Aspie Empath

by Nikki

Just a few months ago, I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum by a very experienced psychiatrist who specializes in autism. I am also an empath — an extreme empath, at that.

But wait. Autism and empathy — the two just don’t go together at all, do they!? Autistic people are cold, robotic, and uncaring; like psychopaths, they are simply unable to feel for another, incapable of empathy. Right?

Wrong. For years, I believed that I couldn’t possibly be on the autism spectrum because of damaging stereotypes like these. Despite having many symptoms of an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I thought that couldn’t be autistic because I am exceptionally empathic. I began to question this stereotype after communicating with autistic people on the Internet. Some of these people were uncannily similar to myself. Since my diagnosis, I have discovered many others like me, both men and women, who are extraordinarily sensitive to the pain and feelings of others, and a percentage of them also struggle to cope with having very little sense of self. At last, current research is revealing that autistic people can possess high levels of empathy.

I have read various theories and studies that say that people who hyper-empathize have overactive mirror neurons and an extreme female brain, and are much more likely to be diagnosed with a personality disorder or some sort of psychosis. Prior to being diagnosed with an ASD, I was told I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). There is much debate about what BPD is and isn’t, so I won’t be talking about it here, except to say that I am very impulsive, not at all logical, and operate on a different plane through emotion. I am also very analytical and solitary, and fit the classic presentation of how ASD manifests in females. Yet autistic people supposedly have an extreme male brain, lack of empathy, and are highly systematic. Many do fit the stereotype, but many others, myself included, do not. Clearly, the reality is far more complex.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I was born super-sensitive. I lack any emotional skin. Everything hurts me. It is like walking around with your nerve endings exposed. Raw, agonizing, and torturous are words that describe how I feel on an almost continuous basis. I have co-morbid conditions, and I also am a rare personality type. I believe my personality does not have strong definition to it; I have more elastic boundaries, so I soak up others’ pain and emotions like a sponge. I feel that one of the reasons I am so intense and prone to extremes of mood is because I have great difficulty in separating my pain and emotions from those of others. And when I say others, I mean not only humans, but also animals, trees, plants — all living things, in fact. It is extremely distressing and difficult to live with this hyper-sensitivity. It is almost impossible for anyone who is not this way to be able to comprehend it.

There have been a few times that I have witnessed a person being hurt, or an animal killed or injured. As it was happening, I merged with and absorbed all the shock and pain. I had to hibernate for days afterward to recuperate. As a young child, I would try to save all the flies that had been caught on the sticky fly tape trap; I couldn’t stand to hear their desperate buzzing as they slowly died. I picked worms up off the road before they got squashed by cars or people, or got eaten by birds, or died in the sun. I vividly remember one of the family dogs running straight through a barbed-wire fence and being badly injured. The look of horror and pain on his sweet face, his frightened yowl — it still makes me cry to think about it.

Being a deeply intuitive, hyper-sensitive person, I’ve always felt as though I walk the line between the physical world and the veiled spiritual world, and I can sense things without knowing how. I cannot read people’s facial expressions well at all, but this slightly psychic sense is what I use to navigate this frightening world of people I cannot relate to. Whenever I come into contact with people, I get a sense of whether they are genuine or not. I pick up on vibes from people, and I get strange sensations in my body, like a tingling/fluttering sensation, or a pins-and-needles feeling, as I sense the essence of their souls. I can feel ill when I sense the true underlying blackness behind an individual’s “nice” exterior. I can usually detect the slightest hint of malice in a person, though there have been times that I did not listen to my intuition and paid the price.

I cannot stand to see anyone hurt or humiliated in any way. I am disgusted by “jokes” at someone else’s expense; I hate ridicule and barely concealed spite disguised as “humor.” Many times I have been told I am too intense, that I need to lighten up, and that I can’t take a “joke.”

I just cannot stand injustice. There is so much unnecessary nastiness, hatred, jealousy, competitiveness, and aggression in the world. It repels me. In the past, I have hated people for it, hated those who deliberately inflict cruelty on others. I now realize that this is an error — that I will self destruct if I perpetuate the cycle of hate. I don’t want to end up sour, bitter, and cynical, and there have been periods of my life when my extreme anxiety and mental torment have been impossible to bear. Nowadays, I try to turn all the powerful feelings I have towards trying to make my little corner of the world a happy one.

I feel passionately about the vulnerable — animals, children, the disabled, the misfits, the outcasts, the underdogs, and the rejects of society. Despite being hyper-emotional and empathic, I do not relate to most neurotypical people at all (with a few exceptions) and am nothing like them. This does not mean that I do not like them or respect them; many are kind and good people. I just cannot quite fathom the way they think and operate. Essentially, I am a loner, but I often get along great with various types of people who are atypical in one way or another.

I often alternate between feeling extremes of emotion or being numb, depersonalized, and disconnected. There is no in-between. There have been times that it is just too much to bear. I’ve spent years of my life completely numb and barely feeling anything at all. I simply switched off, shut down, and went into auto-pilot in order to survive. It was like being in a trance state. I often say “I don’t care” in response to things when the truth is that I really do care — too much, in fact — but feel unable to deal with it and the pain it would cause me. I think that this is my mind’s way of shielding myself from a barrage of emotions that are overwhelming and exhausting — a form of self-protection.

Just a few days ago, my husband, who has classic Asperger’s Syndrome, finally admitted the same things about himself. Since I’ve known him, he has always denied caring about anything, and appears very aloof to others. Nonetheless, I’ve always sensed that he was deeply sensitive underneath the icy, hard exterior, but wasn’t sure what degree of empathy he possessed. He said that he, too, had switched his empathy off in order to cope. Sadly, years of being misunderstood, along with harsh judgments from others, have taken their toll on him.

After many years in which I’ve felt as though I were wandering in the wilderness, I feel as though my true core is slowly waking up again. I see extreme empathy as both an ability and a disability. I am currently trying very hard to master it and use it. I realize that I cannot take the weight of the world on my shoulders, and that I need to shield myself and look after myself in order to be of any use to others. I have a few minor coping mechanisms: I need a lot of solitude and silence to regenerate and reflect; I find it essential to be around animals and in nature; and I have to limit and to be careful of what I watch on TV, as the news and graphic violence are unbearable to me.

Despite being so empathic, I am unable to express empathy in a way that appears genuine to others. I come across to some people (so I’ve been told) as aloof, cold, distant, and uncaring — none of which I feel inside at all. My facial expressions rarely reflect what I am truly feeling. I’ve been startled in the past when I have been accused of looking morose or hostile when I was, in fact, feeling quite happy. Other times, I have felt terrified, and yet I appeared to be quite serene, with a smile on my face. I am only affectionate with my child and my husband — no one else. I am very uncomfortable with touching and hugging adults. I’ve been told that hugging me is like hugging a plank of wood. I can never think of the right words to say, or I attempt to say something, and it comes out wrong. So, usually, I say nothing. I am irked by the assumption that if you show empathy (such as hugging someone who is upset), that means you care. I have witnessed how insincere such shows of empathy can be.

It is almost impossible to explain the way I am to others. The few times I have tried, I have been accused of arrogance, or simply told that I am way too sensitive and need to “toughen up.” Yet those people wouldn’t like it if I told them how insensitive they are. Before I knew about how extremely empathic I am, I believed the things I was told. I attempted to toughen myself up, to be “strong.” I forced myself to watch the news and graphic films, and to try and be like everyone else. It didn’t work. It was agonizing going against who and what I am, and it resulted in my feeling confused, conflicted, and suicidal. Knowledge of self has helped me gain much insight, and I will not go against my empathy again.

About the Author: Nikki is a woman with Asperger’s who blogs at Ethereal Aspie. Empath Not Psychpath was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.

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14 thoughts on “Aspie Empath

  1. Xanthe Wyse says:

    I recognised my son and myself as Aspies immediately, except for this strange ‘lack of empathy’ claim. He ended up getting formally diagnosed and me informally diagnosed by same specialists (he needed formal diagnosis for accommodations at school).

    I can’t count how many times I got told to ‘grow a thicker skin’ or ‘toughen up’ growing up. I was such a sensitive child with a special affinity for animals – I seemed to attract all the neighbourhood stray cats.

    I try not to reveal my sensitivity too much to the world, as was easy target for bullies. Have had to put that shield up for protection. Have sometimes been accused of being insensitive since learning to assert myself – ah, the irony.

  2. Tricia says:

    I was diagnosed less than a year ago and I’m still having these moments when I read certain blogs where I think, “Oh my God, these are my people!” I am often told I’m too sensitive and accused of not being able to take a joke. I get incredibly angry when “humor” is a thinly disguised insult — one such incident was only a week or two ago. One of my roommates had heard that a certain stand-up special was supposed to be really funny, so we pulled it up on Netflix. A few minutes in and it was clear that this man hated women, homosexuals and people of any race but his own. I told my friend, “I can’t watch this.” and had to leave the room. I know people don’t understand when I react this way.

    Thanks for expressing it all so eloquently. I hope one day our Autistic voices will be heard and we will finally be better understood by the rest of the world.

  3. An Aspie says:

    I am an Aspie who was diagnosed as an adult after my son was diagnosed.

    I understand animals very well. I used to save injured birds when I was young. I would bring them home and we would try to nurse them back to health. I still catch spiders and let them go outside instead of smashing them.

    I also pick up on the emotions of others. I care about not hurting other people. I don’t pick up on non-verbal cues from others. That leads to me I can be over-sensitive at times. I have lots of empathy.

    I don’t like self-absorbed people. I value kindness and people who only care about themselves bother me.

    As a child I was told that I had “superior intelligence,” “superior vocabulary,” and low “common sense.” I was fearless and did not understand dangerous situations.

    I was also told that I was too serious when I should be smiling. I was given a train set for a present and I got right to work playing with it. I did not smile at all because I concentrating on it so much. My parents did not understand this. They expected me to be smiling and expressive of my happiness. I liked the train set, I just didn’t display my appreciation the way they expected.

    While in High School I was asked why I would smile at the wrong times. Like when being bullied, I would laugh and smile instead of cowering.

    Sorry if I was rambling. I tend to jump from one thought to another at times.

    I really enjoyed this article. Thanks for sharing it! =]

  4. Nikki says:

    Thank you for all the wonderful comments, I am so glad that others relate and understand, I feel validated reading the responses, and it is a fabulous feeling…connecting with my own kind.

  5. Emily says:

    My young son was diagnosed as having mild Aspergers when he was in kindergarten. He is in 3rd grade now. He is a happy kid for the most part. He has his challenges but is learning coping techniques and strategies to help him make his way. I feel so awful that kids can go thru their teen years w/out knowing what makes them different. Our family is very supportive of our son and getting a diagnosis has helped us figure out how to parents. We look at AD as a part of his personality–a chunk of what makes him awesome.

    I am doing research on Aspergers in adults. I have a character in a story I am working on who has gone into adulthood without knowing he has Aspergers. (But it is not “a sotory about a guy with aspergers”, however.

    I would really appretiate any help or advice. The character in my story is in his late 20’s.

    Emily

  6. Mari says:

    Re:
    I cannot speak for everyone, but I was born super-sensitive. I lack any emotional skin. Everything hurts me. It is like walking around with your nerve endings exposed. Raw, agonizing, and torturous are words that describe how I feel on an almost continuous basis. I have co-morbid conditions, and I also am a rare personality type. I believe my personality does not have strong definition to it; I have more elastic boundaries, so I soak up others’ pain and emotions like a sponge. I feel that one of the reasons I am so intense and prone to extremes of mood is because I have great difficulty in separating my pain and emotions from those of others. And when I say others, I mean not only humans, but also animals, trees, plants — all living things, in fact. It is extremely distressing and difficult to live with this hyper-sensitivity. It is almost impossible for anyone who is not this way to be able to comprehend it.

    You speak for me. Ditto to all of the above. That’s how I feel and have always felt.
    I admire people who can put their thoughts and feelings into words.
    Thank you.

  7. Steve says:

    Your beautifully written piece goes a long way toward dispelling what is perhaps the most damaging myth about autism, which is that people on the spectrum don’t care. Somewhere along the line it has been assumed by someone that social skills and empathy are the same thing, but this is simply not the case. The ability to read social cues has absolutely no bearing on the degree of empathy a person has. It is perfectly possible for an individual to easily recognise the signs of another person’s distress but still not care one jot. Like you, I am incredibly sensitive to the moods and emotions of those around me. I get upset far too easily and feel anxious and vulnerable a lot of the time. I only ever feel truly myself when I am alone. Silence, solitude and walking in nature help me somewhat but it is still a constant struggle. In spite of being highly sensitive and (I would like to believe) caring, I do not get along with most people well; talking to me can be hard work for those who don’t know me; and like you, I have been told that I often come across as cold, distant or aloof. It is wonderful to read something which resonates with my own experiences so fully and completely. You have put into words, better than I ever could, what it means to be the way we are. Thank you.

  8. cindy says:

    Thankyou so much for sharing this. I felt like crying when I read it. This describes perfectly my daughter and then I realised that this was me when I was younger. I learned to totally block out emotions and when I do try to tap in I just suffer “depression” Your letter has given me hope that I can be myself and allow emotions in but now I understand why they are so painful maybe I can accept that they are there without getting depressed.

  9. Sue says:

    Nikki, thank you SO MUCH for this post. I can so relate to what you say on so many levels here. I am not an Aspie, although I do have Aspie traits, but I am a highly sensitive person (as defined by Elaine Aron) and an empath, and so much of what you say overlaps here for me.

    Here’s to learning how to work with empathy so that we can learn to be not so overwhelmed so much of the time. Cheers.

  10. Judy says:

    Nikki,

    Reading your post was enlightening and heart breaking at the same time. I felt that you were describing me – not someone similar to me, but EXACTLY like me. Every Doctor I’ve been to gave me a different diagnosis – Bipolar, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Depression, you name it. Unfortunately my self-esteem is so low that I have spent my life letting others who don’t understand me put me down. I’m always the victim of someone’s humiliating “joke”. And then I’m told that I’m childish or too sensitive when I push back. I have always felt very alone in this world.

    It helps to know that I’m not alone in this. I’m wondering if I should go to a Doctor who specializes in Autism to find out if it is true. I take all kinds of medications for pain and depression, and maybe I’m not even on the right meds. This life has definitely been challenging.

    Thanks for your honesty and willingness to open up to us. I think you are helping a lot of people.

    Judy

  11. Jen says:

    Wow. I did cry when I read this. These words eloquently speak my own truth. There was nothing that didn’t resonate. Nothing. I’m actually also in a rare personality type on the Myers Brigg..Interestingly, Aspergers has never been formally suspected, although I’ve been dx’d (hospitalized once) with severe depression. I’ve also been “labeled” as an empath. Thank you so much for courageously speaking your truth.

  12. Mandi says:

    I felt like I was reading my own experiences here. I’m 39 yo unofficially diagnosed autistic. I also now see that 2 of my children are also autistic, though high functioning. And we are all VERY empathetic and emotionally sensitive.

  13. Raelara says:

    I am an unofficially diagnosed autistic (Aspergers) with an autistic husband and two autistic kids. I can’t speak for the rest of my family, but your post here felt like it was describing me exactly. Never before have I found anyone else who is so extremely sensitive. I have learned to block it, to a degree, and at least minimize the extent to which my empathic-ness and psychic ability affect my personality and behavior, but I still have to be extremely careful and often forget that I need to avoid certain situations.

    It is nice to read about so many people who are so like me. Even here, in California, it is rare to find people with whom I can completely relate. Most of my friends are spectrummy and seriously in-denial. Thank you for putting yourself out there to help us feel we are not alone!

  14. Christopher says:

    I feel like my experience throughout my 19 years of life is somewhat similar to your’s and many others who’ve posted their comments here. Recently, I was diagnosed with PDD-NOS but was told that I most likely was an Aspie since my symptoms line up a bit more with that than classic Autism, but officially I’m a cousin. I’ve always seemed oversensitive and during elementary school, I was picked on because of it, even teachers who seemed to tolerate me would often criticize me for not having that “thick skin” many people have. And so for the rest of my life, it seemed like I needed to get that thick skin, but it was tough. Eventually, it became a challenge for me to even just go to school by my senior year because of my personal issues with social interaction. It always seemed like I was meant to be a loner, I mean, a gay guy in Texas whose talents mainly line up with the arts and all the while, I’m abandoned by those who I should call friends since I wasn’t of benefit to them, high school was just so terrible that I was almost thankful my family had money issues so that I didn’t have to go to college this semester. But as time led on, I was focused on trying to find my individuality, and so I learned that I am an extremely caring person and trying to stop that part of me is like stopping a train from moving on its tracks, it’s impossible!

    But in trying to find myself, I found out about empaths, took a series of online assessments (the internet’s great) and every single one said I’m most likely one. Then I found out about learning disabilities, then dyspraxia and ADHD seemed to fit my profile as well. Little did I know that I was suffering under something less common and that these other developmental disorders were just symptoms of anxiety that comes from autism. Though I do suspect a history of autism in my family, I think that an ultimate factor was a head injury I suffered as an infant when I fell on my head.

    That said, it’s also possible that I ended up a savant, from my talent in the arts to my love of liberty and justice for all, I guess one way to explain it all would be autism and a high-ish IQ. All of this just equates to me that I’m just a unique individual: gay, autistic, artistic, high IQ, and empathic.

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