary brought some clarity. It’s such a complex issue isn’t it? But when you live it, I suspect my blog resonates.

  1. Wow, some great thoughts about empathy I had never considered before. Some of your examples described my husband perfectly. The part I am struggling with is whether it is wrong of me to want a partner who is empathetic. I assumed I was getting one and discovered I didn’t. (We barely knew each other, so it’s not that he was pretending or that he changed. I just didn’t know.)

    1. Hi Elizabeth. Of course is’t not wrong to want an empathic partner. All human beings are “wired” for that. It’s just that with our “Aspies” they get the benefit of our empathy, but don’t reciprocate. They may be kind, compassionate, sensitive and kind, but empathy requires more, as I have explained in this post. There is not much in life to enjoy that doesn’t require empathy, so we can feel pretty lonely and isolated when our special someone doesn’t get the real YOU. However, life without an empathic partner can be alive and fulfilling in other ways. Just not the same though is it?

  2. Appreciate your work and your writing. There’s a lot of truth to your writing from the perspective of my experience – living the NT / ASD struggle with 3 immediate family members…

  3. Dr. Kathy,….quite honestly I’m
    Expecting someday you will be nominated for a Nobel
    Peace prize.
    The degree to which you seem to
    Understand every aspect of this state of thought and the far reaching effect it has on others is astounding. You have not only begun the work of understanding this better and sharing it with the world but seem to have blown the gate off the
    Mental prison that all to
    Often seems to become the dark and lonely home to those of us who have journeyed much of their lives with a
    Partner with Aspergers. I look
    Forward to learning the rules of engagement that I might finally understand how not to be so hurt
    All
    The time.

  4. I am so emotionally struggling with leaving my aspie after 18 years of trying to get him to step up to the plate and get his hoarder house cleaned and fixed and ready to sell so we can get married and get a house of our own. He rarely lets me come over and help…which I could easily do . But says I’m working on it. And it will be ready SOON…which is always next month…next 2 weeks for 18 long long years of promises. the most crazy head bashing part of this is when I ask him why he hasn’t done anything he ignores the question and wont answer OR HE WILL SAY …I JUST TOLD YOU OR I ALREADY ANSWERED YOU…WHEN HE HAS SAID NOTHING. Or he will say. “What is the question again??? Or he will hang up or break up with BUT NEVER EVER EXPLAINS WHY HIS HOUSE IS NOT READY. ONE TIME HE SAID HE WAS WORKING ON CLEAMING HIS ROOM. AND SAID IT FOR 8 MONTHS…I am a smart, capable woman…rehab director of 2 clinics, paramedic on fire dept AND A CERTIFIED LIFE COACH. but he always get me crying and feeling crazy….and then when I am hysterical he says…sorry my fault…I am going to start getting my stuff done and we will get married this year….over and over for 18 miserable years.
    I need help getting out , moving on and letting go..I am now 66 and miserable.

    1. Oh dear Teresa. Your story is all too common. He probably can’t answer your questions because that would require understanding himself better and knowing how to convey his intentions to you. Instead and without empathy, he just stalls. If he won’t get professional guidance, you can’t keep enabling him. Time to take your life back. You sound like a shero to me. Use those wonderful talents of yours to make the most of this incredible gift of life you have been granted.

    2. Oh god you poor thing. If you want to be together give him an ultimatum.
      I walked out, recontacted by a short note after three months. He wanted to get back but I said only if we get married asap. I had to organise it but it’s been ok for 21 years.
      He still fascinates me and I don’t underestimate him. It has allowed me to develop my talents without restrictions. He is fridgid and in his own world most of the time so it’s not a cuddly life. Very like the Mr Bean character. Emotionally immature in a way. He’s always trying to develop intellectually, meditates and reads heavy philosophical books. Not lol.
      I try to find things to do independently to have a break and some fun but you do feel lonely and fear being needy as a friend or relative.
      Tell him what you want and if he doesn’t agree, walk. You can sort his house out or pay someone to do it. If not, join a dating agency, an expensive one so you don’t meet losers.
      Does that make sense?

  5. Thank you for this. Your blogs are always so helpful. Glad there is someone out there who “gets it,” although feeling pretty discouraged and sad about relationships with a couple of Aspie (I guess?) family members.

    1. Hi Margaret. Your discouragement is understandable because we can’t problem solve with “Aspies” the same way we normally do with Neuro-Typicals. But once you learn their language it is easier. Not perfect by any means, but not such a mystery.

  6. I am an asperger person can say that we have a different kind of empathy, for eg. when somebody has a problem I react logically giving clear solution to their problem to help them, that is how I show care “empathy”, whereas a neurotypical gives cuddles, show emotions which is nice but often as I see lacking of real solution, to prevent the problem coming up, NT people like to blame something or someone else. So logical approach has its place too, so in that terms we do lack of emotional emphaty, but we have a strong logical emphaty. On the other hand with animals I am the same empathetical as NTs, I stroke, cuddle, comfort the little fellow emotionally and provide the logical “technical” support too. Also I am vegan, on the journey to be a zero waste person so I have a great emphaty towards animals, environment. If NT people have such a big emphaty why do they walk pass by a homeless person ? Why arent we all vegans, zero waste people, why all the cars yet not electric, and why is the senseless mass production disregarding our living space the Earth? I’m hoping and seeing these movement growing that one day all people will have the same amount of empathy for each other, for animals, nature , our Earth as I am as a n aspie and the fellow autistic, non autistic healthy minded vegan, zero waste people, 🙂

    1. Thank you Monika for taking the time to share your thoughtful response. You are on target when you say that those with the full range of empathy are not necessarily more compassionate or more environmentally aware than those on the Autism Spectrum. Those insights require a lot more than brain organization don’t they? But empathy is more than emotions and more than cognitive analysis too. As I describe in this blog, it’s the whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. On the other hand if those with empathy can find compassions for those with autism. . .and if those with autism can do the same for NTs. . .we might just get past the heartache and learn to work together.

  7. Wow!! This was awesome, so well explained!! I found myself remembering how it feels with similar “missed”-understandings by my partner. It feels like he misses 99.9% of me, just can’t get into my head, can’t remember what I struggle with, with a brain injury. Not sure he even knows I have a mind, except when I tell him. I’m beginning to see that his language judges or ranks 100%. Since I just read Elaine Aron, PhD’s book “The Undervalued Self,” I am now watching for how I rank myself or am ranked by another, which is sure NOT empathy. In the above stories I heard lots of judgment, and ranking and those are NOT empathy!! As long as I can get connection from nature, TV shows or another human being, I’m OK, but some days I wonder…everyone sees his child-self and smart-self, but have no idea how much it hurts to live with a smart child, who can’t even begin to meet my needs. I struggle like the above writers, too.

    1. Very perceptive Louise. The concepts of judging and ranking are not empathy. They certainly provide a way for an “Aspie” to make a kind of one-sided sense of their world, but it is not a holistic, accepting, or loving way is it? Don’t ever settle for this type of relating. The minister at my church recently tried this method on me, and I rebelled. He didn’t like my opinion on something and then accused me of “being no fun anymore.” He went on to accuse me of “not trusting” him enough to let him decide something for me. I was quite surprised by his childish games. I guess I assumed that his professional position meant that he would operate at a higher moral level. He is not autistic, but I suspect he is in alcoholic relapse. Unless he chooses to find appropriate healthcare, I won’t go back to that church. Sometimes our decisions are tough.

  8. Totally excellent article Kathy – it’s exactly these nuances that are lacking that do our head in as NTs. Yes no one taught me I might one day meet (or marry!) someone with these confusing issues. I’ve had to be like some top class detective to decode exactly what I’m dealing with because of all the contradictions! Thanks to work such as yours we NTs get some much needed understanding and relief.

    Co parenting without this empathy match is extremely difficult to say the least. Our son is now 8 and has the same things going on as his dad. My husband left when my son’s school started recognising symptoms and everything went pear shaped. He threatened to sue the school, wanted to put his teacher in jail, then blamed me, took me thru a child custody case accusing me of being a child abuser and the reason our son is the way he is, then divorced me. I am now legally unable to pursue any diagnosis – but whatever – I think I probably know what I’m dealing with in my own son better than any professional. Well, in saying that I do question if it’s a personality disorder, without genetics, that has been transmitted to my son environmentally? My husband would be diagnosed NPD well and truely but I’m convinced that has its roots in autism / Aspergers.

    I have noticed tho that since my husband left (3 years ago) and as we now share care, I get to influence my son for half his time. I am able to coach him on social/ empathy aspects he sometimes misses and he is definately growing into a more loving boy who offers a lot sensitivity to me and others. There are times tho when he just can’t understand why it’s important to say or do certain things that I’ve explained people like so they feel valued or loved.

    My ex husband is now 50. He didn’t received any understanding for his differences or early interventions as a child and subsequently is a hard case – very intelligent, very defensive, very arrogant. I sometimes foolishly think I can help him be nicer. I recently texted him to suggest how beneficial it would be if he would only apologise now and then for his inconsiderate words or choices. Of course I didn’t receive a reply.

    1. Hi Lisa. Thank you for your willingness to share your story.Yes, parenting with a defensive partner is awful. The issues you describe fit the NPD perfectly. The controlling and abusive conduct harms not just you but his child. Plus enlisting the help of others in the community to control you is doubly abusive. No evaluation or diagnosis for your child is child abuse. I quite agree that ASD and NPD are not a good match. Fortunately your son is getting the loving parenting he needs to avoid that trap. Hang in there and stay strong.

  9. I don’t believe in an interventionist god but if I did I’d give thanks for you Dr. Kathy. I don’t know what the other websites and experts are trying to accomplish w/their wishy-washy platitudinous advice for despairing people who love their mates and need substantive guidance and reality-based tools to find their footing. Going through those other mental health websites is beyond discouraging til people are able to find you, all busted up and howling. I hope they are watching and learning from your example.
    And FWIW what these critical Aspies don’t realize is how much easier you are on them relative to how challenging it is to take on what you’re advocating for us non-spectrum partners behind the paywall. Just saying, it’s personal development on steroids.

  10. I’m so grateful for the insight and useful information you offer, Dr. Marshak. This struggle to convey all that empathy is seems similar to my struggle to define “relationship,” “healthy relationship,” and “relationship repair” to my husband. I just can’t get it across. I am left believing that we are like 2 species with different needs.

    1. Hi Diana. The problem with explaining “relationship” is inherent in the word. It’s the same with “love.” These two words are what linguists call nominalizations, or taking an active, process word and turning it into a noun. Better words are “relating” and “loving.” “Aspies” do not understand nominalizations as we do. We automatically see “relationship repair” as an alive and ongoing process. The same with “love,” . . . a never ending process of give and take and growing deeper into each other. As long as “Aspies” see dynamic processes as merely nouns, thy will fail to pick up the pieces of a broken moment or a broken relationship.

  11. Thank you so much for this. I followed the link from your email just when I was feeling extremely low after a zero empathy situation disguised as a kind action (that totally missed the mark).
    This kind of thing not only fails to support the NT but also makes them feel as if they should have been grateful.

    1. Hi Anne. Such an astute observation about feeling grateful when our “Aspies” try to connect. We can accept a gift we don’t want, from a well intended friend. But when the gift that misses the mark comes from our life partner, and the topic is very important to us, we feel used. We feel doubly bad when our ASD partner is annoyed that we are not grateful.

  12. Your previous respondent, and Monika’s response, illustrate the kernel of the problem very well. At the risk of oversimplifying the matter it is that in any engagement with other people Aspergic people want to be an autonomous party who makes the decisions as to how the interaction will work taking the view that if they deploy logic then there will be no impact on others, if indeed they even consider this question.

    Both respondents are evidence of the extreme-male-mind theory, based on observations of behaviors and MRI brain scans, whereby the male brain will propose solutions to problem whereas the female brain, which must deal with issues, i.e. insoluble problems, looks for support by way of others indicating they too understand how the female brain is feeling but respecting the right of that woman to come up with her own solutions.

    NT people are fully cognizant of the fact that there are problems with solutions and there are issues no solution but are to be managed by negotiation, compromise and respecting the boundaries of others as fully autonomous as the Aspie! Part of this process is to leave much unsaid and communicate by non-verbal means, such as tone of voice, body language and display of emotion. Leaving things unsaid facilitates the process and allows all parties to emerge with the feeling that they have all gained whereas saying things verbally or on paper means it cannot be wound back and made invisible if the ideas are discarded and thus stains the outcome. It is like a carpenter assembling a new piece of woodwork: They will measure and check and then lightly attach pieces together, just lightly in case they need to backup and rework. Only at the very end do they apply adhesive, close up and hammer home the nails. The difficulty is that to Aspergic people, like the initial respondent, this appears to be pointless jostling for position and is an impenetrable process. (In my opinion the old folk wisdom fairy tales would address this symbolically where dark impenetrable forests would entangle and ensnare the prince and in the end it was love which freed the person whom he was looking for, not the intellect).

    For Monika and the initial respondent answer me this: When two Aspies are having to work together, say in a team at work, how do they logically resolve the issue of them both wanting to be autonomous and both wanting to be the one who formulates the premises from which the logic flows?

    I would wager that such situations never arise as by their rarity Aspie’s do not have to engage with and interact with other Aspies. Instead they work and engage with NT people insisting on being the autonomous decision make and bullying their way, even if they are in the NT person’s physical space, to get their way. They can take a free-ride, as the economists would say, on the NT’s deploying consideration for the thoughts and feelings of the Aspie, and is willing to compromise for the sake of the Aspie but the Aspie does not, cannot, reciprocate.

  13. To add to the scenario mentioned bear in mind that it describes one where two Aspies are brought together by third parties as equals.

    Aspies being with each other will, when it occurs, tend to be in a family, by virtue of the genetics behind the Aspergic brain manifesting in more than one family member. That is a different scenario.

    The one I am familiar with involves my Aspergic sister-in-law, who has an Aspergic son. This relationship was saw my SIL solve the problem of their competing urges to be autonomous not by applying logic but by applying psychological manipulation and physical force.

    In terms of the former she would, in these circumstances address him not in term of his autonomous given name but as “Son”, i.e. reminding him of his junior status: basically one sided jostling for position.

    When that didn’t work she solved the problem not by logic but by beating him, thrashing him on his bare legs with her rubber flip-flop, child abuse if not a criminal offense, only stopping when he became too big for her to do that, but leaving him with much long term resentment and bitter feelings towards her.

    1. Hi John,
      One of the problems you are pointing out is the terrible confusion that can emerge between an NT and an “Aspie.” The confusion can range from slightly annoyed to outraged and worse on both sides.

      What I do know is that both sides feel terribly misunderstood. And these misunderstandings can deteriorate to abusive levels.

      My goal has always been to recognize this problem and to build an interface between worlds. However, when people feel misunderstood and marginalized, and it goes on for a long time, making positive change is tough.

  14. Indeed Kathy. I tend to use ‘Aspergic’ coined from the adjective ‘autistic’ rather than ‘Aspie’ a coined noun because first and foremost everyone is a person, a conciousness being lived by Life and experiencing it by means of the brain inherited from genetic ancestors but given to think that we are indendent actors by virtue of said brains. Despite that surface impression of being autonomous agents we are not so walk a fine line between the demands of our ‘self’ for autonomy and recognition that our perceived autonomy stops where another person’s perception of theirs starts. The person with an Aspergic brain is very aware and desirous of their own autonomy being respected and resents their boundaries being violated. Even if say they are guests in someone else’s house they can be aggressive to members of the household who they perceive as interfering with them exercising their logic to correct what appear to be dysfunctional behaviours by said members. So they are very much protective of their own independence but see no problem at all with interfering with the independence of other people. Usually the interference is well meant and Aspergic people think of this as being empathetic. However the person whose autinomy is interfered with by a bossy Aspergic person experiences behaviors not motives and the Aspergic person while meaning well never asks the other person what it us that they want and being as attached to being autonomous as the Aspergic person is that other person does not want the Aspergic person taking over their life without asking pernission.. Such an idea should be obvious to the logical Aspergic mind but is not and therein lies the difficulty.

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