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.
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.