Thoughts on Empathy from a Woman with Asperger’s

by Cecile

I have some thoughts on empathy I would like to share. I am not going to attempt to define it; the term has different meanings for different people, and people do not adapt their thoughts to dictionary definitions anyway.

However empathy is defined or seen, the widely held belief that autistic people lack empathy is still too common. And it leads to so many negative ideas: they lack empathy morphs into they do not care about other people’s feelings, they are oblivious to others’ feelings, they do not recognize that others have feelings and ideas that differ from their own, and even they only care about themselves.

What boggles the mind is that there are so many autistic people speaking out and contradicting these beliefs, and still people and professionals dealing with autistic people and their families hold on to these myths. Why? Is it unwillingness to admit that they might have been wrong all along? Is it that they cannot easily observe the empathy we say we have? Or can it be that too many people are still not willing to really listen to us?

I admit that there are times when I do seem to lack empathy. I do retreat and shut myself off from others’ feelings. But this is a self- preservation tactic, not an inability to relate. Being exposed to emotions can be exhausting — and overwhelming, since I can have difficulty regulating my own response to emotion in others.

I recall a recent incident. I walked my daughter into school one morning and left as the bell rang. As I rounded a corner, I came upon a child furiously wiping away tears and trying to compose herself before entering the building. The encounter was unexpected for both of us; there were no barriers up between us. Just the emotion. We stared at each other for a moment, and then she ran into the school building. I ended up in my car in the parking lot, crying, gasping for breath, on the edge of having a panic attack. This shows that I have to protect myself; reactions such as these are very upsetting and many times probably out of proportion to the emotion perceived.

Sometimes the emotion in a situation is not that easy to read. People often hide their feelings behind a social mask. Couple that with my difficulty in reading people, and I am left with the confusing sense of something being wrong, but not knowing what it is. That causes discomfort and anxiety, making communication even more difficult than it already is. I find small talk and conversation very hard when there are undercurrents I can feel but do not understand. So someone may feel the need for empathy in a conversation, and I just become more and more withdrawn due to my confusion and frustration. This certainly may look like a lack of empathy.

One specific thing I cannot handle at all is a candid camera type of show. The intense discomfort I feel when I see someone being embarrassed or humiliated, even if only temporarily, is almost like pain. I remember the very first candid camera film I saw. I was about 8 years old, and we were shown the film in the school hall. The kids around me were laughing, and I felt just horrible. I remember crying and wanting to go home, and this upset stayed with me for weeks. As an adult I still find it painful, even while knowing that my reaction is over the top. I cannot separate myself from the embarrassment I see. I make it my own and feel awful.

I have read that many other autistic people feel the same way about these kinds of shows, which is reassuring in a way.

I have always thought I was alone in feeling these things.

About the Author: Cecile was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 40, and is a wife and mother. This piece first appeared on her blog, Gnus, wombats, and ducks, and is reprinted here by permission.


Empathy and My Son with Asperger’s

by Elise Ronan

We hear it all the time that persons on the autism spectrum lack empathy for their fellow human beings. The “experts” have decided that our children can neither understand nor process the emotions of others, that our children cannot understand when someone is cruel or mean or hateful. Yes, there was a study done recently refuting this belief, but unfortunately, the lack of empathy mantra is widespread.

I guess these so-called experts have never met HSB.

Yes, I have written on many occasions about collegeman and his need to make the world a better place. Whether it was his speaking out about Darfur, working for Habitat for Humanity, or helping at the local food bank, collegeman has always shown an understanding and a need to make the world a better place. HSB has done his bit for charity as well. However, it never actually seemed to come from his heart, as opposed to us making him do it because it is something a person should know they are obligated to do. Charity and good works are part of the legacy we wish to give to our children. It is not something anyone learns by rote; it is something that needs to be taught, no matter the family.

Now a little bit more about HSB. HSB is quite the contrarian on many issues. He will not watch certain TV cartoons, because he has decided that they are a rip-off from other people’s works (Seth McFarlane you are on notice). He will deride you if you watch any of these shows, and he will not watch certain news shows — in fact, any news show — because they are all biased. He has even taken to not watching this season of The Big Bang Theory because he said that they have lost their initial intellectual comedy and have just gone down into the most common denominator cesspool of “sex” jokes (don’t ask). He will watch DVDs of older BBT shows; they are on his approved list.

Considering that HSB loves film, acting, and gameplay, I pity the entertainment industry if he becomes a famous critic. He will readily destroy anyone’s career if they do not meet his standards of intellect, technology, originality and, most of all, equanimity. When it comes to talking down to the masses, HSB does not “suffer fools” lightly.

HSB is also quite different politically from the mainstream. Like the rest of us in this family, you really can’t categorize him at all. For all of us, it depends on the issue, not a particular party platform. In reality, I would have to say that HSB is an old-world progressive. Not a 60’s progressive, but an early 20th century progressive. As he says, his favorite President is Teddy “McBadass” Roosevelt. He loves, loves what Teddy stood for, and how you can be a strong President, “speak softly but carry a big stick,” and yet understand the responsibility for making this nation a better place to live for all its citizens.

So what does this all have to do with empathy? Let me tell you what happened last week. HSB was in his learning center class, what they used to call the resource room. He was doing his work, and in walks a student who is not regularly present. Now, this student has issues of his own, as do quite a lot of students who are classified in school. What this particular student likes to do is start fights. He decided to start a fight with HSB.

Now, it wasn’t a knock-down, drag-out fight, only because the teacher intervened in time. A physical confrontation is what the instigator was looking for. Yes, this other child has terrible emotional problems. But that doesn’t mean we make excuses for his nastiness and that HSB has to get caught up in this child’s web of cruelty.

Unfortunately, HSB did become upset with the intolerant things that the other student was saying about gay people.

HSB believes in gay marriage, as do we all in this house. I did not bring up the subject or actually ever discuss it as a major issue in the house; he, like his brother, decided this fact for themselves. This younger generation seems to truly understand certain aspects of life and, if you ask them about the issue, they will look at you quizzingly, trying to understand why you don’t see gay people as well, people. They don’t get it. It’s not a liberal thing, as far as they are concerned. It is a human thing. (They also don’t even understand how this is a political issue when there are real concerns in the world.)

Perhaps it comes from the fact that for so long, others did not treat them like human beings, so they understand intolerance when they see it. They also don’t buy into the religious notion that it’s against God’s law. As I said, collegeman rejects religious authority, and HSB doesn’t care what religious authority says when it comes to something he considers wrong. They decided that there are many things that God would want us to be, but hateful towards other humans is not one of them. (You can believe anything you want from a religious point of view, but this is our opinion in this house.)

So, anyway, the story goes that HSB got into a verbal argument with this nasty boy until the teacher intervened by telling them both to do their work. Of course, HSB sat down and started to do his math. He was able at the moment to pull back and continue on. However, the other child wouldn’t stop. He kept going on and on about the issue and saying some rather disparaging things, from what I understand.

The resource room teacher finally told the instigator to shut up and sit his butt down. But by this time, HSB was truly upset. He had to be taken out of the room, and the speech therapist was brought in to try to help him work through the situation.

Now, the speech therapist is great with HSB. They have a wonderful relationship, and she can get him to talk through issues and helps him figure out a logical and unemotional way of dealing them. He feels safe with her, as he feels safe with his resource room teacher.

Unfortunately it did not help. HSB just could not process the horrible things that that other child had said. It ruined his day and the next one too. He just couldn’t get past the meanness and the cruelty. As I have said before, collegeman tries to understand and intellectualize these things. It makes it easier for him to understand. HSB just rejects them but has no way of working through the inhumanity. It actually carried over into the next day in school, and not until he was able to talk to his therapist did he seem to calm down.

HSB was actually weepy from it. It overwhelmed him. As a child, HSB could not read books that had any hatefulness in them. He rejected the Lemony Snicket series and had to be helped from class in middle school when they read a book that contained animal cruelty in the story. I think it’s why he will not study about the Holocaust. He could never read any of the Holocaust based books the other children read, like The Devil’s Arithmetic. It hurts his soul just too much.

During the session, the therapist did practice and work on things that HSB could have said to the instigator child. The therapist, of course, made sure that it didn’t involve put downs, but basically told the other person to go away. (You can’t win an argument with someone who is trying to start a fight. You can’t win an argument with someone who won’t listen or is emotionally troubled.) The therapist did talk with him that he can’t fix the entire world. The therapist did make him feel better and helped him realize that he is a good person and that it’s OK to be upset that other people are horrible. The therapist also helped him see that he can’t let this other person’s meanness overwhelm his right to be happy and have good experiences in life.

HSB finally calmed down and processed the event. I did tell HSB that I spoke with the school and that they are going to make sure that the instigator child doesn’t bother him anymore. HSB has had a rather pleasant experience in high school, unlike collegeman, and I would hope that his last four months in the school district would be productive and happy ones.

But in the end I am really proud of my son. He stuck up for his belief in the humanity of others; I just hope he learns to be able to handle other people’s cruelty a little better. There is a lot of meanness in the world, and we must learn to work through it. Yes, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to learn to be able to do just that, but it is a survival skill that all must learn. Emotional survival is something that HSB is going to have to learn. It will not be easy for him. This is his challenge. He cares too much. Not empathetic, my ass….

About the Author: Elise Ronan is the mother of two young men with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, Raising Asperger’s Kids, and is reprinted here by permission.


That’s Your Cue

by Joeymom

Empathy. It is one of the markers people use in judging others. Does this person empathize with me? And how do I know?

Did you know that those cues for knowing how others feel, and whether they are empathizing with you or not, is culturally and socially determined? It is not totally universal? That the way we express emotion — or fail to express it — is also cultural?

Joey’s teachers are very concerned right now about his ability to empathize. The reason is that when he is reading a book or looking at a picture, he cannot seem to communicate how the character in the book or picture feels. When asked, he often tells the teacher how he himself feels, regardless of the story or the picture.

For example, Joey was reading about Nathan Hale, and they got to the end of the story — you know, when he is hanged by the British. They story was pretty matter-of-fact: he is taken to the gallows, regrets having one life to give for his country, and is hanged. There was an accompanying picture showing him with the rope around his neck. The teacher asked him how Nathan Hale felt.

Joey said he felt happy.

According to the teacher, this was the wrong answer, and that Joey said “happy” because Joey was happy, because reading was almost over, and so was the book.

I have another theory.

See, the problem is that Joey not only has empathy — he understands how people around him are feeling, and understands they might be feeling something different from what he himself is feeling — he also has the next step, compassion. When someone else is hurting, Joey gets upset. With a scraped knee, he knows what to do: go give the person a hug and ask if they are ok, and say comforting things. If that hurt is something more subtle, he has no idea what to do. The teacher is upset — I don’t know why — what do I do? So his reaction can be unexpected.

How can he have empathy for people around him, yet seem unable to communicate empathy towards characters in books and pictures?

Well, how do we tell how a character is feeling? Perhaps we think about the details of the story, what we have read, and know that those things would make us feel a certain way if they happened to us. We look at the face of the person in the picture, or the way they are shown holding their bodies. We pick up on cues we have been taught to look for- scrunching eyebrows, smiles or grimaces, a look in the eyes.

We know many autistic people have trouble picking up on these cues. So how can they have empathy?

Did you see how those two sentences didn’t go together? What does “pick up on cues” have logically to do with “having empathy”? Logically, there is a problem there: picking up on cues does not cause you to have empathy or not. They are two separate things entirely.

Joey is picking up on cues of some kind — he knows how people around him are feeling. Sometimes he is even hyper-sensitive to how others are feeling, and it overwhelms him — especially if he does not know how to react to those emotions or those people. My theory is that he is picking up on different cues than the ones we expect: ones that don’t translate well into words and pictures. A still picture doesn’t have a cue he uses to determine how the person is feeling. A simple set of sequential facts to relate it back to an experience he has never had (Joey has never been executed for being a spy, for example) is meaningless to him in determining how another is feeling.

But he has just been asked a question about feelings, and he knows- he has been hard-trained- that he must answer. So he gives the questioner an answer — the one that pops into his head as ready and relevant would be his own feeling.

Though with Nathan Hale, I am a little dubious. After all, the man just said he regretted he had only one life to give for his country — the logical leap that he might be happy about being executed is not a terribly gaping one for a third grader to make. I’ve had college students do worse.

About the Author: Joeymom is the mother of two boys; her son Joey has a diagnosis of classic autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, Life with Joey, and is reprinted here by permission.


The Empathy Conundrum: Ethics, Emotion, and Autistic Cognition

by Anne Corwin

Two Capacities, One Word?
The word “empathy” gets bandied about a lot these days in popular media concerning brain and behavior-related topics.

Specifically, I’ve noticed that articles about either autism or sociopathy and criminal behavior tend to discuss a supposed “lack of empathy” in autistics – and in the sorts of people who like to torture animals for fun.

It is of great concern to me that the notion of particular kinds of people lacking empathy is so often brought up in a muddled, careless manner. I realize that most people writing about empathy and “mirror neurons” these days probably don’t mean any harm by it, but that doesn’t make the potential consequences of their writing any less worth pointing out and discussing critically.

First of all, I have noticed that when most people use the word empathy, they’re actually referring to one of two very different things:

(1) The capacity of a person to “read” culture-typical social signals, respond in expected/predictable ways to common situations and experiences, and engage in a certain amount of “social learning” via particular kinds of imitation.

(2) The capacity of a person to feel emotions “on behalf” of others, to care about others, and to feel compelled toward ethical behavior.

I hardly think the two capacities described in (1) and (2) above could really be confused for each other, or assumed to mean the exact same thing, by anyone putting any actual thought into their discussion of what “empathy” means. And yet, it is not unusual to find people switching from talking about capacity (1) to talking about capacity (2) without any explicit indication that they are doing so, or any apparent understanding of what it might mean to conflate the two.

For a particularly egregious example of this, consider the Empathy Quotient quiz. Based on some of the theories and writings of British autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen (not to be confused with his cousin, comedic actor Sacha Baron-Cohen), the Empathy Quotient quiz includes such items as:

– I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.

– I am very blunt, which some people take to be rudeness, even though this is unintentional.

– I can pick up quickly if someone says one thing but means another.

Notice that the three quiz items above all pertain to interpretation (1) of what “empathy” means.

Rather than having anything to do with whether a person actually cares about other people (or animals), these items all have to do with how someone might “operate” in the social arena. These items may indeed suggest areas where someone might experience social difficulty as a result of not functioning, thinking, or perceiving in a culture-typical manner, but they don’t say anything about a person’s capacity to respond emotionally to situations affecting other people. Nor do they say anything about a person’s capacity to behave ethically or hold and adhere to principles.

Now, consider the next example set of items from the quiz:

– It upsets me to see an animal in pain.

– Seeing people cry doesn’t really upset me.

– I get upset if I see people suffering on news programmes.

These items, in contrast to the previous three, are directly concerned with a person’s internal, affective response to the suffering of others. Not with how the person “comes across” socially, or how good the person is at quickly noticing and responding to indirect communication and/or typical social cues. And that’s a very important distinction to be aware of.

But the “empathy quotient” quiz doesn’t make this distinction. Nor, apparently, do many people who write articles about autism in the popular press.

The Empathy Quotient quiz designates scores of 0 – 32 as “low”, and suggests that “most people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20”.

I took this quiz this evening myself, and scored 18. So, while I don’t put any actual stock in this quiz as a diagnostic instrument (its wording is extremely ambiguous in some places, among other problems), I certainly can’t deny that my score does correlate with what my ASD diagnosis would supposedly predict.

But what does that actually mean, if anything?

My Own “Empathic Deficit”
I initially encountered the concept of “theory of mind” (and how it supposedly pertains to empathy) back when I was in the midst of the evaluation of my developmental history and cognitive/behavioral style that ended up leading to my diagnosis. At first, the idea that I might have “empathic difficulties” seemed to make sense and explain a lot of things about my pervasive and ongoing social difficulties.

After all:

– I have been called “insensitive” and “oblivious to other people” on numerous occasions.

– I was reprimanded at the first two jobs I worked at for such things as “sweeping the floor too much” (meaning I was focusing too intently on cleaning and not intently enough on greeting customers), and coming across as aloof or even rude.

– I have trouble spontaneously answering questions like “How are you?” (I actually have the comic below posted outside my cubicle at work).

– I have often been accused of missing the “emotional tone” of a conversation or situation — e.g., my third grade teacher was once lecturing me about something (I can’t remember what), and at one point she used a funny word, at which point I burst into laughter. I was then made to write “I will not laugh while I am being reprimanded” on a piece of paper multiple times.

– I have always found most social situations to be overwhelming and confusing (particularly if there are large groups involved).

– I have trouble keeping track of which people of my acquaintance know which pieces of information, and sometimes I get confused at the fact that things that seem “obvious” to me are not, in fact, “common knowledge”.

– I also remember one of my childhood nicknames being “Miss Contrary”, as I often appeared to “insist” on doing everything in my own way as opposed to a way I was shown or told — and while I will certainly admit to stubbornness as a character trait (it runs in the family), the fact of the matter is that I often can’t match people’s movements in learning to perform tasks. (I’m a lot better at figuring out how to operate devices and accomplish physical tasks by studying and experimenting with the relevant objects myself than by watching other people performing the tasks and copying their movements, and I often find that the presence of other people when I’m trying to figure out how to do something hurts more than it helps.)

In light of all that, it seemed perfectly logical for me to figure that the popular literature conflating autistic cognition with a “lack of empathy” made sense. Until I was identified as being on the autistic spectrum, I’d tended to assume that I was “normal” and that other people were all weird and unpredictable. But learning that I might have “empathy deficits” turned the tables on that assumption, and for a while I found the notion that my social difficulties were due to such deficits quite useful as an explanatory tool.

Carelessness and Confusion
But as I read more (in seeking to learn how to better function in the world given the particulars of my neurology), I started to realize that empathy was a massively important and significant topic in the estimation of numerous scientists and laypeople. Empathy, according to many, is a key part of what makes humans “human” — or perhaps more generally, what makes any sentient creature worthy and capable of membership in civilization.

So while I was (and am) perfectly okay with acknowledging my difficulties, I found myself becoming more and more distressed at how autistics were described in the media, particularly with regard to how tragic and horrible (or “bad for society”) our existence was supposed to be, largely on account of our supposed empathic failures.

What’s more, I observed that in quite a few of the discussions of autism I came across, “having a conscience” was being conflated or confused with “demonstrating and rapidly being able to interpret typical social signals”.

I don’t think this is the kind of linguistic carelessness anyone can afford to just ignore or brush aside, regardless of how naive it might be. Ignorance, and the perpetuation of misconceptions about what it is actually like to be and experience the world as a certain kind of person, can have real and serious consequences for people who actually happen to be the kind of person in question.

My concern is that if autistic people are culturally defined as “lacking empathy”, and if people aren’t exceedingly careful to define their terms (which they often aren’t), and if “empathy” is widely considered to be a precursor to conscience, then we’re basically being written off straight from the get-go.

And when people are written off, there’s very little motivation to think about extending basic human rights to them, let alone (gasp) learning to better accommodate and integrate different sorts of people into society.

An example of what I mean by the confusion/conflation of “typical social skills” with “emotional response” can be found in the words of a commenter on a recent BoingBoing post referring to the Online Movement for autistics’ rights. This commenter states that:

Mirror neurons allow us to literally feel someone else’s pain. When we see someone hurt themselves, or see someone who is clearly emotionally upset, mirror neurons are triggered in the observer’s mind that are analogous to the other individual’s mental process.

This also allows us to learn through observation. You see someone going through a step-by-step process, and mirror neurons allow us to learn by having analogous neurons triggered.

But since autistics don’t have the same mirror neural activity, they don’t learn the same way, and they also don’t have the same empathetic response.

The commenter quoted above is making what I see as the essential mistake in his appraisal of what it means to be autistic. He takes a particular mechanism by which learning may take place, notes that this mechanism may be difficult for (or inaccessible to) autistics, and jumps seamlessly to the conclusion that this has something to do with “being able to feel someone else’s pain”.

And it is my assertion that this assertion is invalid and scientifically untenable.

Different, Not Ethically Bankrupt!
A lot of discussions about autism, regardless of where they occur, seem to get stuck on the central dilemma of what autism actually is — that is, what it means for a person to be autistic.

Do you go strictly by the DSM-IV definition? The ICD-10? What about all those people claiming that autism is caused by vaccines, or television, or French fries, or “yeast overgrowth”? Is autism a “set of behaviors” that, if a person can suppress them, will indicate that the person has been “cured” (this is certainly what the behaviorists would have you believe)? Are autism and Asperger’s the same thing, or two different things? Does Asperger’s even exist? Is autism more easily identified according to a person’s weaknesses, or according to a person’s strengths?

Truly, the sheer range of questions on this subject boggles the mind. I can certainly see how people end up getting confused, and believe me, I was pretty confused myself about the whole thing when I first started learning about what it meant for a person to be autistic. But over time I’ve come to settle on something of a cogent idea in this regard. And that idea is the fact that as near as I can tell, autism isn’t so much about what a person does as about how a person does it.

It is quite apparent that autistics do tend to learn, think, and perceive differently than nonautistics do. There’s good solid research backing this stuff up in the cognitive science arena, and I would dearly love to see it get more attention, seeing as the field of autism research has too long been dominated by the ghosts of radical behaviorism and psychoanalysis (and has of late been further polluted by opportunistic quackery, antivaccination pseudoscience, and homeopathic nincompoopery).

I agree very much with researcher Michelle Dawson (who works with the University of Montreal) who frequently and firmly asserts that autistics deserve the same high standards of science and ethics as nonautistic people can generally expect to enjoy. And this, to me, means that “deficit model” biases have no place in serious research. The best ways to help autistics — who can certainly sometimes have extreme difficulties with daily living and other skills — are much more likely to be found if corners aren’t cut scientifically or ethically, and if the focus is on understanding the autistic brain as opposed to merely “remediating” it or trying to “prevent” it.

This is not an attempt to be cute. This is not an attempt to “romanticize” autism or the lives of the many individuals who fight in vain to find a place, a community, a school, etc., that can balance their needs with the needs of the cognitive/perceptual/functional majority. This is not “political correctness”.

This is, frankly, concern. And a little bit of desperation, perhaps, as the assumptions frequently made about the capacities (for thought, for feeling, for happiness, for a worthwhile existence) of autistic people appear to run so deep at times that I can scarcely imagine how we as a culture might effectively root them out.

Empathy is only one area where particularly damaging assumptions tend to get made. There are many, many more, and I don’t know if I could ever effectively cover them all in the depth they require. But empathy is an important subject — an important word — to hash through and define and consider in the relevant contexts.

The Bottom Line
I’m almost beginning to suspect that some folks might actually believe that in order to have an internal, affective response to another person’s suffering or delight, and in order to engage in ethical behavior (which should never be confused with, or conflated with, “nice” behavior), a person must also consistently display the ability to read and respond to typical social cues in expected ways very fast in real-time.

And if anyone gets anything at all out of reading this, I would hope that it’s some degree of reassurance that this is not, in fact, the case.

Autism is not a “personality type”, and it is certainly not just another word for “being a jerk”. It is a neurodevelopmental difference that, according to the best science I can find, primarily affects the cognition and processing of low-level information. This difference in turn can influence what skills and types of interests a person might end up having, and it may make a person aware of different details in the environment than the nonautistic person would notice, and it can also contribute to documented patterns of strength and weakness.

It can mean we use body language differently, that we don’t make typical eye contact, and that we push the boundaries of social norms as far as how we express happiness, distress, or other emotions. It can mean we use and relate to language in an idiosyncratic or peculiar-seeming manner. And so on, and so forth.

Consequently, the autistic person can sometimes appear aloof, uninterested in social interaction (and may in fact be uninterested in culture-typical dominant forms of social interplay), unpredictable, “difficult”, insensitive, or any of a number of other adjectives that skirt around the notion of “empathic deficit”.

But this does not mean that we hate people. It does not mean we see people as disposable objects, or that we are somehow like sociopaths.

I’m not saying all autistics are going to seem “nice” or “sensitive” once you get to know us — I can be a pretty harsh character myself on occasion, particularly if I encounter people whining about how all the evil “disability extremists” and “political correctness zealots” are conspiring to take over the world and drain Your Tax Dollars(TM) so they can sit around all day watching sitcoms and producing hordes of deaf, autistic, and possibly even gay babies. If you insist on expressing racist, pseudoscientific, sexist, homophobic, or ableist attitudes, you will raise my ire, and the results will not be cute.

I may not be able to tell when someone is “mildly irritated” or “subtly upset” easily (particularly if I’m trying to keep track of a conversation I’m having in real-time with that person), but if someone is crying or obviously in pain, I am powerfully (sometimes overwhelmingly) affected by it.

Heck, I can’t even stand to see robots (fictional or real) being smashed or otherwise abused. I used to hide my eyes as a kid while watching Short Circuit 2 during the scene where the robotic protagonist is beaten by a group of thugs (which you can actually watch here if you’re curious, but be warned that it is extremely upsetting and may very well make you cry).

So, I don’t personally have any doubt that I at least have whatever basic circuitry is necessary for a person to care about other beings. I don’t have any inclination to believe that autistic neurology, regardless of whether you want to talk about “Asperger’s”-labeled people, or “PDD”-labeled people, or those with labels of “Autistic Disorder”, in any way, shape, or form negates a person’s capacity for care, for love, or for ethics. And I firmly believe that if the future is to be an open, welcoming place for all the various forms that may come about due to choice or accident or experiment, it is vital not to confuse charisma with conscience.

Links: Autistics (and Family Members of Autistics) On Empathy

– Bev at Asperger Square 8 describes her experiences in Empathy Class, and illustrates a few scenarios that aren’t necessarily what they might seem.

– Autistic self-advocate Joel Smith discusses how it is certainly possible to be autistic and a caring person at the same time.

– ABFH at Whose Planet Is It Anyway? offers an “alternative” version of the Empathy Quotient — one might perhaps say a revised version!

– Autistic self-advocate Jim Sinclair offers Thoughts About Empathy.

– Amanda Baggs writes quite a lot worth reading here regarding bullying, exclusion, and the “we’re not like those people!” phenomenon that underlies so much of the actually pernicious empathic failure that is not constrained to any individual or named pathology, but endemic throughout society in certain manifestations.

– Temple Grandin, an author and professor of animal science who also happens to be autistic, notes an interview on NPR how she is “frustrated by the inability of normal [nonautistic] people to have sensory empathy. They can’t seem to acknowledge these different realities because they’re so far away from their own experiences.”

– Special education teacher (and parent to autistic son) Mike Stanton discusses a pair of autistic artists and muses, “Why should there be a connection between [neurotypical] social cognition and moral values?”

– Lisa at Life In The New Republic describes how her 12-year-old autistic son, Brendan, upon realizing that the stuffed animal he’d just picked up did not light up when squeezed (as it was advertised to do), asserted that he did not want to return the toy because “…he was worried about what would happen to it if he took it back, that no-one would love it.”

(NOTE: Links have been listed here to provide a range of perspectives on empathy as it pertains to autism and human morality/conscience/cognition in general. Please note that the opinions expressed by the individuals linked are theirs alone, and my listing them here does not imply that I always agree with all these people on everything. I probably agree with many of them on a lot of things, but there is no person I agree with 100% of the time).

About the Author: Anne Corwin is an autistic woman who describes herself as “an engineer, science geek, sf/fantasy fan, amateur artist, cat appreciator, hyperlexic infovore, and maker of various and random quasi-functional objects.” This piece first appeared on her blog, Existence is Wonderful, and is reprinted here by permission.


Lullaby by Bearhug: Goodnight Baby

by Danette

Last week Little Bitty was having one of his bedtime meltdowns, screaming hysterically and carrying on. I took him upstairs and laid down next to him, hoping at that point that he’d soon wear himself out (ha!) because nothing seemed to be calming him down. Nothing new, but still tiring.

Bearhug was there too (Cuddlebug was sleeping, or trying to sleep, in another room), and usually crying upsets him, but that night, he did the sweetest thing. He started singing quietly to LB, a little lullaby that he made up just for him. I don’t remember all the words, other than “goodnight, baby;” honestly, it was too loud to hear much. But it just made my heart melt to hear him singing so sweetly to his baby brother, trying to help him calm down. Eventually he did relax (maybe the singing helped, although it never seems to work when I sing to him, hmm…) and they both fell asleep.

***UPDATE*** Bearhug came in while I was writing this and asked me what I was doing. When I told him, he told me he remembered the words to his song and said he’d sing it again so I could write them down. So, here it is:

“Goodnight, baby” by Bearhug (for Little Bitty)

Little baby, little baby, this is a song for you
Little baby, little baby, please go to sleep
Little baby, little baby, I love you so much
Little baby, little baby, just go to sleep
Little baby, little baby, goodnight little baby
Little baby, this is the end of your song
Goo-oood night! (whispers) goodnight baby

While he was at it, he told me he had another song for LB and wanted me to write that one down too, so here it is (this one is actually kind of funny IMO, still sweet though):

“Nighttime little baby” by Bearhug (for Little Bitty)

It’s midnight, little baby
You’ve got to go to sleep
Little baby, little baby, it’s in the middle of night
Midnight, midnight means that it’s the middle of the night
Little baby, you have to go to sleep
You need energy for tomorrow, please go to sleep
I want to go to sleep, please go to sleep
Little baby, little baby, please go to sleep
Little baby, little baby, I’ll be back in a minute
And when I come back I’ll bring you a cupcake
Little baby, this will make you better
Now you’re about to sleeeep
Little baby, little baby, you’re about to sleep
Just one last thing, I’ll give for you
And this is the only thing, here’s a teddy bear
Little baby, little baby, please go to sleep
Shhhh (whispers) the baby is sleeping
Goodnight, baby!

About the Author: Danette is the mother of three boys on the autism spectrum: Little Bitty, Bearhug, and Cuddlebug. Little Bitty has a diagnosis of moderate autism; Bearhug and Cuddlebug share a diagnosis of high-functioning autism. This piece originally appeared on her blog, Everyday Adventures, and is reprinted here by permission.

Chasing Tails

by Brenda Rothman

Jack is chasing the cats.  Again.  Sometimes, he’s looking for something to do and can’t come up with anything.  Sometimes, he’s angry.  Sometimes, his tummy hurts.  He’s feeling something that he can’t identify and he’s overwhelmed.  So he chases the cats and they run.  Immediate feedback.  He pulls their tail or squeezes them or lies down on them.  They meow.  More feedback.  When they struggle to get away or yowl, he gets giddy.  He laughs hysterically.  He gets overexcited.  He gets dizzy.  You’d think he just finished riding the best roller coaster ever.  Or bought new shoes.  On sale.  That came with a free handbag.  Heh-heh-heh-uh-hyh.

Phew.  Sorry.

So, he’s running and hitting and laughing.  Having the best time hurting the cats.  Which means he’ll become the boy who tortures animals.  Which means, of course, that he will be the next serial killer.  Dang.  There goes college.

Except it’s not true.  Screech.  He’s not having fun.  Yeah, I know he’s laughing and it looks fun.  But kids with autism have moments of dysregulation.  They hit up against a feeling, pain, emotion, or thought that overwhelms them.  And they spin out of control.  Dysregulation makes them dizzy, overexcited, and giggly.

When Jack was little and he heard someone cry on the playground, he laughed.  It wasn’t because he thought it was funny.  It wasn’t because he lacked empathy – though I’m sure doctors will tell you that.  Geez.  Helpful. Really.

No, he was scared.  Remember, this is the boy with superstrong ears.  Babies or kids crying happens suddenly, without warning.  Jack was overwhelmed.  It came out in hysterical laughter.  I’m sure those moms thought I was the world’s worst parent for not chastising him.  But ya know.  Here.  Have a brownie.  Love ya.  For real.

That giddiness when Jack is chasing the cats is the signal.  It really means I’m outta control and I can’t stop.  It means I’m too overwhelmed to communicate.  It means I’m dazed and confused.  It means I need help.

Your child is telling you, “I need you to help me calm down and regulate myself.”

I mean, that’s what autism is about, right?  It’s about overwhelming emotions.  About communication.  About dysregulation.

Imagine for a minute that I misread this giddiness as a behavior problem.  Like, say, any other parent on the planet.  And imagine for a minute that it makes me mad.  I know, hard to believe.  Go with it.  If I yelled NO or grabbed him or made a big show of anger or sadness or marched him to time-out … it would send him over the edge.  Jack would get giddier, even more hysterical, and he won’t hear a thing I say.  Because he is already out of control.  Which means I’d calmly give him a lecture about the moral wrong he is committing.  Which he won’t be able to hear it in that moment.  Because he’s spun out of control.   Which means I would be convinced that my child couldn’t comprehend basic things and actually enjoyed hurting others.

And it wouldn’t be true.

And it won’t help because it’s not that he won’t stop himself when he’s dysregulated; he can’t.  He needs my calm, gentle help.

And so do the cats.  Dang it.  So do the cats.

About the Author: Brenda Rothman, the mother of an autistic son, writes about autism, parenting, and shoes on her blog Mama Be Good Brenda is also on Twitter @mamabegood, where she enjoys margatweetas, and on Facebook at, where she spills coffee creamer.

All images are the exclusive property of Brenda Rothman and Mama Be Good and are protected under the United States and International Copyright laws. The images may not be reproduced, copied, transmitted or manipulated without the written permission of Brenda Rothman at Mama Be Good. © 2009 – 2011 Mama Be Good.

Chasing Tails first appeared on Brenda’s blog and is reprinted here with permission.


The Aspie and Empathy

by Gavin Bollard

A little while ago, when I was being particularly difficult, my wife said to me, “That’s right. You’re an Aspie, so you can’t empathize.”

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

It’s a well documented fact that women are empathic creatures while men are problem-solvers. You can read all about this in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray. This isn’t an Aspie book, but it is good reading for Aspies because it contains a lot of useful information about how and why people react the way they do. It’s also a good book for anyone in a long-term relationship, because you fall into traps and stereotypes after a few years.

Now… back to the point.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t really empathize well. Without realizing it, I would say things that hurt people’s feelings. (I still do.) The Aspie doesn’t really “think on the fly” during conversations. There’s a delay, and we often don’t pick up on non-verbal or non-obvious cues that we’re hurting someone.

That said, Aspies are the first to notice when people are obviously upset or hurt.

Obvious and Physical Hurt
When people are physically rather than verbally hurt, Aspies tend to be quite concerned. I’ve seen that behaviour in my eldest child at school and at play. I’ve also seen it in myself. It’s not that we don’t understand emotional hurt, but rather that we have more difficulty determining that it has happened.

In adult and teenage Aspies, there’s an extra dimension to concern for others, and the Aspie needs to learn that there are times not to become involved. This is particularly important when, for example, the Aspie is displaying obvious concern for other adults, particularly those of the opposite gender.

Such concern could easily be misinterpreted as romantic interest, and this could lead to unintended entanglements, or if either person is already “entangled,” open hostility from partners arising from jealousy.

Empathy in Its Truest Form
When an Aspie is listening, concentrating, or deliberately trying to be empathic, he or she achieves a level of empathy well beyond what neurotypical people experience.

For example, when watching a movie, I find myself emoting with the characters to a huge degree, even when they’re CGI, cartoons, or fluffy muppets. I can’t help it. Often, when I’m explaining things to my kids, I’ll get a lump in my throat because I’ll suddenly remember something about my childhood that links to the moment.

Empathy with the Non-Human and Non-Living
This is where it gets weird, but I wouldn’t trade the gifts of Asperger’s for anything.

In Asperger’s, empathy doesn’t just mean “put yourself in my shoes.” It means “become me,” “feel as I feel,” and “see as I see.” I’m sure that this is, at least, part of the reason why Aspies are often good at acting.

When I have a reason to (usually in problem-solving), I can see and feel as the non-human and non-living objects do. Rather than using one of my own examples of empathy for non-humans, I’ll direct you to Dr. Temple Grandin’s Web Page. Dr. Grandin’s Asperger’s condition helped her empathize with the experience of animals in order to design a revolutionary and humane cattle handling system.

Now, empathy with non-living things may seem bizarre at first, but I have a good example.

I’m in the information technology field, and I do a lot of development and troubleshooting with computers. One way in which my Asperger’s helps me is in the determination of what is “visible” or “known” to the code.

In problem-solving situations, I’m frequently telling my colleagues. “Hang on, lets just walk this one through.” I then pretend to be a piece of computer code and say “Okay… Now we’re going through subroutine x and, at this point, I don’t know about y.”

Invariably, it results in a change to the computer code to make the application work.

I used to have problems understanding why my colleagues would look at me strangely instead of joining me on the trip, but now that I understand my Asperger’s condition, I just take this as a gift and run with it.

Closing Comments
Aspies don’t lack empathy. We have oodles of it, and not just for human beings. If an Aspie has trouble understanding your emotional state, it’s probably because it’s not visible enough for him or her to start looking deeper.

Perhaps some hints would help at that stage.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, and is reprinted here by permission.


Empathy and Autism are Like Superman and Clark Kent

by Stuart Duncan

Have you ever noticed that you never see Superman and Clark Kent in the same place at the same time? That’s rather odd, isn’t it?

They both exist, although you only see Superman from time to time where as you see Clark Kent quite often. They definitely do seem quite different though… Superman holds his shoulders up high, stands tall… seems to handle people well. Clark Kent on the other hand tends to slouch, keep his head down and isn’t exactly the coolest person in the group.

I got to thinking about it, if my son was that guy… then empathy would be his Superman persona and his Autistic traits would be his Clark Kent.

Clark Kent

My wife and I have had a very trying couple of weeks… mounting stresses over mounting stresses. Nothing life threatening, we still have our health however, eventually, stresses have a way of breaking you down.

This is what happened to my wife. Eventually, one day, it became too much and she began to cry.

As I held her, my two sons sat on the couch… playing games.

After a couple of minutes, Tyler, my 3 year old without Autism, put down his game and came to us. He put his arms around us and asked his mommy what was wrong. “Mommy, why are you crying?” he asked.

Meanwhile, there on the couch sat my little Clark Kent. He knows his mom is crying. He knows that there must be something wrong, but he doesn’t even give us a second look. He just sat there, playing his game.

Superman Logo


From time to time, I get to see the superhero emerge… when he’s needed.

Most of the time, it’s for his little brother. When Tyler is hurt, or upset… Cameron is there. Whether it be due to actual empathy or Cameron not wanting to get into trouble…. he consoles his little brother. It’s not always for one reason or another but it can be hard to tell which is which sometimes.

There’s something you need to understand about Clark Kent… even though all you can see is the slouched shoulders, lowered head and introverted nature, Superman is in there.

Clark Kent won’t stand up tall but he’s still bullet proof. You just can’t see it.

Looking for Superman

Nobody looks for Clark Kent. When someone is hurt or in need, nobody expects Clark Kent to answer. They want Superman. And it can be so disappointing when he doesn’t come.

When Cameron sat on that couch, it was disappointing that he didn’t come to his mother. Not surprising, but disappointing.

We are never upset by it though, never judging. We understand… we know… empathy is in there. Inside that little slouched boy with his head down, playing his game… Superman is in there.

He didn’t give us a second look… but he did look once. He did show his concern, in his way.

When you don’t know that Clark Kent is Superman, you don’t look for Superman within him. But when you do know, you can see it plain as day. You no longer see the glasses or the posture… you see Superman, in a disguise. You see him look to the danger and make the decision to show up as Superman, or to let it be as Clark Kent.

I see empathy in my son. I see it every day and I see him make those decisions every day.

Never assume something isn’t there just because it’s well disguised. When he’s ready, Superman will be there.

About the Author: Stuart Duncan is the father of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Stuart Duncan: Autism from a Father’s Point of View, and is reprinted here by permission.

Myth: Individuals with ASD Lack Empathy

by Jeanne Holverstott

If I’ve been asked once, I’ve been asked a million times: “Why do people with ASD lack empathy?” Mind you, people are not asking me IF empathy is absent. No, they believe that it is missing, without a doubt. Unfortunately, for the questioners, this issue stirs up as much annoyance and passion as questions about manipulation do. (I have an old blog on that issue, if you care to read that rant.) John Robison wrote a beautiful chapter about empathy in Look Me in the Eye, a text not at my immediate disposal right now to use to help me. So, I decided that a fight today answers that ever-so-common question.

Mike has dealt with others taking advantage of him in the worst of ways. He’s become unsurprisingly cynical, guarded, and defensive at times. Unfortunately, he’s too nice and too rule-governed about in/appropriate behavior to stand up for himself — the irony of AS. (Downtrodden by others, so many Aspies won’t break their personal rules to right a situation. In fact, it wouldn’t be “right.”)

I transitioned him into a group where he would practice being a role-model, a leader, a self-advocate. Today, a fight broke out in Mike’s group. Several small issues snowballed into one of the guys, Joe, trying to fight four other guys, including Mike. Mike’s response was interesting. He stayed removed until Joe came after ……….. me. Then, Mike grabbed Joe’s arms, put them behind his back, and pushed him to my couch. It was so quick, so skilled, so painless for Joe that I was shocked. Joe tried to continue fighting, but Mike held him still. In a rather tv-worthy moment, Mike’s hand was on Joe’s head, as Joe thrashed and thrashed and never came close to touching Mike.

“Are you done?” is all Mike asked.

After 40 minutes of processing through everyone’s version of what happened, the guys left the office as calmly as I could have hoped. Mike hung around, asking me if I wanted to buy any magazines from him for school. Then, Mike said, “I’d never let him hurt you, okay?”

“Thank you, Mike.”

The “thank you” wasn’t just about my safety, or that of others, it was for standing up for himself, for his group mates, and for me and against those who doubt his understanding of others.

About the author: Jeanne Holverstott is the autism spectrum specialist with Responsive Centers for Psychology and Learning. She has worked with children on the spectrum for ten years in a variety of settings and capacities, including as a paraeducator, home therapist, teacher, home provider, and community-based specialist. This piece first appeared on her blog, A Shade unDifferent, and is reprinted here by permission.


Autism and Empathy: My Daughter Rachel

by DRs Are The Best

We’ve been noticing something recently. Rachel really loves her brothers, Simon in particular. She has always been sensitive to his feelings, and they have always demonstrated what I call a “twin bond.” They only have to glance at each other, and they seem to have a full, detailed conversation. We have never been able to scold Simon in front of her — not because of the noise, but because it meant her brother was in trouble. I had thought that part of that was the unexpected nature of this — Simon getting scolded is outside of her control — but for the last few weeks, we’re starting to see that may not be the case, at least not in full.

A new favorite television show is Super Why. We watch it on PBS Kids’ Sprout as well as on our local public television station. She seems to be obsessed with the episode focusing on Jack and the Beanstalk because the “problem” they are trying to solve is resolving the main character’s little sister’s temper tantrum. “Joy” is crying. Screaming. She’s having a “HUMONGOUS tantrum.” Rachel has been walking around asking, “What’s the matter, Joy?” or suggesting offering a bottle to Joy to make her feel better. I’ve also been receiving notes from her teacher explaining that she has been more emotional in school lately when another student is upset. She also gets upset. She tries to cry, and is often successful.

I know this may seem strange to say, but I don’t think of this as a negative development. I think this is evidence that she is trying to determine how to express empathy. defines empathy as “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” I was always concerned that, because of her autism diagnosis, she might never fully be able to express or experience empathy. But she is proving me wrong lately.

I created and administer a Facebook page (We Care About Someone With Autism). Yesterday, I chose to have a day-long topic discussion about autism and empathy. The theory that an individual with autism cannot experience empathy was one of the first myths that I was exposed to when we first began our journey into the autism world. We are obviously seeing that is not the case, at least in Rachel. I was wondering what others had to say on the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see and learn that others often see the same behaviors. The biggest difference is that these children often need to learn how to express it effectively, as this skill is one that is often lacking. I have been addressing this issue by telling Rachel to ask the “sad” person, “Why are you so sad?” I’ve only been doing this for a few days, so it’s too soon to see if this will help to resolve the problem that we are currently experiencing. But I wouldn’t really call it a problem — I’d just call it a development.

But Rachel will always feel something special for her twin brother!

About the Author: DRs Are The Best is the mother of three children, including her twins, Simon and Rachel, who share a diagnosis of classic autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, My Family’s Experience with Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.