Empathy: Aspies are Not Psychopaths

by Xanthe

Literature about Asperger’s is quick to assert that people with Asperger’s Syndrome lack empathy.  I find this cringe-worthy, especially when compared to psychopaths who are described as lacking empathy, too.  The psychopath enjoys making people suffer; the Aspie doesn’t. People on the autistic spectrum  are not psychopaths, and I find the comparison offensive.

Experts are now doing a U-turn and thinking people with Asperger’s actually have too much empathy, but can’t cope with how they feel, so they withdraw. They may not know how to express empathy in a socially acceptable way. I’m aware that I give off an indifferent and often unemotional exterior, but I am very sensitive inside. Part of that is for self-preservation, so I don’t attract bullies.

As a child, I recall being incredibly frightened when my father would lose his temper and shout in Dutch. I was frightened because he wasn’t his usual calm self, and I don’t like loud noises. Plus, I had no idea what I had done wrong – I assumed it was me that had done something wrong.

Anger became an emotion that I could not deal with as a child. I suspect my reaction to my father’s expressions of anger coupled with my strict Christian upbringing played a part. I spent my childhood and teens with a smile plastered to my face, and was always trying to be nice to people, even if they were mean to me.

I can’t recall being unable to interpret tone of voice like my son Xavier. I’ve been told that I would have acquired it – females acquire just enough social skills to “get by.” I remember watching a TV program about body language that I found enormously helpful. I used to wonder why someone I knew always curled their upper lip when they talked – I learned on the internet it was contempt/scorn.

My husband has coached me, in many situations, about people’s motivations – whether they are being manipulative or not. Sometimes, I’d become the scapegoat in a situation, and he was most supportive in helping me see that I didn’t act out of malice like the other party did. This was before we even knew about Asperger’s.

Sometimes, even he gets upset with me, because I use the wrong tone of voice or don’t respond the “right” way.

My first year away from home, I was flatting with other girls that I didn’t know. One was prickly to me, I think mainly because, at that stage, I was still a Christian. One day, she received a phone call and started crying. Apparently, someone she knew had died.  I felt bad for her but didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t sure if I should hug her, go and get someone to comfort her, or what. I asked if she would be okay. She was sitting on her bed, sobbing. I went to church feeling guilty, because I didn’t know what to do.

People with Asperger’s acquire social skills intellectually. Xavier has acquired some now, but it was weird when he had absolutely no comprehension of face expressions or tone of voice. It probably doesn’t help much that I have a rather neutral face expression (since I ditched the fake smile), even if I’m feeling angry.

It has sometimes led to frustration, especially when Xavier is insisting on joking around and being a clown when we are irritated with him.

I remember, one time, Leo was really upset by one of Xavier’s meltdowns. He was crying and left the house to take a walk to cool off.

Once Xavier had calmed down, I sat down next to him. “Do you realise your father was crying?” I said.

“I think, so,” Xavier said.

“How could you tell?” I asked. Xavier demonstrated sniffing noises in response. That was the clue that he thought perhaps his father was crying.  He didn’t recognise other signs, like his tone of voice or tears.

Xavier’s meltdowns make me shut down. I have to switch off and, sometimes, the only way to get relief from the screaming is to hide under my bed covers until it all stops.

I used to partially shut down when my mother would have emotional outbursts. My father and mother are opposites. My father was very calm (except when he lost his temper when I was young). My mother‘s emotions are on display. When she was upset, I felt it was all my fault.

I don’t like my emotions being on display. I found it very hard to deal with clinical depression because it was hard to keep my emotions at bay. Sad emotions spilled over and, for the first time, I felt emotions of anger, which terrified me.

When my grandparents died, I didn’t cry. It was too abstract for me to comprehend death. I didn’t really know one set of grandparents because they lived overseas.  I’d never met my genetic grandfather.

It’s like my emotions got stuck. But when my pets died, it was very upsetting to me. I was sent home from work one day because I was so upset after a pet rat died.

It wasn’t until I became clinically depressed that I cried for my nana, who lived with us when she became a quadriplegic after an accident.  I felt bad for her that she couldn’t use her hands anymore to weave flax kits or crochet blankets.

We went to see nana before she died. She was in hospital with a breathing tube and was on her way out.  My eldest sister (the most nurturing and maternal of me and my two sisters) stayed behind with nana until she died. She phoned with the news. I was matter-of-fact about it.

I didn’t go to nana’s funeral. I didn’t want to go to nana’s funeral – I thought it would be too scary with lots of people I didn’t really know wailing on a marae (Maori meeting house) all week. Plus it was a long, carsickness-filled trip to the cemetery. I don’t like cemeteries. I’m dreading my mother dying, because she wants to be buried there, too.

Music is a way I’ve been able to express my feelings, particularly when I became competent enough to  improvise. Once, I was improvising, and I became aware that someone was behind me. I turned around and a well-known artist was sitting behind me, mesmerised. He commented that I was so creative and my playing was beautiful.

Writing is my other outlet. I’ve always been about to express what I mean much better in writing than in person. I haven’t played piano for a long time.  I’d rather write instead.

About the Author: Xanthe is a woman with Asperger’s who is married to a neurotypical man, Leo;  their son, Xavier, also has Asperger’s. This piece first appeared on her blog, Asperger’s Child, and is reprinted here by permission.