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.

Parenting During Summer Months

Ready for summer? Sunscreen, a volleyball and maybe passports too?

If you got that covered, I will talk about what most parents with diagnosed children on the Spectrum really want to hear, which is how you can not only survive the summer, but actually enjoy it as well.

As parents, we love our children and we do whatever we can to make their lives happy and healthy.

One thing I always recommend is to not stop medication over summer. Children with ADHD especially thrive on structure and school gives them just that. Medication will make it easier for him to behave in school, but that’s not the only time he needs it. Without medication, it’s harder for him to be around others and participate in certain activities. Your carefully planned vacation can turn into a nightmare quickly for the whole family, including the little one.

Do not renegotiate the rules. You already have established when your child can watch TV and when it’s time for bed. While you will be tempted to be more flexible during holidays, this will bring you a lot of stress and struggles just in a few weeks. Ten extra minutes in front of the TV will turn into an hour. Don’t change a routine that is working for the entire family depending on the time of the year.

A risk you can face in general, but more during summer months as you spend more time together, is your tendency to shield your child from everything that might put a shadow on his face. As children overcome adversities, their self-confidence grows. They’ll feel more in control. The key to good parenting is not protecting kids from everyday adversity, but encouraging a positive attitude toward stress. However, don’t forget to enjoy your summer as well. If you are struggling with being a helicopter parent, here are the lessons I learnt from being one.

How about summer activities? Create a safe playground in the backyard, where your hyperactive children can exercise with their friends. In this article from ADDitude Magazine you can get a few tips for activities appropriate to each age group (young, school age and teen).

If you are thinking of summer camps, my best advice is to find a summer program that offers activities your child really enjoys and maybe one where some of his friends are already going. The 2019 ADHD Camp Guide contains a list with camps for children with attention deficit disorder and learning differences.

Parenting a child on the Spectrum can be hard, I’m speaking from my own experience. In our MeetUp community you can read and get involved with other parents who are sharing the same struggles as you do.

I’ve written a book about co-parenting with an Asperger Syndrome partner. It’s called “Out of Mind—Out of Sight: Parenting with a Partner with Asperger Syndrome (ASD)”. It is important to recognize that if we don’t reveal the dark side of these relationships, we can’t search for solutions to the all too real problems of the AS/NT family. The last thing I want to do is leave NT parents with the feeling that they are alone. Erasing that loneliness is the first step toward parenting successfully with an “Aspie” co-parent.

If you have suggestions for other parents on how to survive summer, please leave a comment!

The Neurodiverse Workplace

In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a new report announcing a 15% increase in autism’s prevalence in the United States, to 1 in 59 children, from 1 in 68 two years previous.

Having someone on the Spectrum in your life is more and more common. You might have met them in the queue at the grocery shop or noticed high functioning autism in your best friend’s life partner.

So why is it that society still struggles to integrate autistic people into the workplace? Neurodiverse people frequently need accommodations, like headphones to prevent auditory overstimulation or they avoid making eye contact (I wrote more about this in a detailed blog post). Most of these challenges can be managed and the results can be great. Many on the Spectrum have a high IQ and research shows that some conditions, including autism and dyslexia, can bestow special skills in pattern recognition, memory, or mathematics.

In order for these people to showcase their talent, companies need to change the way they recruit and their career development policies to include a diverse pool of talent.

Not surprisingly, when autistic people get the support they need, companies are thriving overall. Hewlett Packard Enterprise launched a program which introduced over 30 participants in software-testing roles at Australia’s Department of Human Services (DHS). Preliminary results suggest that the organization’s neurodiverse testing teams are 30% more productive than the others. After the success of this program, the Australian Defense Department is developing a neurodiversity program in cybersecurity. You can read more about it in this article published in Harvard Business Review.

How can we start employing more autistic people?

Don’t rush the process; make sure you are hiring the people with the right CV for the job. Partnering with companies that already have experience in autistic behavior is a way to facilitate knowledge exchange. Expect a change in your company culture and your employees.

 

PTSD and OTRD are Common, But Not Mandatory

A few days ago, I found an interesting article in New York Times about a veteran without Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. She believed something was wrong with her, as she’s been through multiple traumatic events (deployed to combat zones twice and losing her husband in an avalanche in Colorado) and yet, she wasn’t suffering from PTSD.

Many people wrongly assume that PTSD is inevitable for anyone exposed to trauma or that having PTSD would validate military experience. In reality, only 8% of American citizens have PTSD, while in veterans the percentage is a bit higher (11% – 20%).

The author of this article had taken part in a study regarding a potential treatment for PTSD. The fact that researchers are studying healthy people without PTSD, but who were traumatized is amazing. It certainly makes more sense than only studying those with PTSD. You are more likely to find successful treatment this way.

While different, there are a few similarities between PTSD and Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Disorder (OTRD).

PTSD or OTRD are not inevitable for anyone exposed to trauma. From my years of experience, there are a number of factors which help avoid them, such as absence of childhood trauma and having a close circle of family and friends.

Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Disorder (OTRD)

I am happy to be part of our MeetUp group, “Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD”, because one way our group survives and copes with OTRD, is BY offering  community and open discussions about the stress of this lifestyle. There are many members of my group who do not suffer OTRD and who have found ways to maintain a healthy life and distance themselves from the stress.

I wrote an article about surviving unremitting grief. There is the grief over the lost dream of a relationship with an emphatic partner. There is the grief from chronic verbal abuse. There is the grief of raising your children in the chaos of the relationship. There is the grief of never being able to have a voice in your life.

If you want to work 1-1 with a therapist and you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my office and schedule an appointment. You can also go to my website to schedule through the online calendar. Online therapy is also available, if that works best for your busy schedule.

Living with an “Aspie” Partner

Relationships are hard, in general. Throw out all empathy from one of the partners and you get a whole new mix.

Autism Spectrum Relationships

Understanding the Neurotypical – Asperger Relationship is difficult. I wrote a blog about Empathy 101 that expands on this subject of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Neurotypical persons in relationships with those with “Asperger’s Syndrome” expect and need empathy, but they don’t receive it from their ASD partners. This makes them feel alone, depressed, and socially isolated. They suffer from numerous stress-related chronic illnesses, because no one really understands what they’re going through.

If you’re a member of our Asperger Syndrome: Partners & Family of Adults with ASD Meetup community, you probably understand this or you even live in similar environments.

I see it every day in the group and I’m grateful we built this community together to support each other and share our relationship struggles.

One member said:

“I am really discouraged today. I have come to realize that I am married to a man that I will never really know. How do I deal with that?”

While another followed in a similar tone:

“I want/need to find another way…if I engage with him I lose myself, if I disengage from him I am not myself…”

One of the most important things to know about your “Aspie” partner is the quality of empathy is totally absent. Understanding this will help you better navigate your life together and you will be able to direct your energy to better take care of yourself. You are in charge and this thought can feel good.

So how can you help your relationship?

 

The Art of Detachment in an ASD/NT Relationship

  • Stop taking it all personally.
  • Stop worrying if you’ve covered all the bases.
  • Stop beating yourself up for your flaws.
  • Stop expecting more from your AS spouse than he or she can give.

 

Emotional Self-Care

Autism Spectrum RelationshipsDo all of the healthy feel-good things you can fit into your day. It can be very easy to focus all of your attention on your loved one and leave nothing left over for yourself. Be sure to take time to recharge. In order to give to others, you must give back to yourself. Get involved in what you love doing. Do you like reading or kayaking? Give yourself time for it this weekend.

I also wrote an article with 15 reasons why self-compassion is better than self-confidence. Take a look at it – you might find it useful.

 

Education

Your partner has just been diagnosed with High Functioning Autism? Find out what you should expect regarding this form of autism. It will help you to better understand the disorder and find ways to cope with it rather than resent it. Find local support groups and engage with other people from your community who are having the same pains as you do.

I am launching a new website soon, called “ASPERGER SYNDROME & RELATIONSHIPS: Life with an Adult on the Autism Spectrum”. I’m creating a local and international community where iit is safe to share your problems and you can get the support you need. I will also be guiding your healing process through our community. Don’t hesitate to join us once the website is launched (sign up tfor our newsletter to stay up to date).

Because those with Asperger lack empathy, they inadvertently cause others to feel ignored, unappreciated and unloved. Many cope by coming up with an explanation of why life has turned out the way it has. But these explanations change nothing. Everything you talk about should be about what you’re feeling or hearing or seeing or smelling right now. Don’t analyze. Don’t blame others or yourself. Don’t judge either. No complaining. No explaining.

Your loved one may already be meeting with someone regarding their disorder, but you may also need additional support as an NT  loved one. If you believe you are ready to seek the assistance of a health care professional and you live near Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA please contact my office or  schedule an appointment at my website calendar. For busy schedules I also offer online therapy.

 

The Community Method Creates Change and Healing

Psychologists and journalists have it all wrong.

Why is it that even the professionals think that focusing on what is wrong in the world, or in our personal lives, will make things better? David Brooks, a New York Times columnist questions this concept in his May 16, 2019 column, “The Big Story You Don’t Read About.”

He says, “Too many journalists refuse to consider local social repair and community-building as news. It seems too goody-goody, too “worthy,” too sincere. It won’t attract eyeballs. That’s dead wrong.”

Psychologists make the same mistake with our clients. We spend a lot of time going over everything that makes people unhappy, in the misguided illusion that this preoccupation with grief will lead to answers. Don’t get me wrong, we need to grieve, to release the tensions and the sadnesses and the anger associated with life’s losses. But we also need to “repair,” as David says. We need to rebuild our lives with the strengths we have gained from our grief.

If all we do is focus on what’s wrong, it can leave us feeling hopeless, helpless, and depressed. As Brooks puts it, “People who consume a lot of media of this sort sink into this toxic vortex — alienated from people they don’t know, fearful about the future. They are less mobilized to take action, not more.” This is never truer in our personal lives too.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Sure, take a look at what’s weighing you down. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself permission to grieve. Mull over the problem you are having, talk about it, write in your journal. But then take a pause from all of that negativity to review what you can do about the problem. Start living a purposeful life.

It’s about community.

Autism Community When I popped open my messages from my Meetup group, Asperger Syndrome:” Partners & Family of Adults with ASD. I was rewarded by yet another deeply moving string of messages on my website. The website is a private place for members to discuss their worries and fears. They ask others for opinions and support. They share their losses and their successes.

Our group is a unique forum for Neuro-Typicals (NTs) who feel alone with the stresses and strains of life with autistics. They feel embarrassed and guilty for even complaining about their problems, as if complaining about someone with autism is somehow wrong or unkind or a terrible sin.

So, I decided to set that straight ten years ago, when I founded the group on Meetup. I thought it was time to bring this problem into the open and shine new light on the painful interactions that occur behind closed doors, within homes where an NT lives with an “Aspie.”   (“Aspie” is a brief form of “Asperger Syndrome,” and was coined by autistics).

Since that first time I hosted a small group for lunch in Portland, our group has grown to over 3500 members world-wide. We are represented on every continent, wherever NTs can access the Internet and reach out to their international community, a community that is there for them when they need to know they are not alone.

Rise above the chaos

The Community Method Creates Change and HealingIn fact, our Meetup group is proof that community building leads to personal and social repair, the kind that can change the world by healing hearts.

Below are a few excerpts from the heartfelt email string on our website that caught my attention (without names or identifying information to protect the members). I am blessed to have these powerful people, who each day are facing their problems with grace. There may be no immediate solution to autism or to the heartache it brings to the people who love autistics, but there are answers to taking back your life by rising above the chaos.

A Meetup Member describes her grief over her ASD/NT marriage:

“First I grieved what I thought we had. Next I grieved what we really had. After that I grieved what should never have been. Then I grieved that I would never know what was real. This was followed by grieving all of the people I thought were friends, but were not. I then had to grieve that I had lost myself.

“I am building a new person. I still have tough days, though things are better. I am grateful for this group.”

*****

After a few members commented, Dr. Kathy’s responded:

“Going through the grief helps you to know the truth of who you really are. And you are loved. Taking back your life requires grieving and letting go of false beliefs. Freedom is just around the corner.”

*****

A few more comments and then a member responded:

“Thank u Dr Kathy. U have helped me enormously thru this most difficult journey.”

*****

After several more supportive members commented, another mention from Dr. Kathy to the group:

“Yes, you are an amazing group of powerful Souls. You understand and are brave and kind enough to be there for others. A day does not go by that I don’t grieve for the destruction of my family, but somehow my authentic self is stronger than grief. I no longer just make it through the day. I actually feel free as I soar above the chaos. The chaos isn’t me. The grief isn’t me either. I am so much more. And so are all of you.”

One final member comment:

“Thank you Dr. Kathy. It’s refreshing to know that the ‘chaos isn’t me.’ I have also lost my entire family. I was holding on to escape more Grief. The truth is I prolonged it. This next chapter I get to choose, and thanks to you and all those who go before me, I know it’s true.”

*****

Know the truth of who you are.

If you have a life with an adult on the autism spectrum, . . . if are ready to know the truth of who you are, . . . if you are ready to be part of a community that focuses on what works instead of the problem, . . . if you enjoy helping others do the same, . . . then I hope you join us at Asperger Syndrome:” Partners & Family of Adults with ASD.