• Understanding Autism from the Inside

    “Academics came easily to me. The rest of life—not so much.”
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Aspies do not lack empathy; we crave it.

Asperger’s and Empathy:

Why do you people believe we lack empathy?

I’ve been thinking about the common misconception that those with Asperger’s Syndrome do not have empathy; that we cannot be empathetic.  It drives me crazy when I hear that those on the autism spectrum lack empathy because it simply is not true. In fact, I think autistics have more empathy than the general population; it just manifests itself differently.
          Dictionary.com offers these two definitions:

          Empathy (noun)

          1. The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts,   or attitudes of another.
         2. The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in onself: By means of empathy, a great painting becomes a mirror of the self.
          The first portion of the definition begins intellectual identification, this is the way we identify with everything—through rote learning, using our intellect to figures things out. Are we not the picture of empathy if we are intellectually identifying with other’s feelings, thoughts and attitudes? 

  What about vicariously experiencing the feelings and attitudes of others?

           I actively avoid negative people who are constantly complaining whether it is a co-workers or family members. If someone comes to my house and is riled up, angry, miserable, and complaining, I almost immediately take on all those emotions. It is almost impossible for me to not be effected by their air of negativity to the point of me feeling angry and wanting to complain about things that were not bothering me before they showed up. 

          It is almost as if I can feel the air of emotions around them and they attached themselves to me. I don’t know too many other people who are as profoundly affected by the emotionally-charged air around them. I know that all people are affected to a degree, but it is the intensity of the feelings that I am referring to.
          Usually, as soon as they leave or I remove myself from the onslaught of emotions, I can calm down and feel like myself again. Conversely, If I enter a social situation that is filled with positive energy and attitudes—a joyous occasion, I then feels those emotions.
          Isn’t this a “vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another?” It absolutely is.

Can we see ourselves in other’s art, or writing?

        What about the second portion of the definition of empathy? The imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art,  feelings or attitudes present in oneself.
          How many times have you read a book, article, poem, or BLOG POST, and thought, wow…that is me! I have, I do, every day. For a long time, I had tremendous difficulty (before my diagnosis) finding mirrors of myself in the world. But all the while I was hopeless and desperately searching for those mirrors; searching for something or someone to actively empathize with!
          Despite what the Empathy Quotient test, on which I scored an eight says, (Yes, you are reading correctly, I scored an eight!) I have a lot of empathy.
           So why did I score so low? Why do others think that those on the autism spectrum lack empathy?
          I think that once again it comes down to basic understanding. A writing professor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) said something in his profile, which I read today.
“Education is more meaningful when students connect their own lives to the concept presented.” ~ Michael Brien, professor, SNHU
          A light bulb went on.
          Something about this statement made me say, “That is exactly what I am trying to say about Empathy!” I know—you’re scratching your heads and thinking, huh? What is this woman talking about?
          When I watch or read the news (which I rarely do) and see tragic events, I think, like everyone else, that is awful!  But, if the situation does not connect to my life in some way, I do not empathize (the vicarious experience of feelings kind) with those involved.
          The situation is removed from me, and I move on with my day.  I have seen others in tears, and emotional upheaval about something that, though tragic, had nothing at all to do with them. This is not said to be cold or unfeeling, but I simply don’t identify with the event or person.
          In order for me to “feel” empathy, I must be connected. In order for their experience to have meaning to me, it must be connected to my life. In the example about the family member who visits my home where I take on their emotional state for a time, the key to that situation is that it was a family member.  Strangers rarely have the same effect.

Empathy is an ambiguous word.

          After examining the definitions of empathy, I have determined that empathy is an ambiguous word (open to or having several possible meanings or interpretations) because obviously psychologists have a different interpretation of the word than either I, or the dictionary has.
          I simply do not understand how missing social clues, facial expressions, and identifying subtle changes in people’s emotions have anything to do with empathy. These are the skills that the Empathy Quotient test evaluates. It “is intended to measure how easily you pick up on other people’s feelings and how strongly you are affected by other people’s feelings.”
          I think that many of us may actually over-empathize with those around us. Could this be why we are so emotionally exhausted after social gatherings?
          For me, I have to remove myself in order to get my own emotions back. I can usually only handle one friend, or one family member at a time. I think that it is possible that my ability to empathize also contributes to my sensory overload. Too many things, people, voices, and EMOTIONS are coming at me at the same time. My world starts to spin, my head starts to hurt, and it is time to go home.
         What about books, movies, and music?  Do you feel the character’s, actor’s, or musician’s emotions? For me, it depends. If I spend enough time with a book or more likely with a book series, I become attached to the characters like they are my friends, and then I emotionally empathize with their plights.
“I love my books, all my friends are in there.” ~ me
          To this end, I even feel depressed and sorrowful when the books are through because my friends were in there, and now they are gone, the story is over.
         Mary Wrobel, the author of Asperger’s and Girls, said,
“In order to gain self-understand, each person with—or without—autism needs to see his or her own reflection in the world.”
          Isn’t this what we are doing when we search each other’s blogs—looking for our reflections? And when we find them, isn’t that the definition of empathy? When we read, we see feelings or attitudes present in ourselves.
           We don’t lack empathy; we crave it!


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Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.