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.

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4 thoughts on “Thoughts on Empathy from a Woman with Asperger’s

  1. Hello Cecile,

    I find I am often choking back tears whenever there is a sad scene in a movie, or even a happy scene such as a couple deciding to get married or a child recovering from an illness.

    I need to censor my viewing because I can be plagued by sadness for weeks or months after seeing violence or tragedy. It seems as though I am being ripped wide open. And it is hard to get the images out of my mind.

    At the end of the film Dr. Zhivago, way back in the seventies, I had to remain in my seat whilst people exited because I was crying. My girlfriend, who was an extremely sensitive and compassionate person, was doing better than me! Oh, well, my mother was the same way, so I guess it’s in my genes.

    Also, in face-to-face situations, it takes me a while to process what is going on. I can relate to your “sense of something being wrong, but not knowing what it is.” So I may seem unresponsive, at first, to the person’s needs, and someone else may jump in there. Later on, I am the one who is devastated by the full impact of the situation, and the one who jumped in has left it behind.

    As you know, I’m one who can’t tolerate candid camera shows either. The embarrassment is painful.

  2. Nikki says:

    Hi Cecile, I relate to every word you wrote, I’m also a woman on the spectrum who cannot bear to witness anyone suffering pain or humiliation. I’m always being told I’m too serious and have no sense of humor.

    I really like your blog, you’ve worded many of my own thoughts.

  3. Amy says:

    There used to be a T.V. show here in the U.K. called ‘The Worst Week of my Life’. I had to leave the room when my parents watched it – I couldn’t handle all the feelings I was feeling for the poor main character. Generally I avoid movies that I think will be emotive, but using the techniques for turning off over-active empathy, that I’ve learned from Rose Rosetree’s book ‘BEcome the most Important Person in the Room’ have really helped. To the extent that I am now doing a counselling course and I don’t cry when my clients do. (You still feel bad for them, but it’s not helpful for them for their listener to start crying and taking the attention off their problems!)
    Anna Conlon wrote a review of the techniques as well.

  4. Thank you for expresssing this. I have been familiar with the research in Germany on those with lower barriers to emphathy, as being told you or those you know are cold, unable to read facial expressions, etc is distancing: cut off from your own life and mind.

    I share the extreme distress you mention at raw emotions, and lying. Empathetic identification has been a problem, but also so for animals in mid teens until now. A terrified mammal can and has overwhelmed me with emotion to the point of needing to leave or vomit – indeed, my first experience to the zoo was this, and the last my parents took me on.

    I do have pockets which confuse me even today in which I may laugh and find out that was inappropriate or simply no reaction, but having general empathy lacking is mislabelled, particularly in females.

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