Asperger’s in Adults and Empathy

by Cary Terra

A regular occurrence during sessions in my practice is my encountering of what I call “autistic empathy.”

An oxymoron, you say?  I don’t think so.  In fact, this happens so often during sessions that I’ve begun to think of Asperger’s as a disorder often characterized by too much empathy, not a lack thereof.

Before I get started on this idea — one I expect will be viewed with skepticism, at best — let me describe what happened during one such session, one that illustrates my point.

My client — let’s call him “Giles” — and I were discussing the use of gaming as a self-soothing tool for otherwise overwhelming emotional states. Giles used few tools of escape, and we both agreed that his immersion in the world of online gaming came with a price.

At some point, we compared his gaming to other self-soothing tools, and I mentioned my tool of choice: doughnuts. In response, Giles began to make a case for the harmlessness of doughnut overuse. After a couple of minutes straight of his explaining why I should not feel guilty about my doughnut habit, I realized he was concerned I might have grown embarrassed.

I stopped him. Could this be right? Indeed, it was. Giles, this adult with Asperger’s, had sensed I was embarrassed, and was doing his best to make me comfortable. There was no other way to explain it: this was empathy.

In fact, many clients have demonstrated the same level of empathy in myriad ways during sessions. I see it when they tear-up describing their pet’s pain. I see it in their silent withdrawal when a parent is unfairly raging. I see it in their pull towards social justice. I see it in Asperger’s men’s groups, during which they are gentle and supportive of each other in ways that violate male social norms.

In fact I often wonder if the withdrawal adults on the spectrum resort to is emotionally necessary. If they feel others’ pain acutely, and on top of that, often lack the social skills to offer “appropriate” comfort, what are they to do? Withdrawal and distancing become more than relating styles: they become necessary tools for self-preservation.

Picture the plight of the teenager on the spectrum who comes home after school to find parents who are quietly angry at each other. Because he is sensitive, he knows something is wrong. His body is on alert, and he wants to help. Because he is empathic, he would like to offer comfort. However, because he is bright and learns from patterns, he knows that historically, he has said the “wrong” thing in these situations, which has made things worse. He determines, quite logically, that the best thing he can do is go to his room and put on an audiobook. Both parents notice this, and note how little he appears to care about anyone but himself.

Adults on the spectrum often over-empathize. To feel deeply, and fail miserably when they try to offer comfort, causes more injury than can be tolerated. Retreating offers solace — and confirms their image as non-empathic.

“Autistic empathy” is a powerful experience, and leaves the adult with no way to manage the strong emotions of others, which resonate so deeply.  Our job in relating to them is to look past the veneer of calm or indifference with quiet curiosity, to resist the outrage we feel when someone displays so little outward reaction. Partners who do this are met with a rich world of sensitivity and attachment — the world they sense but cannot readily see.

About the Author: Cary Terra, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Seattle, Washington. She specializes in working with adults with Asperger’s, their partners, and their family members. This piece first appeared on her blog, Aspie Strategy, and is reprinted here by permission.


One thought on “Asperger’s in Adults and Empathy

  1. Great post! It reminds me of the “Intense World Theory”. I hope this message starts getting across and breaking down the stereotypical caricatures floating about!

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