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.

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10 thoughts on “The Aspie and Empathy

  1. Caitlin says:

    Gavin, while most of your post does resonate with me, the assertion that women are natural empathizers and men natural problem-solvers just propagates another harmful stereotype (and one that is particularly hurtful to me as a female Aspie, and to others like me). See Rachel’s excellent critique of the Extreme Male Brain theory (http://www.journeyswithautism.com/2009/07/02/a-critique-of-the-extreme-male-brain-theory-of-autism/), and this article debunking the male/female thinking styles myth (http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/10/28/the_difference_myth/?page=full)– lots of other studies, books, and articles out there too.

    • Tara Kaberry says:

      I would suggest, from years of teaching preschoolers, that in general girls are definitely more empathetic. I cannot count the number of times if someone was hurt in the playground that a circle of girls would appear. The boys… not so much.. the playground held much more appeal. It might be a generalization but that’s probably so for good reason.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hi Gavin,

    I have to agree with Caitlin’s point. I don’t think that gender attributes are divided quite so cleanly from birth. In our culture, women are socialized to be more empathetic than men, and men are socialized to be the “fix-it” guys. I’ve never been able to accept the idea that one can separate inborn traits from socialized traits; everyone is born into culture with all its imperatives.

    On a different note, I really love your description of seeing things from the point of view of the code. That’s very imaginative perspective taking!

  3. Jayn says:

    The coding thing makes me wonder if your co-workers understand how code even corks. I’ve once heard someone say that the problem with computers is that they’re “very, very smart, very,very fast”. It may seem like they’re doing amazing things, but it’s really just a lot of very simple things that compound into complex things. I mean, there’s a reason computers use binary.

    I’m no coder, but I still know that computers can only do what they’re told to do–they’re not gong to spontaneously burst out line-dancing to rap music. If you can’t see things from the POV of the code…how can you code?

    • Jayn says:

      This is the second comment today I’ve effed up without an edit button. I meant to say ‘very, very dumb,’ not ‘smart’.

  4. usethebrainsgodgiveyou says:

    >>>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.<<<

    Exactly. THIS needs to be studied…not what one supposedly lacks. Many parents know they had to be very careful how they projected their emotions, because their kids pick them up. Their kids are very very sensitive to it.

    You learn you've got to let things go for love of your child.

  5. Chromesthesia says:

    great points. I hate Men are from mars though because I can never identify with that guy’s version of women. Also, I want a cave. Why do men get one? I need a cave to rest after being in society all day long.
    I suspect I’m on the spectrum and I can’t pass by someone with a broken finger without my fingers hurting.

  6. Caitlin,

    My apologies for the offensive stereotyping. When I first wrote this article (and I’m stunned… it was four years ago), I was reasonably fresh off John Gray’s book. My wife and I had just survived a very troubled period in our relationship (about 5 years earlier) and I was reading everything I could to help us get our relationship fully repaired.

    I had been stunned by the things that John’s book said because they lined up with many of the things my wife was telling me. She wanted me to sit there are say “oh… you poor thing” rather than attempt to problem-solve. John’s book said me that it was a man/woman thing and I was a man. I didn’t look for further evidence.

    If I was writing that paragraph today, it would be quite different. For a start, it wouldn’t be a “fact”. I’m surprised by how much my opinions have changed in the last few years and it’s mainly down to people like yourself and Rachel challenging my ideas. I’m very grateful that you do this because it gives me a chance to grow as a person.

    In many ways, MAFM/WAFV is still a great and relevant book but it’s not so much about the differences between men and woman as about the differences between people in general. Some men are empathizers and some women are solvers. sometimes we’re both depending upon the nature of the problem.

    The possibility that many of the traits attributed to men in the book could apply to people on the spectrum in general is worrying because it gives weight to Simon Baron-Cohen’s extreme male brain theory which I feel is not only incorrect but is also very offensive to female aspies.

    Sadly, at the end of the day, the best we can do is point at stereotypes and say “these are common”. Sterotypes exist for a reason, they’re placeholders in areas where there is no established truth. They’re an easy way to suggest correlation or trends and to put labels on people but they are never the “only truth”. Only the individual can truly represent the individual.

  7. Madmother says:

    Seriouslt resonated with me.

    My son is very empathetic, far more than his younger NT brother.

    He also is a born actor.

    And as a woman, no offence taken, but I am the problem solver in our household, and the only woman.

  8. John Makin says:

    Interesting! Very interesting! I used to be a problem solver on computer programs and you are so right in what you say!
    I would liken it to my experiences, in languages I didn’t know or programs that I didn’t know; when I would start asking the programmer questions, just like yours and they would stop me and say “OK I know what I’ve done wrong” but they wouldn’t tell me what it was. hehehe

    I think you have put it so well when you say we become the person, animal or thing, because that is exactly how I feel.

    I would agree that we are good problem solvers BECAUSE we have the empathy to be able to experience the problem, to see the totality of it. vide Temple Grandins visualisations portrayed in her film.

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