“Why is it so hard for my ASD partner to take responsibility for their actions”

Empathy is required to take responsibility. 

“Take responsibility for your actions.” How many of you heard these words as a child, or uttered them as a parent? Mom knew what she meant. You know what you mean. But does your ASD loved one? Have you ever wondered why you even have to say this to an adult (or think it)? How often do you wonder why your ASD adult doesn’t seem to take responsibility for their own behavior? 

When one of our members, Julie commented in our recent video conference on the topic of “Fatigue is Normal in ASD/NT Relationships,” she was referring to the mental fatigue of constantly rearranging her life for her two Autism Spectrum family members. Among the many things she finds fatiguing is that “. . . My husband takes no responsibility for his behaviors. . .” 

I agreed right away with her comment because I have experienced the same dilemma,  but then I wondered what it means to “Take Responsibility for Your Actions.” Think about it.  We NTs do this all of the time. To take responsibility for our behavior, or our actions means to consider HOW our behaviors affect others. In order to do that, we have to anticipate how others might feel or think about our actions. We have to assess how the relationship will be impacted by our words and deeds. We have to care about these things too — because of caring means we try harder to keep the relationship healthy. 

This sounds like empathy to me. Empathy is to care enough to anticipate how the other person will feel before you take an action or speak a word. Empathy is to care enough about the other person’s feelings to recognize they may be affected by our behavior before or after the fact. Empathy is to apologize when our behavior is unhelpful or damaging. In fact, empathy is going so far as to repair the rift we may have caused. 

Since our “Aspies” do not have empathy (as defined by the Empathy Triad) they don’t take responsibility for their actions. Without empathy, they don’t anticipate our feelings, nor recognize our feelings, nor apologize for their conduct, nor attempt a repair for our distress (or confusion, hurt, annoyance, etc.). They might care at some level, but they do not demonstrate it by taking responsibility for their actions. 

Instead, they assume all is well because they mean well. “Aspies” struggle to understand that their good intentions are not enough. It’s a start to have good intentions certainly. But as  my mother used to quote an old aphorism, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” To take responsibility for one’s behavior (as Julie noted) requires the empathy to use your good intentions to clean up the mess you inadvertently created. It’s not that you are a terrible person for causing distress to the other person. It is caring to use your empathy skills to repair the emotional connection that means so much to others. It is this empathic behavior of taking responsibility that is so important to respecting, honoring, and loving the other person. 

Without empathy, our “Aspies” seem not to take responsibility for their actions. These are the common phrases that we often hear from them, which denote this lack of empathy and  no attempt to repair the damage: 

  • “What do you want from me?” 
  • “If you didn’t want to know my opinion, why did you ask?” 
  • “Why are you always complaining?” 
  • “Why didn’t you tell me that you wanted that?” 
  • “You never said that.” 
  • “It’s not my fault. You didn’t tell me.” 

Need I say that these phrases are stupefying for NTs? We would never say these things.  Our empathy circuits make us evaluate the situation and try to resolve the unpleasantness. We want to keep the connections with our loved ones whole and healthy. So, we look at ourselves and how we can do better. Not so with our “Aspies.” 

Can Awareness substitute for Empathy? 

In stark contrast to Julie’s revelation, I have received many angry messages from  “Aspies” who are incredulous that I would say they have no empathy. They describe themselves  as “highly sensitive.” In fact, one woman describes herself as so sensitive that, 

“. . . I am so bombarded with strong feelings/discomfort/sensory overload, I feel unable to sympathize with others, even when they need me to be. I get frustrated with them and believe my needs are greater since they physically/emotionally feel like they’re killing me. But I wonder, am I unable?” 

This woman’s subtle awareness is significant. She is wondering about her ability to empathize. She muses that perhaps awareness can substitute for empathy or even lead to empathy. It is something to consider. But I think there is no substitute for the intrinsic ability to rise above one’s own feelings and really listen to the heart of another person. 

In response to my blog, “Empathy: ‘Asperger’s Style’” she ends her comment  with this very poignant observation: 

“As much as this article was uncomfortable to read, it opened my eyes to the realization that I almost never think about what I might put my parents/siblings/friends through  when I push for autonomy and express my needs/wants, but fail to remember theirs are just as important. . .” 

Yes, I do think awareness helps. “Aspies” like this woman want to be understood for the autistic features that make their lives so fraught with complications. It is equally important for  “Aspies” to understand that NTs can only handle so much self-absorption and emotional disconnect. I concur wholeheartedly with the woman’s final comments when she alludes to the  fact that awareness at least can be a start: 

“. . . I have obviously been hypocritical in the past and hope to do better in the future.  Thank you for sharing your insights. I hope that by mutual understanding/respect/love  NTs and Aspies can learn to live/love one another in more compassionate ways, too.” 

Taking responsibility is a moral choice. 

You will find more about this topic in my upcoming book “EMPATHY: It’s More Than  Words.” It’s a moral choice to take responsibility for your actions, whether that is motivated by  conscious awareness or empathic “knowing.” Both might be valid ways to get to the loving connections we all desire – NT and “Aspie” alike. 

I would like to hear from you regarding this complex topic. Let me know what you think about the connection between awareness and empathy and taking responsibility for your actions. 

39 Replies to ““Why is it so hard for my ASD partner to take responsibility for their actions””

  1. How timely, as just recovering, again, from my aspie husband’s inability to apologize or repair after he says hurtful things in an argument. We all say hurtful things to loved ones in the heat of the moment, but it is the demonstration of genuine sorrow for having hurt our loved ones that generates connection, growth and intimacy. Otherwise we are left with distance, distrust and real misery, which is how I find myself after 30 years.

    1. Nicole, I feel for you. I’ve been married to my ASD husband for nearly 24yrs., (newly diagnosed) and the impact is so hard on the everyday life after so many years of disconnect. The recovery is getting harder to bounce back from. We now see a very experienced ASD psychologist who has her work cut out for her. I am now the one disconnecting (not making eye contact, lack of conversation, etc.) because I am just trying to protect myself from getting hurt again even though I do know it’s not his intentions – he just can’t even see it unless I point it out after the fact. But the impact has already happened for me & is hard to recoup from.

      Our psychologist says in the heat of the moment his ‘house is on fire’ and that’s why he can’t be logical (people end up outside their burning home with a Walmart lamp instead of home videos or their purse). Made sense to me. He also legitimately doesn’t remember what he’s said when he’s in that zone which is frustrating because how can he feel sorry when he genuinely doesn’t think he said it that way? She will help us walk through this in time.

      She also mentioned I’ve been living under trauma with likely 3 people on the spectrum in our home for over 20+ years so that’s why my brain is mush. I find it harder and harder to recover but a book by Lysa Terkeurst has helped me quite a bit: Forgiving What You Can’t Forget. Her personal story makes her authentic so I can listen knowing she has been through major hurts herself (father left, moved in with Grandmother, molested by neighbour, had abortion, little sister died, husband cheated, had cancer, etc.). She’s been a good mentor for me to keep hanging in there but not at the expense of myself which is what’s been happening.

      Hang in there! Covid has been tougher to get out & feel love from others, but self-care is huge, and I need to remind myself of this daily now, so you have an extra 6+years on my marriage to work through. Nicole, you are loved, you are valued, you have purpose. I highly recommend a therapist who is familiar with adults on the spectrum and their impacts on long term spouses. I also see one of those to help me process and assure myself that I’m not crazy. She knows I’m not leaving – I just need assistance to help me process what happens sometimes.

      Take care of yourself as best you can literally every single day with multiple ways of finding fulfilment and enjoyment. If our tanks are filled up we can genuinely be happy to see them.

      1. It is wonderful to see these loving comments offered to total strangers. Obviously we recognize each other and can feel the suffering. I also want to thank Beth for mentioning that trauma is a feature of these relationships. I know I was severely traumatized and I am still recovering many years later. The other day I watched a man weep as he described why he left his ASD wife. He stayed as long as he could. He waited until the children had left home. But for his own sanity, he had to leave. Unfortunately the trauma hangs on.

        1. Wow, I just received an email from you about asd’s not taking responsibility for their behavior. I find this to be one of the most difficult characteristics in the man to whom i am married
          and people in general. It IS a moral choice. Did the universe suggest you send me this email?;) This was such great timing!
          Thank you so much.
          judy from judeb53@yahoo.com

      2. There is a plus to living with an aspie. If you have insecurities because of your life growing up and then you divorced someone because they were unfaithful, an aspie is a better choice. They are not going to be unfaithful because they don’t feel love for anyone. That gives some peace of mind and is a type of consolation. Not that you can wholly trust them, they have their own determination and can justify their decisions. You have to put legal and financial safeguards for yourself in place.
        Don’t love them too much. Live your own life too and try to ignore their irritating behaviour. We are not perfect. Of course you shouldn’t put up with mental cruelty but see the balance in your life and look outward for your interest.
        Still heartbreaking but if it provides you with protection it is worth staying, for yourself.

        1. While most ASD folks are painfully honest and faithful from my extensive reading on the subject, sadly my husband wasn’t. And he has not taken true responsibility for his lying to me for a very painful two year period. Says that didn’t have a choice because I was so angry when I first found out that he lied to self protect. No choice? Okay. His diagnosis came after the short-lived affair, so that’s a plus.

      3. Beth, thank you for sharing your info on what your therapist said. I do agree their house is on fire in the moment because of anxiety. But, it’s no excuse for them to abuse their spouse when we don’t deserve it. Also, I have found they don’t take accountability because they don’t remember. That is also an abusive statement for the spouse to hear without any closure we so desperately need, it just leaves us hanging. I’m glad you found a therapist with knowledge and is helping you cope. I’m so tired of the whole abusive marriage, sometimes, I just want to quit. I pray to God for strength just struggling through another day.

      4. My husband over apologises all the time. He apologises when he doesn’t need to. Apologises for things he has no control over like my chronic pain. He’s always saying sorry, except for when he actually does this one specific, hurtful thing. He gets angry at me whenever I make a suggestion or question a process and usually I have done so because the way he plans to do something is 10x harder or more costly than it needs to be. If it is something that only impacts him then I keep my mouth shut but if it is me doing the extra work or the extra spending is pretty high then I can’t say nothing.
        In those moments he gets angry and treats me like I’m stupid and after the fact, when he realises I was right, he never apologises for his outburst. It hurts so much but instead of saying sorry he finds a way to blame his autism. Like assigning blame to something other than himself.
        Empathy or not, that seems like his ego is just more important than healing the hurt in the relationship. If comes across as stubbornness and not just lack of awareness. He is diagnosed autistic but is the classic ‘aspie’ with his polished masking skills, high IQ and special interests. It often feels like his pet hate is being wrong about anything and he chucks a tantrum if anyone so much as infers that he is not the most knowledgeable about anything.
        I explain things in life which I do because of my ADHD, and it is apologetically because I feel terrible that I can be busy all day and not finish the one, most important thing. Sometimes I will keep going til I should be in bed to finally get things done. But I would never use it to excuse something hurtful. I don’t understand how people can use a diagnosis as a free pass to be A$$holes

        1. It’s easier to apologize when it is masking and gets the desired result. It takes courage to apologize for a wrong you actually are aware of and feel badly about. Without empathy, many on the Spectrum are loathe to apologize for wrongs they are aware of because it is excruciating to them to have erred. It is easier to blame the spouse, or kids, or babysitter.

        2. Hi Emma, I can very much relate to your comments . The angry responses to suggestions for a more streamlined approach are so hard for me to accept, especially when it’s not costing more. Just watching the inefficient, long-winded procedures is excruciating, isn’t it? Especially when there are other more pressing chores that just remain undone. It’s like they prefer to do things the hard way, or that they had an original idea, and are compelled to stick with it, even if they can actually see that there’s a better way. Or maybe they just like the process. eg. How is tending an asparagus patch for about 20 hours worth it for about 30 asparagus spears? I can only laugh to myself so I don’t let it get to me.

    2. Nicole,
      Thank you for sharing. I also deal with this after arguments – which I believe my aspie husband starts – just because. He simply has no idea how “non-caring” his words are. And often he thinks he is funny. For over 20 years for me in this marriage. As I was always busy at work and other extra-curricular activities, it seems I did not notice. Now, in semi-retirement, I see clearly and Dr. Kathy has helped me so much.
      Continued good luck to you

  2. Dear Kathy, You are an expert and support for me. Thankyou for allowing me to receive your emails.
    I ask myself why I have not yet joined the video meetings because I want them to be there when I do join. Which I shall when I accept this problem. Yet at the moment, your support through your blog and contact, fulfils my need. Thankyou for that Kathy.
    I wonder if in some way his condition allows me to feel security because he demands nothing of me emotionally.
    He won’t change. He takes himself off into his books on the afterlife and finds happiness in the church choir and meditating on The Bible. He is incapable of emotion and only engages with others on his subjects but comes alive with others, smiling and conversational. Lots of husbands are like that. They are bored with their family. He does whatever he likes without discussion with me. Shows no interest yet suggested we take another holiday. I told him I’d rather stay home because he doesn’t talk to me so it’s a lot of effort to spent hours in a car in silence. We can try mini, overnight breaks on this island where we live. He has worked hard and we can enjoy the fruits of his labour in our home and pets. I also worked hard but less successfully because I was blessed with a lower level of intelligence.
    How do you feel about your life now, Kathy? Is it a good and happy life with all you need?

    1. Dear Sue, your response breaks my heart. I too was the less intelligent one and was told as much often. I think we are blessed with heart. I am not with my undiagnosed aspie partner any longer. I miss the illusion of happiness that was our marriage, I am as Dr. Kathy speaks. one of the win-win people. I can make happy out of anything. I say do as you wish, going on vacation with mine, was as everything was, hit or miss. The best time was when he had a sinus infection from flying and I enjoyed the daylights out of the grand canyon in the snow. It’s all about self-care! Can’t wait for the new book Dr. Kathy!!

  3. I’m glad you brought up “meaning well”. It’s an even bigger difference with NTs than the AS’ behavior’s effect on others, on finding out what that effect is. That can be part of an even broader difference in values: Judging other people’s (NT’s) acts based on the value of intent being more important than actual harm caused. Some occurrences are a big issue when they evaluate and lead co-workers and politicians and their children with this different value.

  4. Hi Kathy,
    I do think awareness helps on the road to empathy. I am pondering, after reading this article, how far ‘an aspie’ can go with empathy. My undiagnosed husband of 30 yrs (also AA member)has finally embraced therapy & a psychiatrist. We are both lucky because he needed someone besides me to increase his awareness about ‘misses’ in. our communication around emotional issues. I am amazed. He is able to see things from my perspective (and communicate that in conversation, start to comprehend how I feel and working on controlling his emotions about them. I am hopeful even if he doesn’t get to true emotional empathy. I do understand he means well.
    BTW, I often don’t get to hear ANY words when attempting to have discussion about anything emotional. My husband can now describe it as a ‘freeze.’ He says his brain has no words in it either even though he hears me. He is learning, with his therapist, how to get around that & say something – even ‘I need some time to respond.’

    1. Hi, good topic! I am thinking that some Aspies seem to be better at gaining intellectual “awareness” even if it’s not intuitive/emotional. My Aspie son is one. If I can stay super calm and hard core rational he sometimes gets it. My husband on the other hand does not seem to get the intellectual awareness either. Maybe because he didn’t have help when he was younger.. maybe because his Autism is more severe? Or maybe the penny just hasn’t dropped yet.. as his therapist tells me, to make my point ad nauseum and eventually it will sink in. So I keep telling him things like, if you hug me so fiercely it hurts.. it’s a lot of work for minimal awareness. I do think that some level of responsibility could follow from awareness but with the Aspies I know that’s not a given.

  5. Dr Kathy. How can I start receiving your emails? I only recently found this Facebook group after 18 years of marriage to my as husband. I am a Christian wife hanging on by the skin of my teeth and the unending grace of God. My as husband is not a Christian, won’t do counseling of any kind and has no interest in me at any level – other than what’s for meals and doing his laundry. He is not an intentionally mean person as he prides himself on being mr nice guy – on his own terms of course. Opens doors for me, etc which his dad always insisted his sons do. But absolutely no thought behind it at all. It’s more to impress others. I have never had any health or medical issues, but recently had knee surgery for a torn meniscus. When we got home, he sat at the table and waited for me to prepare and serve his dinner. Did not offer any help whatsoever. If I ask him to do something he will. But only if asked. That fact reminds me that He simply does not see me, nor does he want to. It’s such a lonely life. I always think of it as being a single person with a husband to take care of. I know no one at all who believes me or understands. He’s a master masker in front of others. This group has been like salve to a wound. There really ARE others out there like me. Virtual hugs to all of them.

    1. Hi Joanne. I sent you a message in answer to your questions. Thank you for wanting to be part of our group. To receive my newsletters just go to my website, http://www.ASD-NTrelationships.com and sign up in the little blue box on each page. You can also learn more about the online support group at Meetup by clicking on the Meetup logos on my page.

    2. My situation exactly! ‘No interest in me at any level’, all the more obvious should I ever be unwell.

      Thank God for Dr. Kathy and this group, just knowing we are not alone counts for so much.

    3. Joanne, I completely understand your feelings because I have felt the same. Married 24 yrs. to a newly diagnosed AS, we are Christians as well (although I don’t know how that fits into his thoughts sometimes), and I took my vows very seriously not knowing he had very different wiring or as he says I have very different wiring (which is accurate from his). His negative thoughts have only become vocal in the past couple of years or so. Like a switch @ age 50, things changed. The fights are harsh. The vindictiveness is brutal to bear. The indifference towards me is hurtful. Very few people believe me as well. I would not accept abuse and always stand up for myself and will not allow myself to stay if it gets to a certain point as I absolutely do not agree with that but we’re not there yet. But he does love me, and I do know that from the very infrequent glimpses of softness. He is trying and so am I. I am working on accepting his strange behaviours by actually writing down ways I need to self-talk and maybe approach the situation differently than I usually do with NT relationships. He will gladly do what I need most times but I often forget he can’t sense my needs like other people. Ex: When I feel lonely…1 – remember he loves you, he just doesn’t express it in the ways I need to feel it. 2 – be honest & tell him I need affection. 3 – get out with other friends who give that normal back & forth conversation. 4 – do more studying of God’s love for me to help my doubts. 5 – listen to upbeat Christian music on Accuradio.

      All of these things are helpful and I use the written down statements as a reference guide to remind me ways to combat what I’m feeling with either truth so I don’t let my brain go places that aren’t helpful, or to help me with my mood and perception in a positive way. I know it’s super hard. And yes, it pretty much is going to be up to you because he likely can’t ‘try’ anything for longer than 2 wks. max, but our perception of their love for us can get skewed because it’s so different from NTs in our life. When I look logically at his actions now knowing he has AS, I can see his perspective, and his logic. It doesn’t match mine at all, but I can at least see where he’s coming from. But maybe specifically ask him for your needs (must be specific ‘to do’ thing – not vague like ‘love me’) or even prepare him in advance so he has warning to adjust to maybe making a meal for the two of you. Or to help you in the kitchen. We can’t cook together without driving each other nuts, but we have learned this past couple of months that we can do separate parts (he peels apples while I make the crumble, or he cuts up veggies while I make the pizza crust). I am not giving up yet and not without all the fight I have in me, which is a lot because as Christians, we have the Holy Spirit fighting this battle for us as well. As Lysa Terkeurt said, “When I feel I can’t go on one more minute, I’m just going to leave a little bit more room for God to move.” I also like Gretchen Saffles statement, “The missing piece to our peace is the steady intake of Truth.” God is your strength. Seek, search, claw your way through every day to find Truth in personal studies, Bible studies, anything at all – but you’ve got to spend time each day hearing the Truth about your value, your worth, your purpose. And sometimes I need to hear that to remind me of husband’s as well. Many, many hearts are with you, struggling…and Joanne, you are never alone even when it feels like you are. Feelings are not truth.

    4. I can ‘so’ identify, Joanne. Have been married 30 yrs to my Aspie but only realized 10 yrs ago ‘why’ he acts/responds/behaves as he does. It’s truly a LONELY life. When we both worked it was tolerable as we were with others much of the time. Now, both being retired fulltime and living in small aptmt, it’s incredibly lonely with no emotional connection or conversation. When I lost my daughter unexpectedly to a brain anuerysm and when I had my breast cancer there was not one attempt to console, comfort or even show any emotional connection. It’s as if ‘if it’s not his problem, he doesn’t have to deal with it. ‘ When he makes a harsh comment or criticism that really hurts, there is no attempt to apologize. He doesn’t see the need for it! Even if I suggested working with a therapist for better communication he would NEVER agree. And, as you stated, no one understands if we do try to explain. We’re viewed as being complainers. I actually look forward to the day when I can rediscover ‘who I am’ and not feel I have to answer to anyone.

    5. I know exactly what you mean Joanne ..My husband of 20 years is mr nice guy that’s his cultivated image and like yours opens doors for me etc it’s just role play though . He is self absorbed and quick to anger( and seeth ) if things are not on his terms . His way or the wrong way . He is totally inflexible . He has left our family but tells our children it’s because of me he left and that he has not left them. Of course he has left them but he refuses to take any responsibility for this and justifies his behaviour by putting blame on me . He is an undiagnosed aspie from a family of diagnosed aspies so it’s clear to anyone who knows about ASD and so see him as he really is not as he pretends to be . Totally self absorbed but seems to think he is a good guy – he just does not get it . His diagnosed brother / nephews and very odd father have not lead to any penny drop moments he really cannot be told or made to listen about his likely autism when all things are considered . He has all but destroyed me – leave your family but it’s on you you you could not cope I say to him -he simply won’t admit any responsibility can’t say that so blames me without any regard for the impact on
      me or the children who then think poor daddy !! .A bad situation made all the worse when your children think poor daddy is a good person. and mummy is the problem . He plays victim but he is the problem . Nobody understands it all feels so unfair .I am the glue holding kids together he suits himself totally . I have put up with zero affection in marriage and now being blamed for his inability to manage coping with ( his )family life . I feel totally broken and think aspies should come with a heath warning and probably should not marry because they simply cannot be supportive to their spouse . It’s all just role play and I feel i’ve been played .I have full filled a role in his life – now he is done with that . Now he has left he acts as though i don’t exist . He has airbrushed me away . I am disposed of . It has been very difficult and nobody knows how awful it is . Thank you all out there who see me and hear me . Sorry for you all and your inner pain that is ignored by others who see a very different man to the actual one he is . The cardboard cut out robot man that he really is – mr nice?? no mr kid on . Joanne seek joy every day on your terms distance your self from him he is not your joy he is his own joy and that’s all he cares about .

    6. Hi, Joanne: Just came across this dialogue when reading over Dr. Kathy’s recent email. Oh my, can I identify with your words. Have been married 31 yrs to my Aspie and only realized 10 yrs ago that he is definitely on the autism spectrum. He is officially undiagnosed but most definitley fits ‘all’ the patterns and traits. It has explained SO MUCH in my married life and reading Dr Kathy’s blogs has reinforced everything. Since we are both retired now and together 24/7 things have gotten even worse. I am so LONELY with no meaningful conversation, never looks directly at me when talking, totally ignores me if a statement is not to his liking, refuses to socialize with anyone, if not family. When my adult daughter unexpectedly passed away there was NO sympathy, no emotional support from him whatsoever. With my major surgeries, no effort to go the extra mile to support me, provide for me. No effort to lift a finger in helping me with most anything. When asked if I had to have another surgery and I was unable to prepare a meal or ‘serve him’ as usual, would he be able to ‘do the same for me’. His answer was “we’ll cross that bridge if we come to it”. I’ve lost touch with ‘who I used to be’, what I used to enjoy, as all I do now is structure my life around ‘his’ wants and needs as I am his caregiver and only a roommate. If only I had realized all this even 20 yrs ago . . . . .

  6. I was doing some autism research today and stumbled across your blog post. I found your insight on empathy quite interesting, but at the same time, I very much disagree with your statements.

    I agree with your comment regarding the Empathy Triad; we aspies do not meet the requirements of The Empathy Triad’s definition of cognitive empathy. What frustrates me is that you use an 8-year-old outdated definition of empathy and ignore the dozens of research papers published on autistic individuals regarding empathy in recent years. The majority of scholars have concluded that aspies can, in fact, experience empathy. It is a proven fact that children and adults with Asperger’s can experience cognitive empathy to a certain degree. At least the modernized definition of cognitive empathy. It is also proven that aspies can experience emotional empathy (The Empathy Triad’s definition of emotional empathy) on a certain level. So when you make statements like “they don’t anticipate our feelings, nor recognize our feelings, nor apologize for their conduct.” you are effectively generalizing and stereotyping an entire community while basing your opinion on outdated research.

    In your blogs, you treat aspies like broken individuals that need to change their ways and do better. You act like we aspies are just not trying hard enough or that we don’t care enough to try, when in fact we do care, we just don’t know how to express ourselves. Just because we cannot read between the lines at times and struggle to understand others’ emotions does not mean that we cannot care about our loved ones. You group affective empathy and cognitive empathy into one definition when in reality, they are very separate.

    I fully understand why you get so many angry messages from aspies. After reading your blogs, I feel insulted; it’s like you are trying to make us sound like we don’t have feelings and that we are these cynical beings that only care about ourselves. Almost all of your blogs I read have the same underlying message; aspies aren’t normal; they are damaged individuals that need to be fixed. Even if they are doing the best they can to cope with everything, it’s not enough because they are not normal.

    While writing this, I realize that I have gone off on quite a tangent. I sincerely hope you will not perceive any of my comments as personal insults, as that is not my intention. I rarely ever do things like this, but when I started reading your blogs, it genuinely upset and frustrated me. I am aware that you have a right to your own opinion, but when you are an industry professional, I feel it is necessary to inform your audience that some of your views, such as your perspective on empathy, are highly controversial. At least show the reader both sides of the coin, especially if several industry professionals have debunked your view on empathy.

    1. Thank you Neil for your thoughtful comments. I do think differently about empathy. For me Empathy with a capital E means integration of emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy. The very definition of Autism Spectrum Disorder is the disconnect between cognitive and emotional empathy. So while it can be said that Autists have “some” empathy, it certainly seems to be lacking the robustness of cognitive and emotional aspects of empathy, weaving together to make meaning. I maintain that if the Neuro-Diverse individual and the Neuro-Typical individual recognize this disconnect and/or lag time in connecting up cognitive and emotional aspects, there would be more kindness and understanding. However, it’s just not a strong argument to say that one aspect of empathy represents the whole package, or what I call the Empathy Triad.

      1. Thank you very much for your response, it really helped me understand your point of view regarding this topic. I’ve realized that I might just have some very strong opinions regarding Asperger’s. Regardless, I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to help me further understand this complex topic.

        1. Thank you Duncan. “The Double Empathy Problem” is a theory that acknowledges that two people such as a Neuro-Diverse and Neuro-Typical couple may both be unable to empathize with the other, due to their differing experiences and view of the world. While this makes sense, it is very limited and not too useful in bridging the “Double Empathy Problem” gap. I am finishing a book on the topic of “Empathy is More Than Words” to address the details more specifically. For example, reciprocity in communication is extremely difficult when ND individuals are transactional and listening to the words, while NTs are interactional and listening to the person.So even if it is true that Autists are judged according to NT standards, the bottom line is that their processing is transactional and tends to shut down communication even with other NDs.

    2. Neil, I am an NT female married to an ASD male and I completely agree with you. I think part of the problem is the hegemony of normalcy. Those on the spectrum are not broken, they merely think differently from NT’s. It is the responsibility of BOTH parties to find and apply a “communication interface” (Gottman is great for this) to avoid assumptions and bad feelings, but because those on the spectrum are in the minority and are often misunderstood they are the ones usually seen as the problem by most NT’s. My husband may not be able to read my face and intuitively know I’m upset, but once I tell him I’m upset and why, he’s perfectly capable of feeling compassion and remorse (if he’s actually done something to hurt me, sometimes I’ve just had a bad day at work) and work to repair the hurt or comfort me. In the beginning did he intuitively know how to comfort me? No, because that’s not how his brain works. Is he willing to give me a tight hug and make me a cup of tea because that’s what comforts me? Of course!! Now he’s learned that tears usually mean upset and says something along the lines of “you look upset, did I do or say anything to hurt you? Would you like a hug or a cup of tea?” If I were to wait around expecting him to read my mind like another NT could I’d still be waiting. It doesn’t mean he’s a jerk, it doesn’t mean he’s broken, it doesn’t mean he’s incapable of love (which someone else posted above), it means I have to be a clear communicator about my feelings (hurt) and needs (hug and tea) and he has to want to meet them, which he does. It frustrates me when an NT expects the impossible from an ASD and then blames them for not being able to follow through. It’s like complaining that a blind husband never tells his wife she’s beautiful.

    3. Standard aspie missing the point take . Not actually understanding the non aspie which is of course what this site is all about
      The problem is the upset that you do not see you cause (inadvertently) do not understand and fail to acknowledge it .
      How does this feel do you think in a marriage ? Not seen not heard – invisible needs . It feels totally insulting and unsurvivable ultimately. I say this married to a man i have loved all my life who can’t say he loves me and never has been able to . It’s not ok – don’t get married don’t mess up others then say i can’t see it so it’s an invalid feeling . Stop invalidating NT me . Stop saying my feelings are less than an Aspie / stop ignoring that you don’t see things therefore it is not how NTs feel.Aspie feelings are all Aspie cares about and it is evidenced time and time and time again and even here . If you cannot get it what does that suggest – yes you are missing something very much so some integral part is a void . It has an impact .
      See the point being made stop justifying your position . Please think about how we all matter all our feelings are legitimate as are our points of view as Non Aspies often living ( somehow ) with Aspies. who we often very much love at our emotional cost .

  7. I obviously came to this post late. If anyone is still reading this I have been married for 30 years to an Aspie and our son is also an Aspie. They were recently diagnosed. I have dealt with what I perceive as their lack of empathy by accepting that they do not have it just as I do not have their unique abilities that are a result of their Aspie brains.
    This of course has not yet taken my sadness away about not being able to be emotionally close to my husband. He thinks that we are close because he does not understand NT emotional intimacy. In time, I think this sadness will ebb through accepting him as he is and continuing to get emotional support from my friends and sister .
    By accepting his inability to be empathetic, I am no longer hurt by what I used to think was his deliberate callousness and cruelty.
    I am lucky in that my husband and I agreed when we got married that we would not call each other names or insult one another even when we are angry. We both have kept this agreement . It has been hard for both of us to do at times, but it has kept us from inflicting hurt on the other out of our frustration and anger with one another.
    My biggest challenge right now is that I have to figure out how to manage the stress of living with my husband and son. They went on vacation over the summer for a week and I stayed home. While they were gone, the house was so peaceful and the physical conditions that I have improved. Stress causes them to flair. A friend who is living with us also felt the peace and lack of stress.

  8. Yes, you are right Dr Kathy- my ASD actually walks away if I point out any issue that might require some reciprocity or repair. He has learned to say ‘Sorry’ because I have insisted he cannot continue to live in this relationship unless he makes an effort to repair, but it is always perfunctory and unemotional in its delivery.
    For me, putting myself first equal, meeting my own needs and practising self compassion has helped enormously to keep me stable but it has been a long slow ‘journey’ to wellness. Very hard earned.

  9. Hello, thank you to everyone here for your heartfelt contribution. Thank you Dr Kathy, for sending me these posts. I look forward to participating in a group conversation some time.
    My world has not gotten any better since I discovered my spouses condition in March of this year. I have learned so much and I know I need the tools provided by dedicated therapists and researchers to help me navigate a relationship that despite my efforts, may be beyond repair. Imagine the effort required. I am a receptive and discerning reader but I have limitations like everyone else. My will gets stomped on in the most obtuse ways. I am sure others can relate.
    None of this is, consciously, recognized by her. The deficits are quite simple in construct (so much work has been done for us in the research of this condition)and yet they override every aspect of thought, action and “conversation”. The NT/ND line in the sand. Zero responsibility. I have introduced the dilemma but there is no reciprocating at all as usual, except to admit a few months ago that she knew she was different. Hmmm. Any attempt to talk is shut down just like everything else that has never been discussed, ever ! Typical of the condition. I am getting better at recognizing the constants throughout the variety of modes, so to speak. I am relieved somewhat as I don’t get played regularly any more. They always have a few big bombs hidden away that defy reason. It has been a scary and volatile ride. Our financial situation deteriorated due to my inability to manage ongoing trauma. The constant meltdowns due to her inability to feel stable at all, in our temporary residence, with her mothers similar if not identical condition, finally opened my eyes.
    I reside in a transactional state when with her nowadays. Hapa-aspie, I behave in ways that reflect my trauma. Ironic. It is depressing and not good for me yet I accept at this time I can not remove myself entirely and in a way, I think she knows she owes me a little for destroying me inside. Not that she “shows” remorse. She feels something but it is laced with all the wrong lessons she took stock in and believed in without knowing any better. In that way she is just like me. A human being with emotions and very real values in conflict with a chaotic life. I admire her tenacity. I love her. I wish with all my heart and the love of god for her to be well and content. She was abused by this device since her birth and tears fall from my face as I write of it.
    Sorry is few and far between if at all. Whether she knows or not, the burden of responsibility I carry for us is a constant crushing force that is killing me. It has broken my heart(I know what love is) and is ruining my health. I am Pre Diabetic now, wow, from living under the regime of her and her undiagnosed 80 yr old mother at her mothers place for nearly a year. I am outnumbered and outgunned by the destructive apathy. Poor diet and ungoverned eating times exacerbates this condition and alternately when some fluke of intervention from a responsible party(myself) succeeds with providing them with their dietary requirements for a few days they are more stable. As they take no responsibility for their actions, if they are not around a stable NT the quality of life deteriorates in numerous ways the family never sees for decades. The apathetic viewpoint of the whole family( I am not joking or hyping this) versus the ND individuals measures to hide their faults. It is a total charade to the initiated and too hard for me to stomach anymore. Family events are very harming to me now. The more I learn about the condition the more I am horrified by its destructive effects on the family unit as I witness 3 generations of Autism, all undiagnosed. Zero responsibility. A family member who I can’t pin down with a diagnosis is married to another one I have more that surmised is on the spectrum. I did not want to look and there were just too many indicators. They have a potentially undiagnosed child entering adulthood but it is difficult to diagnose because she has been so heavily traumatized by the parents, in my humble opinion, another misdiagnosis may help or hurt but they are incapable of seeing the truth. Around it goes.
    I use the word trauma appropriately. Anyone who has experienced ongoing traumatic stress disorder or the likes thereof can see abuse for what it is. Anyone who has woken up to Autism in dramatic fashion after (14) years of not knowing why, as many of us have, are the ones who take “responsibility”.
    As we did the whole time before we knew the whole picture. The trauma is rife in this family yet if you were to call out any of the perpetrators, as I have with one, the door slams. That family member got involved in our personal affairs on her behalf and did not think I needed to be informed. Now they know!! But when the family gets together the willful dismissal of my position and the play to keep up appearances while ignoring the elephant in the room is abusive to myself, themselves, their spouses and children by default. Disgusting. Imagine how they will react when I load up and fire this divisive information in defence of myself for the first time. This is coming. I am overtired of this element(her family)in my life and will not be abused with the violence of non communication and avoidance(scapegoating). Truth is incorruptible. Apathy is congruent to evil. Evil events take place in society when apathy takes over. History has proven this over and over.
    I am amazed at this widespread deep invisible epidemic. Not surprised though.
    How well did we know ourselves before this discovery?
    How much do we know ourselves?
    I see how confounding this is for all of us to work out. So much effort. Responsibility.
    My heart goes out to all of you here and others who are yet to join us. Please spare a prayer or thought for me. Thank you everyone for your hard earned lessons and insight. Thank you again Dr Kathy.

  10. As a NT wife of 22 years I feel I have always had to concede and give my Aspie husband all of the accommodations. I feel like he simply lives in his bubble and absolutely shuts down whenever I have needs or feelings. It is so destructive. We’ve been to so much therapy and he just completely shuts down. I think his rejection sensitive dysphoria is pathologic. I shouldn’t have to give 100% accommodation. He should also have responsibility to learn to accommodate my needs as well. He absolutely just won’t.

    1. I thank all that shared their situation with a person that struggles as an Aspie and a reason for why it’s is difficult or seems impossible to reason or understand their lack of empathy. Is it possible to modify their thinking or them to understand NTs or are the chances slim for aspergers to attempt to understand?

      1. Understanding is one way of knowing. Another is to step into the reality of the other, while holding constant your own. Empathy is the latter. It is possible for the NeuroDiverse to understand the type of world that NeuroTypicals inhabit, if you take the time to take note.

  11. What a truly terrible and inaccurate post. Whilst some ‘aspies’ may lack empathy, not all do. Although it’s clear from the comments above, that your readers seem to have partners lacking empathy. The spectrum is broad and not represented by this kind of black and white distinctions, however.

    1. Hi Frank,
      A defining characteristic of anyone on the Autism Spectrum, no matter the level is a lack of empathy. I know it is tough to accept, but it is true. Empathy requires the ability to read between the lines, to understand the nuances of reciprocal interaction. This is simply hard work for those on the Spectrum. However, this doesn’t mean that the NeuroDiverse lack compassion. They also are quite capable of being morally responsible. But the lightening quick empathic process is not one of their strengths. Read more about this by author Simon Baron-Cohen, or one of my books. The goal is not to argue the point about who has empathy or not, but to work with the differences in a NeuroDivergent relationship.

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