Asperger’s and Empathy: Shifting Away from Dated Misconceptions9 min read

One of the dom­i­nant char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of people on the autism spec­trum is that they lack empathy or are empathy-disrupted. This is based on the par­a­digm that autistic people aren’t able to intuit the emo­tions and needs of others, or that people on the spec­trum aren’t willing to respond to the emo­tional needs of others. The truth, which seems to be entirely missing from the lit­er­a­ture of behav­ioral sci­ence, is that the only people being con­sid­ered in the “others” piece of that def­i­n­i­tion are neu­rotyp­ical (non-autistic) people.

I am an aspie (a person with Asperger’s), and thus am per­ceived to be a person who strug­gles with under­standing irony; still, the irony does not escape me that there is a tacit level of empathy absent in the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion that someone like me cannot empathize with other people.

I am wired– lit­er­ally, at the neu­ro­log­ical level– with a social rule­book which dif­fers from the rule­book hard-wired in the DNA of neu­rotyp­ical (non-autistic) people. I have no problem under­standing the needs and desires of other autis­tics, reading their cues, and responding appro­pri­ately to them in a warm and nur­turing manner. I under­stand them because we have the same innate rule book written in our genes.

Implying or directly stating that I lack empathy because I can’t under­stand “others” is to exclude autistic people from the def­i­n­i­tion of “others.” It’s era­sure of their humanity. According to the most painfully-literal level of abstrac­tion, that def­i­n­i­tion is dehu­man­izing in that it doesn’t include autis­tics in the def­i­n­i­tion of “people.”

I process sen­sory and emo­tional input in dif­ferent parts of my brain from neu­rotyp­ical people. Expecting me to nat­u­rally intuit a neu­rotyp­ical person’s needs and to be able to read their social indi­ca­tors is to deny me empathy.

If I were blind, would psy­chol­o­gists posit that I lack empathy because I am unable to respond to people’s silent facial expres­sions?  If I were deaf, would behav­ioral sci­en­tists con­duct research and arrive at con­clu­sions that my inability to inter­pret sub­tleties in tone and inflec­tion was an indi­ca­tion of empathy dis­rup­tion?

It seems obvious that it would be inhu­mane and uneth­ical to impose a lack empathy on people who had bio­log­ical or anatom­ical dif­fer­ences which pre­cluded them from under­standing stimuli in the same way as the majority of the pop­u­la­tion. Why, then, am I char­ac­ter­ized as lacking empathy because of a neu­ro­log­ical dif­fer­ence?

I have needs which are dif­ferent from the neu­rotyp­ical majority, and in order to avoid causing more stress to the other person, I need to main­tain a degree of equi­lib­rium. My struggle to avoid some types of social inter­ac­tion is not in the interest of self-service. I don’t want to become over­whelmed and trig­gered because I don’t want to cause more stress to my neu­rotyp­ical loved ones who might not under­stand my reac­tions and aver­sions; but, because I have empathy, I do not expect them to under­stand some­thing not innate to their per­cep­tive frame­work.

Physical con­tact is dif­fi­cult for me, and holding someone, hug­ging them, or even pat­ting their shoulder as a ges­ture of empathy can be dis­tressing to me. It’s too inti­mate. If I hug someone, press my body against theirs and feel all of their hard and soft spots and the tex­tures of their clothing, smell their sweat and shampoo and the food on their breath, and hear the crunching of their styled hair pressing against my face, it over­whelms me.

Once the con­tact is broken, my skin is elec­tri­fied and burning where the warmth of their body still tin­gles on my skin, their smells still pounding like a hammer on my raw olfac­tory nerve. It may be what another person wants from me, but I’m not always able to give it to them. If I do, I might be so over­come with over­stim­u­la­tion that I can’t focus on another word they say to me. I will feel trau­ma­tized.

My brain doesn’t always dif­fer­en­tiate between sexual touch and casual touch.  When I’m on sen­sory over­load, sig­nals get mis­in­ter­preted.  Logically, I know when touch is benign; how­ever, emo­tion­ally the unwanted touch feels like a sexual assault.  That’s a byproduct of Sensory Processing Disorder.  There is no such thing as casual touch to me. Why is my con­sent to bodily autonomy and phys­ical touch lever­aged against my ability to feel empathy? Does the lack of regard for my needs to not endure unin­vited touch not demon­strate a lack of empathy for me?

I focus more on com­mu­ni­ca­tion with words than with ges­tures or tones or facial expres­sions. If I have needs, I try to express them ver­bally. I use lan­guage which is spe­cific and direct. To me, this is the most respectful and inti­mate way I can interact with others. Hinting at things, being subtle and hoping the other person is able to read my mind feels manip­u­la­tive and pas­sive aggres­sive.

Telling someone that I enjoy some­thing I don’t enjoy feels dis­honest. Making empty plans for ambiguous future meet-ups nei­ther of us plan to carry out feels decep­tive and hollow. Capitalizing on someone’s time by talking about some­thing obvious which is mean­ing­less to both of us (like the cur­rent state of the weather we are both presently expe­ri­encing) would feel to me that I was com­mu­ni­cating to them that they aren’t worth more depth of thought.

I don’t expect people to intuit my needs because that places the burden of guess­work on them, and that feels incon­sid­erate. In my values, according to my neu­rotype, com­mu­ni­ca­tion is more respectful when the sub­ject matter is deep and thoughtful and explic­itly (bluntly) stated. This isn’t a lack of empathy on my behalf, but the evi­dence of its abun­dance.

If a person tells me what he or she wants or needs, I will do what I can to accom­mo­date him or her. Neurotypical people often mis­in­ter­pret my hon­esty or my direct­ness as aggres­sion. My sin­cere ques­tions in asking for clar­i­fi­ca­tion are seen as Socratic and passive-aggressive. Most of the time, my speech seems too formal to neu­rotyp­ical people, and they view me as pedantic or arro­gant.

I do have dif­fi­cul­ties under­standing why two phrases which mean exactly the same thing to me mean totally dif­ferent things to neu­rotyp­ical people. I become so ner­vous in con­ver­sa­tions, mon­i­toring my speech to use the right com­bi­na­tion of words to ensure that I am not too pre­scribed. I have to make sure to not enun­ciate too crisply (singin’ instead of singing), or I end sen­tences with prepo­si­tions when it feels unnat­ural to me, to the point that con­ver­sa­tions become daunting and stressful. For example, I might change the phrase, “that I use the right syn­onyms to avoid appearing arcane,” to “that I don’t use fancy words and sound uppity.”

I’m not always sure what’s expected of me, and I don’t emote the same ways most people do. Because of dys­praxia, I don’t move with any sem­blance of grace. I drop things all the time and trip over thresh­olds, and when I become over­whelmed, it becomes even harder to coor­di­nate my move­ments. Because of poor fine motor coor­di­na­tion, I can’t wink without looking like a deranged owl with Bell’s palsy.

I have to phys­i­cally con­cen­trate some­times to make myself smile or nod my head or raise my eye­brows. Other times, I laugh when nothing is funny because that is how my brain responds to striking or shocking infor­ma­tion. This might mean that I respond with laughter to someone telling me about a car breaking down or a job loss. That’s not because I find it humorous. It’s because I’m so awash with empathy that it is unpleas­antly over­whelming, like the feeling one has when being tickled.

Other times, I might say, “That’s hilar­ious,” without laughing at all. I can’t always tell if my out­ward emo­tions are showing on my face, and I don’t know if I need to try harder to let you know with my body lan­guage what I’m feeling. I don’t typ­i­cally offer a cour­tesy laugh at a joke that isn’t funny because it doesn’t occur to me that being dis­honest is what the people around me want from me. I’m also so unaware of my body at times that I can’t feel what my face is doing.

I don’t com­ment on people’s appear­ance or attire because I don’t see those things as rel­e­vant. My lack of atten­tion to a person’s façade is not an indi­ca­tion of my dis­in­terest in others, but a reflec­tion of my interest in the traits and char­acter of the person with whom I’m inter­acting.

If I don’t notice your new hair­style, or if I don’t com­ment on a change in your appear­ance, it’s because how you look is not impor­tant in my per­cep­tion and is not a reflec­tion of who you are. Your mind is what’s impor­tant to me. This is why I might chal­lenge your thoughts. The best social inter­ac­tions, for me, are those in which we work together to learn some­thing new, or to examine our own thoughts and prej­u­dices to try and better our­selves as a col­lab­o­ra­tive ven­ture.

I might not be able to find a way into a con­ver­sa­tion about American foot­ball. It’s true that I cannot fathom why anyone is so invested in a game in which adult men the size of refrig­er­a­tors demon­strate their ath­letic prowess by ram­ming their heads into other people’s heads while bat­tling for pos­ses­sion of a ball the shape of a pro­late spheroid and made from the flesh of a dead animal. That is my inner dia­logue.

I can’t under­stand how the people who are sup­posed to be so imbued with innate empathy can delight so much in another’s ability to con­cuss him­self. I watch it and worry that the players, who are most often Black, are being exploited for white enter­tain­ment as a pro­lif­er­a­tion of sys­temic dehu­man­iza­tion and racism. Their value to the sport is mea­sured in how much pain they can take and how much they can inflict, and in how much they will sac­ri­fice their health and bodies for the glad­i­a­to­rial blood­lust of others. I think about how the ath­letes will likely have short­ened lifes­pans, and how their bodies will ache every morning for the rest of their lives because their car­ti­lage has been destroyed and their ten­dons hyper­ex­tended. But, men­tioning this in con­ver­sa­tion will be con­sid­ered demon­stra­tive of my lack of empathy because I don’t under­stand the status quo.

It’s time to re-evaluate how we define empathy as it relates to people on the spec­trum. Characterizing autistic people as lacking in empathy is harmful and inac­cu­rate. We are a spec­trum as broad and as com­plex and diverse as neu­rotyp­ical people, and we expe­ri­ence empathy in varying degrees within that spec­trum.

When my aspie tod­dler gets dis­tressed and pushes me away from people who hug me or touch me, it isn’t because she is jealous of the atten­tion. It’s because she believes that someone is vio­lating her mother’s bound­aries and imposing too much touch on her. She feels this way, intuits this nat­u­rally, because she is wired the way I am. She loves ani­mals, but she doesn’t touch them. She just looks at them, gets close to them, and gig­gles. She does this out of respect for their bodily autonomy and their right to not have touch imposed on them.

Her internal rule­book is sophis­ti­cated and bal­anced against a com­plex moral rea­soning that includes logic, ethics, and emo­tional abstrac­tion. She doesn’t need to grow up in a world in which her future edu­ca­tors and health care providers per­ceive her as oafish and lacking in empathy. She deserves to be rec­og­nized as the empa­thetic, socially respon­sible, unique indi­vidual she is, full of love and poten­tial and in need of your tol­er­ance and accep­tance.

Have some empathy.

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