Listed in the criteria for Asperger’s in the DSM-IV is “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,” although I usually see it written as lack of empathy. This criterion was the one that I struggled with the most in regards to my son. I just didn’t see it. If anything, I have seen an oversensitivity to the emotions of others.
What I have observed in my son is that he gets upset when others are upset. If he has ever found me crying, he always sits next to me and rubs my back. Never mind that half the time I was crying because he just had a meltdown that I couldn’t deal with. The times that it was related to a meltdown he would always apologize and ask for a hug. He has always been a very sweet child.
Death is something that has always upset him quite profoundly. He was probably 9, and I took him with me to a Good Friday service at our church. He had wanted to go because he had heard they turn the lights off for this service. He had been in Christian school since kindergarten, so he was quite familiar with the Bible story. At the end is when they turn off the lights and discuss Jesus’ death. He started to melt. At first, I thought it was from the lights being off, since he has sensory issues. But instead, he started to sob that Jesus had died. I was so surprised that it would upset him so profoundly since he clearly knew how it would end.
So when people started to talk about how he may have Asperger’s, I kept getting hung up when they would say how people with Asperger’s lack empathy. I just didn’t see it. I do understand (well maybe that word isn’t the exact right word) that they lack theory of mind. I have to explain to him how it could affect someone negatively when he does certain things. He doesn’t always understand how he is perceived. When he used to (please God keep it used to) have major meltdowns in class, he would say he couldn’t leave before the meltdown because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. We had to keep explaining the meltdowns were drawing way more attention than walking out when he started to feel upset.
I found a couple of articles about the concept of empathy with Asperger’s and thought I would share:
What I have noticed he struggles with is understanding the non-verbal communications related to emotion. We reviewed the facial expressions in emotions, and he was supposed to identify his feelings every day for a while to help get the hang of it. I found this nifty magnet in Vegas.
The little guy on the magnet rarely moved from bored. He uses “bored” to describe a lot of emotions, I have noticed. In particular, he says he is bored when he is struggling with school. Maybe he has heard other kids use this word. The describing of emotions is something I think we need to work on. Thanks to http://www.lifepostepic.com/ I now know that the word for not being able to put emotions into words is Alexithymia. Here is a link about it: http://eqi.org/alexi.htm.
From the interactions with my son, I think that does more accurately describe what he is experiencing. He knows what facial expressions mean. He may not always catch onto subtle clues, but overall, he notices when I am angry or sad. He may not always smile when he is happy, but he does know how to give me sad eyes when he wants something. However, he does struggle to put his feelings into words. Whether or not he truly knows what his feelings are is so difficult for me to know.
I think he knows angry or sad, but does he know the difference between frustrated and angry? I don’t think he did a few years ago, but I think he is learning it. I think (and just my thoughts) that is why a few years ago, when he wasn’t able to do something on a video game, he would immediately melt and become very upset. I think the distinction between the two is difficult for NTs as well, but it is an important distinction. As I have tried to explain to him, frustration is an okay thing and just means he has to work harder to get through what he is trying to do. He seems to be getting better at working through whatever is bothering him when he starts to feel frustrated, even if he still doesn’t use the words “I am frustrated.”
I have also told him that anger is okay too, but that it is not okay to smash things. I think he has previously gotten upset with himself when he has felt these emotions, and that just frustrates him or angers him more. It has really been a process to teach him emotions are an okay thing.
I would really love to hear from someone with Asperger’s about how they feel these emotions.
About the Author: AspieSide is the mother of a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. This piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspie Side of Life, and is reprinted here by permission.