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.

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3 thoughts on “Myth: Individuals with ASD Lack Empathy

  1. Rachel says:

    Wonderful story, Jeanne.

    I can really relate to Mike’s resistance to standing up for himself; I had a lot of trouble doing that as a young woman. Part of my personal code was to be kind to people and to not make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed in any way. It would hurt me inside to see people in distress, however minor. It was such a strong imperative that I’d have difficulty knowing how to respond when something distressing came my way.

    That changed some 20 years ago, on the day that a co-worker made an anti-Semitic comment in my presence. I was just flabbergasted and said nothing. A friend of mine who was there, an African-American man, said to me, “Why did you let him get away with that?” I said that I didn’t want to make the guy feel uncomfortable, to which my friend replied, “You didn’t want to make HIM feel uncomfortable? What about YOU?”

    That’s when I started to realize that there are some situations in which making people feel uncomfortable is a virtue. I have little difficulty standing up for myself now.

  2. Madmother says:

    Wonderful, wonderful example and explanation.

    I am about to fly off to my Aunt’s funeral. My 13 year old in the throes of puberty Aspie boy has spent last night helping me in any way he can. My 11 year old NT child watched TV.

    The last words my oldest said to me before heading to bed: “I wanted to help you Mum, I know this is really hard especially so close to losing Nanna.” No empathy? Pfft.

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