ASDs and Empathy

by Lisa

Image from Google

A few months back, I followed a link on Facebook to the post The Data Myth, and I became extremely overwhelmed when reading the following:

We need to be on guard against the Data Myth and the stereotypes it perpetuates. Children with autism may sometimes react differently, but that doesn’t mean they lack human emotions. We need to think about, write about, and treat children with autism with the understanding that they experience a full range of emotions but have trouble processing and communicating them. We need to understand that they are interested in people and want to interact, but that they have sensory or communication issues that make it difficult. We need to challenge the medical community to rise above these stereotypes. And we need to see our kids as already whole and complete children, not as faulty.

The post reminded me of some thoughts I wrote last year. So I thought I’d share and update with more recent thoughts.

The Blue Peter Cambodia Appeal

When I was about 10 years old, the children’s TV show Blue Peter had an appeal to raise money for children in Cambodia. They showed awful footage that made me feel very lucky to have food and a home. It devastated me to see such under-nourished children with flies circling their faces and no energy to flick them away. This footage I still remember to this day, and if I focus on it, I still cry.

My mom, in her wisdom, decided to use my very visual imagination to get me to part with some of my many toys. She came into my bedroom with black bin bags and said something like, “You have far too many toys in this room. Everything needs to be sorted and tidied up. There are a lot of starving children in this world. You’ve seen it on Blue Peter. Get rid of some of these toys, and I will take them to the charity shop, and you will help to save a little child’s life.”

I gave away everything.

I couldn’t bear the thought of these little kids having no food. The visuals from Blue Peter were far too much for me.

I only kept two toys: my Tiny Tears Doll and my Teddy Boo-Boo. I still have both of them.

Now, I have a theory about this lack of empathy thing.

I know that, over the years, I have had to shut down to my feelings because they are so intense. I can get so overwhelmed by emotion that I can barely function. I know that when I love a person, they become as important as myself. My children are more important than I am, and I would die for them.

Because I have visual reruns of things that either hurt me or confuse me, I end up rehearsing and chatting and analysing. It can be quite tiring to have so many conversations going around in my head. I have managed to stay in touch with my feelings and to show empathy by being careful what I feed my brain with, and by taking care not to overload myself. I know now what will replay in my constant thought loops and what things to avoid. I can also praise up the less noisy loops and help myself to do the things that are hard to do.

I think that what appears to be a lack of empathy is just a shutdown mechanism of self-protection because the emotion is so intense. This intensity of feeling will overload the system and cause sensory difficulties and, eventually, complete shutdown.

I know that when I gave my toys away, it was because I cared deeply for children I would never meet, and I was willing to go without my toys so they could live. I don’t believe that I lack empathy and I don’t believe other Aspies do either.

About the Author: Lisa is a woman with Asperger’s and the mother of two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog, Alienhippy’s Blog, and is reprinted here by permission.



5 thoughts on “ASDs and Empathy

  1. […] will find me over at Autism and Empathy […]

  2. LeRoy Dean says:

    Heartfelt post, Lisa.

  3. Michelle says:

    My son is not diagnosed Aspergers, but has sensory issues. Often times the TV is the worst for him. He thinks everything on TV is real and lately, he’s been coming in my room more and more at night. For some reason, he’s got it in his head that I’m going to leave. I have never left him alone by himself. If I do leave, my husband is here to take care of him. But lately, he asks me every night “Are you going to leave in the morning?” I don’t leave. I’m a stay at home, homeschooling mama. I’m with them all the time. The only thing I can attribute all of this to is 1)Since he has sensory issues, the world is a scary place. I think he fears me leaving because he knows I comfort him through all the problems he faces. 2)He may have saw something on TV that startled him and now thinks it is real. Just like you with the little kids and the toys. Anyway, I think it interesting how literal he can be about things. Another instance was when he saw a house flying on TV. It turned into this major fear of our house flying. But yes, I agree that autistic kids can have a ton of empathy. My daughter has a lot of empathy (she has aspergers) but she has trouble expressing it.

  4. Angel says:

    “I think that what appears to be a lack of empathy is just a shutdown mechanism of self-protection because the emotion is so intense. This intensity of feeling will overload the system and cause sensory difficulties and, eventually, complete shutdown.”

    I think you are right on Lisa with these words. In recent months I have come to this understanding, and it has helped me not feel guilt for it and learn how to process these intense emotions much better. At least allowing myself to stim has helped a great deal!! Thanks to your other words that you have share that have helped me. 🙂

    I have given everything way too, multiple times in my life. If I saw a need I gave it away. Learning the balance with that has been difficult, discerning who is taking advantage and who is not is a hard one for me as well.

    Really great post!

    Lots of love!

  5. Alara Rogers says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the name of the myth is itself based in a myth, albeit one perpetuated in its original source… and the fact that that myth keeps getting perpetuated in that source says something as well that relates to autism/Aspergers and empathy.

    Data, in TNG, does *not* lack empathy, or for that matter emotions. They say he does, all the time. *He* says he does. But this is a guy who aspires to be human (aspiration = desire = emotion), who feels grief at the death of his friends, who is intensely loyal to those friends to the point of eventually sacrificing his life to save one of them, and who is sufficiently empathic that when he hears of a suffering child that the laws he operates under do not allow him to save, he arranges for the “normal people” — the NTs — to be exposed to the sound of that child’s suffering, because he knows that will make them change their minds. In other words, he’s both sufficiently moved by a child’s suffering to desire to break the rules he lives by, *and* he understands his friends well enough to manipulate them into feeling the same way he does, so that they will agree with him to save the child. In addition, at one point Data nearly sacrifices his life to save a guy everyone else can’t stand, presumably because he can’t stand to see someone die in front of him if he has the power to prevent it, regardless of his opinion of that person.

    But Data’s ability to understand “normal people” is tremendously impaired. He tells jokes that are inappropriate or make no sense. He doesn’t understand how boring everyone finds his poem about his cat. He enters a romantic relationship to study romantic relationships. Data feels great loyalty and love for his friends, but he cannot show it. He does the morally correct thing, the loving, empathic thing, even when it is a violation of the law. Sound like anyone you know?

    Obviously Data is not autistic — Data does, in fact, have a very flat affect, and finds it almost impossible to actually get angry, even at people who do things like kill his daughter by driving her into a fatal emotional meltdown when they threaten to take her from him. Data isn’t offended even when you spell it out to him why he’s supposed to be. It’s almost impossible to hurt Data’s feelings. This is *not* true of autistic people or people with Asperger’s.

    But doesn’t it strike you as a little bit interesting that a character who is *presented* as moral, compassionate, loyal and kind, whose primary emotional impairments are that he doesn’t get angry and he doesn’t understand other people’s emotional states easily, is described by himself, everyone in the story he’s in, and everyone describing that story as “emotionless”?

    I think the treatment of Data in TNG is an excellent metaphor for being autistic — he has emotions, but because he doesn’t show them the way others do and he doesn’t perceive their emotions easily, everyone thinks he doesn’t… and he’s constantly struggling to prove to others that he is a person just like they are, not a machine who can’t be hurt. Sounds a lot like what autistic people go through to me.

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