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.