“Take Responsibility for Your 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. 

21 Replies to ““Take Responsibility for Your 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.

      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.

    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.

  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.

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