Barriers to Empathy

by Gavin Bollard

This piece is in response to an excellent post by Miranda called Possessing But Not Expressing. When I was reading the post, I started a reply that (as is usual for me) got a bit too long. Then my fat fingers hit a wrong key and my comment disappeared, so rather than attempt to retype it there, I’ve decided to expand it and post it.

Miranda talks about how people with autism are often considered to “lack empathy” when what is really lacking is simply the “expected kind of expression.”

People express emotion in various ways, but people on the autism spectrum often have characteristics that make interpretation of their expressions difficult. Here are three obvious ones:

1. A monotone: A voice that sometimes lacks the range of tones that others possess. That’s not to suggest that people on the spectrum can’t manage tones. They can. They can make excellent actors, singers, and readers. It’s just that when they’re in day-to-day conversation, they can’t concentrate on everything at once, and often variation in tone is one of the casualties.

2. Facial expression difficulties: For example, some people on the spectrum will grimace instead of smile. To an NT, this response indicates pain rather than happiness. Conversely, many will smile when in pain.

3. Sensory issues: If touch is a sensory problem, then someone on the spectrum may not give hugs at times when they are most needed. In fact, when a person on the spectrum is in pain, often the thing they crave the most is to be left alone. This is (apparently) the opposite of what many NTs want at these times.

I could probably write a whole post on just those three points but I’m trying to stay on topic.

Miranda’s points about possessing without expressing are great. Many people on the spectrum will feel empathy without being able to show that they can feel it.

Of course, playing devil’s advocate here, I have to admit that there are some times when they don’t feel it. Three is  a good number, so again, I’ve identified three of those times:

1. When they can’t interpret the expression.

This is arguably the number one reason why people on the spectrum sometimes don’t feel empathy. They don’t know that there is a strong emotion present.

Just as our facial expressions and body language are often indecipherable to neurotypicals, so too, theirs are often a mystery to us.

Sure,  when someone is crying, it’s a no-brainer to say that the person is sad. (I’m ignoring tears of happiness.) Not everyone cries. Sometimes, people have a “sad look” on their faces. Sometimes, they just interact less. People on the spectrum often interact less when they’re pursuing their special interest. How exactly are we supposed to interpret this as sadness?

Then there’s the “laughing on the outside while crying on the inside” reaction. I can’t even go there. Just take my word for it. It exists. People do it. NT’s somehow pick up on it, but it’s a total mystery to me. Crying = Sad and Laughing = Happy. That’s the end of the cues for me.

2. When they really don’t have any emotion.

I’d love to skip this one and pretend that it doesn’t exist, but the fact is that I’ve spoken to many people who claim to have no feelings most of the time. Some of them are on the spectrum, but I don’t believe that this is a characteristic of the autism spectrum. I doubt that these people are truly emotionless, but the fact remains that there are people for whom emotion is rare. Obviously, if they don’t feel emotion for themselves, how are they going to feel emotion for others?

This brings me to an interesting side note.

Suppose that one of these emotionless people has an accident. Perhaps his or her pet dies. By definition, the person feels no emotion about the event. For the moment, we’ll just assume that this is true.

Now, suppose that a neurotypical person comes along and has no idea that the other person does not feel any emotion. If the NT finds out about the pet, he or she is going to feel “empathy” for the person, but this isn’t true empathy. The NT will feel sadness and loss, which isn’t the same as what the other person is feeling.

How is NT empathy “better” than Aspie empathy here? The NT has projected his or her own feelings onto the situation, clearly ignoring the real feelings of the pet owner.

I raise this point because I find that NTs can often find empathy in a situation, but personally, I need the other person to clearly show me his or her emotion before I can empathize.

3. When the emotion cannot be related to.

Miranda’s opening paragraph talks about her relating to embarrassment:

“If I see a person do something embarrassing, even if I don’t know them, I can still feel their embarrassment radiating off of them.  Emotions just radiate from others and become my own; most of the time, I don’t know the reason for their feelings. I just feel them.”

I’ve had a lot of awkward moments in my life. Seriously. I’d be happy to talk about them. I’m not embarrassed, ashamed, or whatever. My “skin” is tough and my self esteem is high enough these days to crush any feelings of embarrassment because I accept who I am  — klutz and all.

I have no understanding of embarrassment, and I really can’t relate to the concept.

There are a whole load of emotions I can relate to and empathize with, but embarrassment simply isn’t one of them. Do something embarrassing in front of me and I won’t empathize with your embarrassment, but I will project my “amused” empathy onto you. Of course, if you react by crying, then I can share your sadness, even if I don’t exactly understand what caused it.

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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2 thoughts on “Barriers to Empathy

  1. Well done! Your pet death example is a good one. Neurotypicals may assume a person is feeling one way because that is how they themselves would react, which is like saying “You *should* feel this way, and if you don’t you are abnormal.”

  2. ictus75 says:

    Emotions & empathy – I have a lot, probably more than most NTs. But because it’s often difficult to channel or control them, I have learned to detach from them. I really don’t feel very comfortable letting them out in strange surroundings, or with people I don’t know well. I tend to be more emotional at home, although my spouse will say I’m not (maybe I just think I am…). And hugs…yeah, thanks to that totally awkward social thing, I’d rather not hug. But it’s not that I don’t “feel” something, or even understand what it’s all about. I’m just not into touching, so I don’t do hugs.

    1. When they can’t interpret the expression.

    Oh yeah. I tell my spouse to tell me what she wants/needs, because I just don’t pick up on subtle clues/body language. This makes parties a real challenge, because I just can’t read a lot of what others are expressing through body language.

    2. When they really don’t have any emotion.

    You know, sometimes I just don’t know what to feel in a given situation. Or maybe I have conflicting emotions that lead to brain lock. And sometimes I have to admit to not feeling anything. It happens, but it’s usually about something that either doesn’t pertain to me, or that I don’t care about.

    3. When the emotion cannot be related to.

    Hmmm, I often do feel other’s embarrassment, like on a TV show, and I have to change the channel because the emotion is too strong (refer to the top of my post). But there are times I don’t understand or relate to what someone else is feeling or going through. just as they might not relate to what I am going through at any given moment.

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