The Empathy Gap in ASD/NT Relationships

I have spent a lot of time in my books and blogs and seminars defining empathy. One of my most popular blog posts is Empathy: “Asperger’s” Style. Each time, I get better at it. That is the nature of empathy, actually. It is a process that grows stronger over time, as it is used and refined. Think about it, without empathy all you have is words (i.e. context and conversation), but no meaning to connect one person to another.

We see children first making attempts at empathy when they are about age six. For example, an NT child may offer to share a cupcake with a friend at school, even though they have been warned not to share food. The NT child’s need to connect is greater than the rule, or the repercussions for being scolded over breaking the rule. 

On the other hand, the ASD child may also try to share their cupcake and then be humiliated when they are scolded by the Duty Aide. The ASD child is humiliated not because they shared the cupcake, but because they didn’t know the rule about sharing (or they got caught). It is kind to share the cupcake. It is empathy to do so in spite of the rule.

Subtle, isn’t it? Empathy is like that. It is the ability to know what you are feeling and thinking (such as, “I can’t wait to eat this yummy cupcake”) — at the same time that you see another child without a cupcake, and you wonder what they are thinking (such as, “I sure would like a bite of her cupcake”). The child acts on this wondering by offering some cupcake to the other child. If the child looks interested, the first child breaks off a piece of cupcake, and hands it to the other child. They smile at each other, as they wipe cupcake crumbs off their lips. Then they both wink at each other with an understanding that they broke a rule — and started a friendship.

However, the ASD child learns another lesson. The ASD child may want the cupcake. They may want to be polite and accept the offering. They may even want the friendship of the other child. However, breaking the rule is anathema to the ASD child. When they are caught sharing the cupcake by the Duty Aide, they may blame the other child by saying something like “she made me do it.” From this encounter, the ASD child learns that rules are more important than friendships. Sadly, she cut off a budding relationship.

If simple mistakes like this are made by six-year-olds, is it any wonder that the empathy gap widens as we grow up? By the time we are adults and engaged in life with a marital partner, and perhaps children, NTs and “Aspies” are light years apart in their abilities to connect.

As I have described many times in my books and blogs, empathy is more than emotion, or feelings, or sensitivity, or even understanding another person’s emotions, thoughts and feelings. True Empathy requires integrating a complex array of social and interpersonal information, and in a split second be able to talk about it with another. This is what is meant by “connecting,” or being “in tune,” or “in sync,” or “vibrating,” or “resonating” with another person (or life form).

My goal with this blog post and my MeetUp group, Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD, is to enlighten and to search for the elusive communication, so that even without empathy, “Aspies” and NTs can connect. If you are not a member of my group, please join and if you are a member, please join our events and our discussions. You are not alone.

11 Replies to “The Empathy Gap in ASD/NT Relationships”

  1. This basic explanation of empathy in the Aspie vs the NT continues to be such a powerful reminder to me of why it is so hard for an Aspie to have a real friend. I keep coming back to this type of post from Dr. Marshack because it’s such a game-changer in understanding my adult son and his struggle to connect. Thanks for validating this difficulty.

    1. As a 31-year-old with ASD, I have entirely given up on having friends. NT people are neurologically hardwired to dislike people with ASD. This is not my opinion; it is a simple fact that NT people are hardwired to respond to empathy, and if a person cannot convincingly display empathy, an NT person will not like that person. This cannot be overcome with “understanding” or “acceptance” because it’s a response that’s inherent in all normal humans, and it cannot be overcome by educating the ASD person because you can’t teach an adult something they should have learned when they were four. It’s neither person’s fault, it’s just an unfortunate fact of life. I’m sure this comment will be labeled “ableist” and not allowed through, but this is the truth and the sooner you get used to it the better.

      1. You have pinpointed a problem that is real. NTs do struggle with understanding and accepting those on the Autism Spectrum. However, this is no excuse for being unkind. It may be human nature to reject those who are different, but we do have it in us to rise to a higher level of spiritual awareness. I am sorry for your suffering.

      2. I agree Allison. Unfortunataey, NTs perceive people with ASD in several negative ways, including being aloof, strange, or just not “nice.” Trying too hard sometimes makes it worse.

        My suggestion is to become involved in a group that really interests you. A political, civic, or religious group. Where the focus is on the activity itself. You may make some social relationships that way. Just a suggestion, good luck.

        1. I think it’s often perceived that way because it’s being viewed through the lens of NT behavior. If my husband had been willing to understand why I had experienced his behaviour as aloof, dismissive , or “ not nice “ and my reaction to it ( which would required a diagnosis ) perhaps a result we could have had more understanding and less conflict.
          Both NT and ND need to be willing to understand the language of the other, in order to have a good relationship

      3. Hi Allison,

        I wonder how people on the spectrum feel about making friends with others on the spectrum? would that be easier do you think?

  2. Can someone with ASD develop empathy and self awareness of the stress and mental fatigue they are potentially causing to people around them?

    1. Interesting you should ask. In my opinion, and supported by the science so far, those with ASD cannot develop empathy. However, they can come to understand that there is this unseen force that NTs call “connecting.” Like the connective tissue in the body, without empathic connecting, relationships seem shallow to NTs. It is extremely painful to have a shallow relationship with an ASD loved one, when you expect it to be more. I have written about Empathy Dysfunction extensively in my blogs and books if you want to learn more.

    1. Hello Robin, I´m married to an ASD man and, as Jennifer wrote in a previous post : “My suggestion is to become involved in a group that really interests you. A political, civic, or religious group. Where the focus is on the activity itself….”. I can confirm that this is an excellent way for someone with ASD to socialise and make friends. My husband is involved in several groups and they meet up regularly. He is open about his ASD and has not found this to be a problem, rather because of his detailed knowledge and focus on the particular interest, he is seen as a enrichment to the group. He has made several special friends as a result.
      I wish you success and fulfillment.

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