Asperger’s and Relationship Counseling

by Cary Terra

One of the frustrating things I encounter in my work is witnessing the damage done to clients (and to their relationships) by well-meaning therapists who believe Asperger’s and relationships are incompatible.

I know, you think I am exaggerating. Really, though, people do think this.

Consider a client I’ll call Eloise, who came to see me in a “last ditch effort” (her words) to save her relationship. Having already visited two couples therapists for help in understanding how to relate to her Aspie husband, she was in the process of resigning herself to the “truth” they had shared with her: her relationship could never meet her emotional needs. Her best bet would be to reframe her relationship as a platonic partnership, and to get her emotional needs met elsewhere. The ideas of knitting clubs and online forums had been proposed, and Eloise was in a state of panic.

After offering this brief history, Eloise stated her purpose in seeing me. She wanted help in moving through the grieving process. She needed to mourn, she said — mourn the normal relationship she would never have. She wanted to know if  I could help her with this grief work, so she could move towards acceptance of this stunted marriage. She couldn’t leave, she explained, because her husband was a wonderful person, though sadly therapists (and books!) had revealed that he was incapable of connecting to her emotionally.

In responding to Eloise, my first task was to breathe through my outrage. The two therapists who had offered Eloise this glimpse of her marital destiny had not even met her husband. Both had “comforted” her by explaining that his withdrawal and disconnectedness had nothing to do with her — rather this was his neurological disorder at work, and nothing could fix it. Beyond the irresponsibility of this crystal ball therapy, their predictions made little sense given recent research on brain plasticity. (See this great TED talk on the subject at for a brief introduction.)

The truth is that Asperger’s, and its impact on relationships with self and others, is poorly understood, especially by many clinicians. And certainly no clinician should ever give a prediction for an individual’s lifelong functioning, especially if that person has never been evaluated. Aspies and their partners come to therapy looking for tools and answers, and are often instead given prescriptions for hopelessness. It’s one thing to talk conservatively about treatment goals; it’s another thing to throw out goals altogether.

Therapists often tell clients married to ASD adults that their partners cannot feel empathy and cannot truly love. Perhaps the reason I take such exception to this kind of dangerous feedback is that it’s simply not true. All of my clients feel empathy, and all are capable of love. In fact, many times my Aspie clients are shocked to find that their partner’s faith in their love and loyalty can be compromised by a forgotten good-bye or missed eye-contact. One Aspie partner remarked: “How can our whole relationship hang by a thread? It makes me afraid to open my mouth for fear I’ll accidentally destroy my marriage.” Of course, this anxiety furthers ASD clients’ reluctance to establish connection, which furthers their partners’ feelings of being ignored or neglected.

Partners with Asperger’s have often spent a lifetime making unpredictable relationship mistakes that carry real repercussions. When the probability is high that your efforts to connect will be met with rejection, it’s awfully hard to justify the logic of continuing to try. Successful relationship therapy involves identifying triggers so that both partners can work towards feeling safe together. This is the foundation of building connection.

Clinicians are trained to use good communication to build safety, rather than building safety to facilitate good communication. I’m proposing the notion of working together to establish safety first. This is crucial for creating a context in which people with Asperger’s can experiment with being vulnerable, and non-Aspie partners can experiment with interpreting behavior in brand new ways.

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.


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.


Ladybugs: Autism, Empathy, and Processing Grief

by Leah Kelley

As a parent of a child with autism and as a teacher, I have a difficulty when others report that students with ASD lack empathy.I try to correct this faulty judgment when I have the opportunity to do so, by explaining that there really is not lack of empathy, nor any absence of the ability to feel this. There may however be a different way of processing or expressing the feeling, and also a challenge with understanding the perspective and therefore the experience of others. This is fundamentally different from the judgment that an individual lacks the capacity for empathy.

My son H has recently begun to process grief. It hit him hard at age 10 when his Behaviour Interventionist Roberta’s dog was sick and dying. It hit him all at once. He did not seem process it at two when his great-grandma died, or at 5 when our guinea pig died, or at 6 when his rabbit died, or at 8 when his other great-grandma died. He was somehow not visibly affected. He did not ask about it and he may have cried a few tears… but then it was basically never mentioned again. I realize, in retrospect, that there was likely much more going on that I did not at the time understand – but this post does not explore these complexities. Instead it tells a different story; the story of the grief and processing that was apparent much later.

H was devastated by the news that Roberta’s dog, Boomer, was dying and generously gave the dog one of his own stuffies to comfort him. When I suggested that he might like the stuffed bear back after Boomer had passed away, he said no – it would be for Roberta to keep… so that she would have the teddy to cuddle if she was lonely when she no longer had her dog.

I talked to a number of our school district counselors and all suggested that it was important for him to let his tears come so we spent many an evening with H in tears. We encouraged him to cry and we also started him seeing a counselor privately to assist him with processing his emotions.

Shortly after this we had to tell him that our neighbour, Mrs. L, was also dying. I didn’t really want to because he seemed so fragile and I knew he would be further devastated. We again welcomed his tears and his many questions. I noticed that he was looking to me to see if I was crying when he was, and he often asked if I was sad too. We reinforced that it was important to let his sadness come and cry his tears, or else his sadness may come out in other ways, such as anger.

In retrospect, one of the things we encouraged that proved to be most helpful was to be giving toward others and to work to comfort them and understand that they were grieving as well. His focus on the perspective of others helped him to move the process along for himself and to feel that he had some power. He couldn’t change the circumstances, but he was empowered by his ability to give to others.

Interestingly, we found that he seemed most anxious and concerned about how he would remember those he had lost. He seemed aware of his own challenges with episodic memory and we began to build and revisit the memories he had by telling stories of the dog and our neighbour and also the kindness he was showing in the process.

I wrote a story for him that recalled his experiences with our neighbour, Mrs. L, and his visit to her in the hospital, during which he read her the story Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present. I assisted him in writing his own lists based on the book The Tenth Best Thing About Barney, which he was able to share as well. He showed his appreciation for others and it gave his feeling of loss a place to be… surrounded by other feelings.

I also worked with him to associate memories with real items in a meaningful way for those he was losing. He subsequently began to create memory symbols for those he had lost long, long ago and to have tears for them as well. A ladybug came to represent our neighbour, and a goldfish represented his great-grandmother who passed away when he was 2. This might be best explained with an excerpt of the story I wrote for him:

That same day when H’s mom was working in the garden, she called him outside. She showed him a little ladybug that she had found… the first ladybug of spring.

She said, “H, I want you to hold this ladybug. Look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?”

H held out his hand and the little creature climbed up his fingers.

“Do you like it?” his mom asked.

“Yes” H responded.

“Can you keep it forever?”

“No…” H replied.

“That’s right…” said his mom. “You can hold it for a short time, and you can enjoy how beautiful it is. You can’t keep it forever… but you can remember this moment…

H looked at his mom and then looked again at the ladybug.

“The ladybug is like Mrs. L We can’t keep her forever, and now she has to fly away home… just like a ladybug. What we get to keep is how wonderful it was to know her while she was here and we can hold her memory in our hearts forever.”

H’s mom smiled at him… and he smiled back to her.

She said, “We are lucky… whenever we see a ladybug in the garden now we will think of Mrs. L. We have a connection to a sweet memory.”

We manually created and inserted the physical association with a concrete item to assist him with sorting and organizing his memories. The symbols that represented different people seemed to assist him with feeling that he had something to hang onto and a place to revisit and access his memories and to process his sadness. It gave him a sense of control.

Last week H’s other great-grandmother passed away. She was 103 years old and had been suffering from dementia for many years. Even though he had only met her as a baby, he was still upset when we told him of her passing. However, he seemed most upset that he didn’t really know her, so my husband and I began to tell him stories of his great-grandmother and we assisted H in writing them down.

This week H read these stories aloud at the memorial. This was an amazing gift and tribute because after many years of needing constant care and not being socially present in the lives of those attending, this little boy brought to the fore the memories of his great-grandma at her best. It was touching to see the shift in the mood as he brought her to life once again in their minds.

This little boy of mine has a very big heart, and a lot of strength. He has a huge capacity for empathy. He just needed a framework of support to assist him with processing in a slightly different way.

About the Author: Leah Kelley is a K–12 Special Needs Resource Teacher, a parent of a child with ASD, and an experienced primary teacher who blogs at Thirty Days of Autism. She completed her Master’s Degree in Education at Simon Fraser University, focusing on supporting educators in understanding the experience of students with autism.

Please Note: This article, originally written in 2009, was previously published as Ladybugs in the Spring 2011 edition of the Journal English Practice (the journal of the BC Teachers of English Language Arts), and has also been featured on the POPARD Website (Provincial Outreach Program for Autism and Related Disorders). It appears on the Autism and Empathy site by permission of the author.


Perspectives on Friendship and Other-Ability: Country Mouse and City Mouse

by Leah Kelley

I have been considering the way in which my son, H the Country Mouse, relates to his friend, City Mouse. They have known each other for almost seven years… since they were both diagnosed with ASD. They are true friends. When they are together… there is no social deficit. There is no discernible difficulty in turn-taking in conversation, or interest in each other. They ‘get‘ the social pragmatics. They give each other the wait time needed to process. They are not judgmental of each others’ shortcomings and have few social expectations, and they share a myriad of common interests. Their disability is only other-ability and they share it, embrace it, and are emotionally refueled by it.

As parents of these boys, our families have become very close. It is amazing to spend time with other adults who “get” our kid and see him for his strengths. Even more… it is like the relief of a sigh…. only more so… to spend time with adults when I do not have to explain a thing or worry about their perceptions or judgment. The experience for me is anxiety free, and feeling truly understood revives me and gives me courage and strength. It is valuable for both Craig and I to know that others are on the same road and sharing our journey.

The experience of the connection between our Country Mouse/City Mouse families influences my practice as well. I have an awareness of the struggles that other families face in supporting their children and I have experienced the powerful effect of acceptance and a nonjudgmental stance.

I try to convey this level acceptance and empathy to the families with whom I work, and I  sense that it comes as a relief for them. There is the relief that they are not being judged, and this often has families sharing more that they might otherwise have done. There is also the relief that they are not alone, which has been expressed repeatedly to me, and this lessens the sense of isolation, fear, and loneliness that is so often experienced by parents of children with disabilities.

I am so grateful to our City Mouse friends and their amazing boy. I love to see our boys together and I am quite happy to make the lengthy journey into the Big City so that we can connect.

A while back City Mouse gave H a StarWars Pez dispenser. It just so happened that H already had this one, and he disclosed this, but then they discussed how he might save it, unopened, until they were in university together and then they would sell it on e-bay. They discussed how they would spend their anticipated future windfall. Hilarious – charming – and there is a certainty of a future to their friendship that brings me hope and joy.

The freedom and joy of this relationship for our boys is even more intense.

It has me wishing that more of us could pace ourselves with such ease to the place and space of others.

… and sometimes, too, it has me wondering if it is perhaps the rest of us who might be lacking in social skills and sensitivity.

About the Author: Leah Kelley is a K–12 Special Needs Resource Teacher, a parent of a child with ASD, and an experienced primary teacher. She completed her Master’s Degree in Education at Simon Fraser University, focusing on supporting educators in understanding the experience of students with autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, Thirty Days of Autism, and is reprinted here by permission.


The Expression of Empathy

by Ginger Kennell

In my research on the experience of people on the spectrum, I have heard a consistent theme: people with autism lack empathy, the ability to understand what another person is feeling and share the moment with them either in excitement or consolation. A great deal of energy is put into teaching the autistic person to develop empathy and learn how to demonstrate it in social interactions. I think this idea is oversimplified, and it is built on the assumption that if you don’t behave as though you have empathy, it means you don’t have it.

Most of us are born with a set of skills that I often describe as “mind-reading.” It’s the ability to gather all of the information being transmitted from a person: energy level, body posture, gestures, facial expression, words spoken, tone of voice, the expression of emotion, and many other subtleties, and put them together to make a really good guess about what the other person is thinking and feeling.

Horses and other animals have what autistic author Temple Grandin refers to as “extreme perception.” In her book Animals in Translation, she states that “their sensory worlds are so much richer than ours it’s almost as if we [humans] are deaf and blind.” She goes on to explain how autistic people are a lot like animals in this way. Instead of gathering the more obvious information and synthesizing it into what we call the “big picture” like most people do, they perceive every detail. This is where the barriers between horses and those with autism begin to fade: in the ways they perceive the world around them.

Horses have tremendous emotional intuition, which is what makes them so effective in working with people with autism. Like those on the spectrum, horses easily pick up all the subtleties of an interaction, including the emotional field. The horse experiences emotions in a very compartmentalized way, without the complexity or confusing meanings that most people place on them.  Consequently, their only way of processing that information is to assimilate it, or feel it themselves, and reflect it back to the person from whom it originated. This means that when we observe horses acting out in an emotional way, it is likely that they are simply “mirroring” the emotion in their environment as a means of processing that information. In extreme circumstances, a horse may fight or flee in response to an intense emotional field.

I have experienced interactions with people on the spectrum who demonstrate this “extreme perception” that Temple talks about, and are able to intuit the emotions of a horse or another person with startling accuracy. Like a horse, their struggle is not in perceiving the emotion, but in making meaning out of it. The autistic person who picks up on another person’s fear of a situation, now feels overwhelmed and does not know what caused that emotion, how to make meaning of it, or how to respond to it. Because of this, the person may respond to emotion in a self-protective way, instead of an empathetic one.  These attempts at self-preservation may seem to others as irrational expressions of anger, panic, disassociation, or shutdown, because the emotional field is so overwhelming they must handle it much like a horse does, by absorbing it and reflecting it back to their environment, running from it, or protecting themselves.

It is important for all of us who regularly interact with those on the spectrum to recognize that the person’s inability to respond to an emotional situation in a socially appropriate way is not evidence of a deficit, disorder, or pathology. It is evidence that they possess a gift that the rest of us have not developed in the same way. Their emotional and intuitive connection with others and their environment is beyond our capacity to imagine it. They just don’t know what to do with the information. We can help them figure out what to do with the massive amounts of emotional stimulus in their environment: how to respond, how to take care of themselves. We can help them learn to make peace with their gifts, and how to put them into practice in a world where they are not understood.

It is clear to me that those on the spectrum are unique in their ability to perceive the world around them. This brings up many questions for me as I consider the implications of a growing population of such perceptive human beings. I wonder if humans are in the process of evolution. Are we moving toward a future where our intuition is more greatly needed? Are our most practiced methods for making meaning of emotion still serving us? Are those with autism leading the way to such a future? What do we have to learn from those on the spectrum? What do they have to teach us? And, how are those on the spectrum a “mirror” for our social culture as a whole? How are they acting as walking “barometers” for the intensity and pace of our lives?

I invite you to respond to these questions, and pose your own. Welcome to the conversation.

About the Author: Ginger Kennell has nearly 30 years of horse experience and has taught horsemanship to children and adults for over 16 years. She is trained in the discipline of Natural Horsemanship, an approach that emphasizes a process of learning the non-verbal and energetic language that horses speak with one another,  in order to create a trusting relationship based on clear communication, mutual understanding, and compassionate leadership. She is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Washington, and holds memberships in the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and the Northwest Behavioral Health Independent Provider Association. She has worked as a counselor, teacher, and facilitator in a wide variety of settings.  One of her interests is the remarkable ways in which horses can teach us to understand, communicate, and connect more deeply with those with autism.

The Expression of Empathy first appeared on the Interplay Academy website and is reprinted here by permission.


Empaths on the Autism Spectrum, Part 2

by Karla McLaren

Continued from Part 1

After spending just two weeks as an academic liaison for twenty-two people on the Autism Spectrum (and getting a sense for their inner lives), I started to observe my own behavior more closely. I’m very sensitive to sounds, colors, movement, and social cues — I love patterns, numbers, and being alone, and I have intense (often excruciating) empathy. I wondered: Am I on the Spectrum?

I went home from work one night and took this Autism Quotient test, and got a score of 15:

Your score: 15

0 – 10 = low

11 – 22 = average (most women score about 15 and most men score about 17)

23 – 31 = above average

32 – 50 is very high (most people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 35)

50 is maximum

Hmmm. Okay, so I wasn’t on the Spectrum, but I also wasn’t (as I had feared before I started the job) at the opposite end of the empathy Spectrum from my students. And yet, I could not reasonably call myself neurotypical either, since my empathy has — throughout my life — set me so far apart from average people. I continued to witness unmanageable empathy and sensitivity in my students (whom I now called my friends), tried to figure out where it fit in with the reigning theories about the alleged lack of empathy among people on the Spectrum, and went forward with my job.

My husband was accepted into a Master’s program in Nursing, and we moved away from that job within a few months, but I didn’t stop thinking about my friends on the Spectrum, about neurotypical privilege and mind-blindness, and about the subject of empathy.

Reclaiming my empathic title

Three years later, in 2009, I was asked to rewrite one of my books on emotions. This is a longer story, but I had worked for many years as an empathic healer, and had mistakenly framed my skills as paranormal or psychic. When I realized my mistake, I ended my career (in 2003) and returned to college to study sociology, social movements, and, well, everything.

I now understand why it was so easy to think that my empathic skills were mystical. Strong empathy is very unusual, and neurotypicals are deeply confused about emotions and empathy; therefore, my empathic skills were seen a magical thing. After studying intently and reorganizing my understanding of empathy, it was very nice to come back, rewrite my book from a non-paranormal viewpoint, reframe my work, and reclaim my title as an empath. (In my previous post, I described an empath as a person who is aware that they read emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, social space, relational behaviors, and gestural language to a greater degree than is deemed normal.)

As a part of the research I did for my book (The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You), I read a book by two people on the Spectrum: Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron. Their book, Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships is a fascinating look at two individuals who have very different experiences on the Spectrum.

Sean Barron is a male whose inner experience of autism has been extremely emotional, while Temple Grandin is a female who reports that her inner experience was and is primarily unemotional. This book is nicely balanced by Barron’s emotional perspective, and together, he and Dr. Grandin provide an excellent portrayal of what people on the Spectrum deal with emotionally and psychologically.

It’s a great entrée to understanding both the Autism Spectrum and the ways that neurotypicals intuitively understand social rules even though they weren’t directly taught about most of them. As I wrote in my previous post, neurotypicals understand social rules because those rules were socially created by neurotypicals for their kind of minds … it’s not because neurotypical social functioning is objectively correct or better than any other way.

As I read the book, however, I found myself arguing with Temple Grandin — not just because I had so closely observed highly empathic people on the Spectrum, but also because she was holding on very tightly to the old “emotions versus rationality” idea that isn’t supported by current neurological research.

We understand now that emotions are an irreplaceable part of rationality, decision-making, thinking, memory, and especially learning. In truth, we can’t be rational without our emotions, but I understand Dr. Grandin’s struggle to overcome an emotional functioning that was totally unhelpful to her.

If you asked her outright, Temple Grandin would probably agree with the idea that she is mind-blind and unempathic (this hypothesis is championed by British psychopathology researcher Simon Baron-Cohen) — but as an empath, I beg to differ. In fact, I differ strongly.

Temple Grandin: An empath on the Autism Spectrum

In her books Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human, Temple Grandin describes her career in animal science. Dr. Grandin became famous for creating humane feedlots, factory farms, and slaughterhouses — and for designing and engineering many transportation and holding systems to get animals safely from one place to another. She has accomplished this by physically putting herself in the mindset of the animals she works with. Dr. Grandin describes kneeling down low and actually walking the paths the animals walk, looking at the machinery and surroundings from their perspective, and figuring out what scares or bothers them.

Dr. Grandin can set aside her human persona and think and feel as a cow, or a sheep, or a pig, or a chicken might — and from her vantage point, she can identify emotional triggers from these animals’ perspectives. With this information, she makes changes to the animals’ environments, and she designs feedlot equipment, stalls, loading platforms, and walkways that feel safe and make sense to the animals. Her designs help the animals remain calm and avoid panic-based injuries.

Her changes and her designs insure that the animals can be loaded and unloaded from medical and transportation equipment without fear or struggle, and she makes their lives (and their deaths) infinitely more tolerable. Dr. Grandin is a heroine; she single-handedly brought humane treatment to the meat-producing industry.

But get this: She did it by being able to empathize deeply with animals — not merely emotionally, but also visually, cognitively, auditorially, environmentally, socially, physically, kinetically, and relationally. Temple Grandin put herself in the place of the animals, gathered detailed information about multiple aspects of their unique, lived experience, communicated what they couldn’t, and made changes to address the troubles she unearthed.

Photo of Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin communing with a friend

This is what skilled empaths do.

Empathy is not merely the ability to understand cognitively what another person might be feeling, and it is not merely the ability to share an emotion with another person. Empathy is a socio-emotional skill that can help you enter completely into the world of another — and to translate what you sense into language and action. Temple Grandin empathizes deeply with animals; she is working as an empath. The fact that she reports having trouble deciphering human emotions does not in any way diminish her empathic skills; in fact, many of my highly empathic friends find neurotypical humans confusing.

I agree. Humans are very problematic both emotionally and empathically. As a young empath growing up, I had to learn how to connect the emotions people were clearly feeling with the lies they told about those emotions, with the repressive techniques they used to quash their emotions, and with the ways that they used other emotions to mask the ones they were truly feeling.

Before I learned how to identify, categorize, and create separations between myself and the wildly incoherent emotional behaviors of neurotypicals, I was on fire most of the time. Neurotypicals often let their emotions careen around like pinballs, and with some people, you can almost feel mismanaged and disowned emotions coming off of them like puffs of steam. Before I learned how to make sense of neurotypical emotional functioning, I reacted badly to the chaos. I was hyper. I withdrew. I lashed out with anger. I felt tremendous anxiety, and I used a lot of physical movement — especially with my hands — to manage my nervousness and confusion (I was stimming!).

As a child, I found humans totally exhausting, and I preferred animals. Animals don’t lie! They feel their emotions and share them honestly, and they don’t pretend. I love animals! They make being sensitive and empathic very comfortable and rewarding. Humans, not so much!

So Dr. Grandin might disagree strongly with me, but I see her as a fellow empath. I also see many of my friends on the Spectrum as empaths who, due to their troubles with organizing incoming stimuli — and to the reigning hypothesis that brands them as unempathic and mind-blind — have not been given the tools they need to make sense of the sideways and backward emotional functioning that neurotypicals call normal behavior.

Speaking directly with Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen

Earlier this year, my friend Edwin Rutsch, who founded the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy, hosted a question-and-answer session with Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, the British psychopathologist who champions the hypothesis that people on the Autism Spectrum have malfunctioning mirror neurons that cause them to be unempathic and mind blind. Edwin posted these questions for me, and Dr. Baron-Cohen was kind enough to answer.

Karla McLaren: Dr. Baron-Cohen, is it possible that people on the autism spectrum actually have a near-neurotypical capacity for empathy, but are often overwhelmed and unable to organize incoming emotional and social stimuli ?

Simon Baron-Cohen: Yes, this is possible. We are only just beginning to understand this complex thing called ‘empathy’. In my book I suggest it has 2 components (cognitive and affective) though in the neural circuitry it looks as if at least 10 different brain regions may be involved. People on the autistic spectrum COULD have some of these brain regions working at a neurotypical level — this is something scientists could test. The idea that people on the autistic spectrum may be overwhelmed by emotional stimuli is also perfectly plausible. Thanks for putting forward a hypothesis that I hope will be testable. Simon.

KM: Thank you. I had a job supporting college-aged Spectrum people, and I read everything I could get my hands on — most of which follow your hypothesis about low empathy and incomplete or missing “theory of mind.” From all these books, I thought I knew the kind of people I’d meet… but I didn’t see a lack of empathy. Rather, I saw people who were overwhelmed by incoming stimuli and who had a very hard time organizing and understanding emotional cues. I’ve since worked with many Spectrum people, and I really think the theory is leading the data-gathering.

I think that if we all agree that Spectrum people lack empathy, we’ll ascribe labels to their behavior that obscure deeper inquiry. Sadly, the idea helps people treat Spectrum folks as aliens. The lack of understanding I saw “neurotypicals” routinely show for Spectrum people made me ask: “Just who is the unempathic person here?”

SB-C: Dear Karla, you make an excellent point that empathy is a two-way street. So-called ‘neurotypicals’ need to make an effort to understand what the world must be like for people on the autistic spectrum, and how to make people with autism spectrum conditions feel valued. Certainly, the idea of portraying or treating people on the autistic spectrum as if they were aliens is abhorrent. I also think your point that people on the autistic spectrum are “overwhelmed by incoming stimuli” is very important, since the implications is that under the right conditions, people with autism would show no empathy difficulties at all, if the incoming stimuli were not overwhelming.

On this view, any empathy difficulties might be secondary to difficulties due to the rate of information processing. I have some sympathy for this view, because I have met many adults with Asperger Syndrome who can cope with one-to-one relationships and are very caring within these, and only find it difficult when they have to process information in fast-changing social groups. Equally, I have met many adults with Asperger Syndrome who can display their excellent empathy when they have the “luxury” of considering all the facts “off-line”, that is, when there is less time pressure creating demands to respond in real time. These ideas also suggest new lines of research that the autism research community could follow up. Best, Simon

In fact, people are looking into these ideas. Neuroscientist Ilan Dinstein found that autistic adults had normally-behaving mirror neurons, and he is focusing further research on what he calls “noisy brain networks.” And cognitive neuroscientist Gregory Hickok has identified eight problems in the mirror neuron theory.

The hypothesis that people on the Spectrum are unempathic and mind-blind is just that: a hypothesis. It was an interesting first guess, but it’s not proving to be true — and sadly, it’s actually making the lives of people on the Spectrum more difficult and more painful.

As we’re seeing here on Autism and Empathy, people on the Spectrum and parents of Spectrum kids are reporting instances of not just empathy, but overwhelming empathy in this population. The fact that many researchers are unable to measure or identify this empathy is — in my empathic estimation — a function of:

  1. their incomplete understanding of what empathy actually is;
  2. their misplaced confidence in the mirror neuron hypothesis, and;
  3. their neurotypical mind-blindness about how disturbingly scattered neurotypical emotional behaviors usually are.

As Brenda Rotham noted here in The Data Myth, if you’re working with a flawed or incomplete premise, your data-gathering may lead you in very unprofitable directions. This is a problem in any area of science, but it’s a problem that has serious consequences when human subjects are involved.

As Simon Baron-Cohen wrote, my idea that people on the Spectrum may be unable to organize incoming emotional and social stimuli — which would completely skew any experiment that attempted to measure their empathy or their emotion recognition skills — is both plausible and testable.

Until those tests and studies have been completed and reviewed, it is not only wrong and damaging to brand people on the Spectrum as unempathic and mind-blind, it is completely unempathic.

About the Author: Karla McLaren is an author, social science researcher, a cappella arranger, and an empath. She worked as an empathic healer for twenty-five years, and once thought that her empathic skills were mystical. However, she questioned that and returned to college in 2004 to learn about the roots of her empathic skills. She discovered that empathy is a natural human ability, but it looks magical because most of us are so confused about emotions.

Karla is a Certified Human Resource Administrator and a Certified Career Development Facilitator. In her sabbatical from her healing career, she also had the opportunity to work as a Prison Arts Educator for the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project. She has re-written her 2001 book, Emotional Genius, to include excellent new information — not just from the academic world of sociology, neurology, social psychology, and cognitive psychology, but also from the mythological, poetic, artistic realm where true empathy and deep healing reside. This book is The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.

Empaths on the Autism Spectrum was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.


Empaths on the Autism Spectrum, Part 1

by Karla McLaren

Can I do this job?

In early 2006, I got a job working as an academic liaison for a group of 22 college-aged students on the Autism Spectrum. My job was to help the students with all of their academic needs: scheduling, counseling, learning accommodations, tutoring, social services, transportation … I was hired to create a total support system under and around the students so that they could successfully attend college. Before the job started, however, I had some serious research to do.

I’ve worked with and tutored physically disabled and learning disabled people for most of my life, but I had almost no experience with people who had autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. I knew a little bit (Rainman, sigh), but not enough to be able to truly help. So I got every book on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome at the public library and every book at the community college library, and I started from the ground up.

After fifteen or twenty books, I understood a great deal about the symptoms, history, approaches, and confusion surrounding diagnoses of autism or Asperger’s, which are quite distinct on paper, but are often diagnosed based on what kind of funding is available for each condition in each state, county, or school district. This means that the same child could be diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s, or PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified), depending on the supportive services available at the time of diagnosis.

Though autism and Asperger’s (and PDD-NOS) are presented as very different (though related) conditions, they are often mixed-and-matched by doctors, disability counselors, and schools, which is why I now use the term Autism Spectrum (and usually just Spectrum) instead of focusing on the subtypes. You can miss a great deal of crucial information about individuals if you focus on a diagnosis that currently exists in a political battle zone.

I learned a great deal on paper about Spectrum conditions, but what jumped out most significantly for me was the repeated assertion that Spectrum people are not socially adept because they are “mind blind” and therefore unempathic. This hypothesis is championed by British psychopathology professor and researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, who theorizes that Spectrum disorders involve a lack of function in the mirror neurons that allegedly help us empathize with each other. Hmm.

As an empath — or a person who is aware that they read emotions, nuance, subtext, undercurrent, social space, relational behaviors, and gestural language to a greater degree than is deemed normal (you could also call me a highly sensitive person) — I was a little bit unnerved. I wondered: Will I be meeting people who are my diametric opposites? Will I disturb or unsettle them with my overabundance of empathy? Will they feel unsafe and alien around me — or will I feel that way around them? How should I behave? Can I do this job?

As it usually happens, the information I received from the academic and counseling-based books only gave me a small piece of the whole story. Those books were merely describing Spectrum people from the outside, so I went back and got books by Spectrum people themselves (such as Donna Williams, Kamran Nazeer, Temple Grandin, and Sean Barron). These stunning autobiographies helped me understand more about how painful and confusing it had been for these people to grow up in what is called the neurotypical world.

Oh, how neurotypical of you

In order to avoid labeling Spectrum people as damaged or abnormal, the word neurotypical was coined in the autism community to refer to people who were once called normal. (An aside: My father says that Normal people are the ones you don’t know very well yet.) The word neurotypical performs a kind of protective function that — in theory — neutralizes harmful language and treatment that might otherwise be directed at people on the Spectrum.

However, social behavior that is considered correct in the majority neurotypical culture (eye contact, speaking in turns, paying attention to what neurotypical people think is important, etc.) is called neurotypical too, which is really another way of saying that this is the expected and correct behavior. Using the word neurotypical as an adjective (neurotypical behavior, neurotypical gesture, etc.) is really not neutral in practice. It’s actually kind of oppressive.

I saw this almost immediately as I met with each student and his or her parents. The students were often coached — right in front of me — on how to behave, what I wanted to hear, how I wanted to be addressed … and this made me very uncomfortable. I heard a few of the parents use the word neurotypical as a kind of slam: “A neurotypical wouldn’t ignore a direct question, so wake up!” Ouch! I continually wondered, just who is unempathic here?

The concerns I had before I met these students really faded away as I witnessed constant (well-meaning?) insults to their personhood and dignity, and their tremendous struggle to find a way to belong in the neurotypical culture. Within a day or so, my new focus was on how to shield them from the everyday oppressions of neurotypical expectations. I began to talk about neurotypicals in joking ways: “Oh, how tedious and neurotypical that is!” Or I’d affect a Homer Simpson pie-loving voice and say, “Mmmmm, Asp-burgers!” as if it were the most delicious condition to have. It was a good laugh getter.

But more than that, it was an empathic entryway into the world of these students, who I almost immediately called my friends. These were people struggling mightily to live in a world where they weren’t welcome, understood, or in many cases, seen as real human beings. The mind-blind, unempathic caricature is a case in point.

The mind-blindness of everyday people

I knew from my early reading that Spectrum people were allegedly mind-blind — that they didn’t have a functioning idea of the “otherness” of people, which meant that they thought everyone knew what they knew, liked what they liked, and thought how they thought. This mind-blindness, so the story goes, meant that Spectrum people were unempathic, since the current and very simplistic definition of empathy is the capacity to feel (not think, not surmise, not guess, but feel) what another person might be feeling (if you’re interested in a more nuanced approach to empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal has a very useful nested definition).

In my first few days with my new friends, I looked everywhere for this mind-blindness and this lack of empathy — but I didn’t find either one. I didn’t see any lack of sensitivity; in fact, I saw hypersensitivity — painful hypersensitivity. And I didn’t see mind-blindness either; instead, I saw a continual, time-lagged confusion about what was going on with and between neurotypicals.

I understand this confusion very well, because with my overabundance of empathy, I often find neurotypicals frustrating and emotionally incomprehensible. Here’s why. The following are normal everyday behaviors among neurotypicals: lying about their feelings; avoiding sensitive subjects that are glaringly obvious; leaving important words unsaid; pretending to like things they don’t like; pretending they’re not feeling an emotion that they’re clearly feeling; using language to hide, obscure, and skirt crucial issues; attacking people who frighten them without ever realizing they’re full of fear; stopping all forward progress on a project without ever realizing they’re full of anger and grief; and claiming that they are being rational when huge steamy clouds of emotion are pouring out of them. Neurotypicals are often emotionally exhausting.

And here’s the big ugly secret: Neurotypical behavior isn’t empathic — in fact, it’s often counter-empathic and filled with noise, static, emotional absurdity, and confusion.

But even amidst all of this static and confusion, many of my Spectrum friends were achingly, scathingly aware of the social world around them. I mean hilariously, dead-on aware, if you would only listen to them. In fact, they were as uncommonly aware of the social world as some of my wildly empathic friends were. What I saw in these people was not a lack of empathy, but a difficulty in dealing with an often-overwhelming sensory onslaught, from the outside world, from their struggle to decipher neurotypical social absurdities, and from inside their own brains.

My Spectrum friends were incredibly sensitive to sounds (especially very quiet sounds that many neurotypicals can ignore), colors, patterns, vibrations, scents, the wind, movement (their own and that of the people around them), the feeling of their clothing, the sound of their own hair and their breathing, food, touch, numbers, animals, social space, social behavior, electronics, the movement of traffic, the movement of trees and birds, ideas, music, juxtapositions between voice and body movements, the bizarre, emotion-masking signaling neurotypicals call “normal behavior” … many of my friends were struggling to stand upright in turbulent and unmanageable currents of incoming stimuli that could not be stopped, bargained with, ignored, moderated, or organized.

In short, my friends on the Spectrum were overwhelmingly, intensely, unremittingly, outrageously empathic — not merely in relation to emotions and social cues, but to every possible aspect of their environment.

My friends were essentially on fire most of the time, and this often created a great deal of emotional turmoil, as you can imagine. However, because they struggled with communication and socialization, it was hard for my friends to address or deal with their often intense reactions. Some would completely withdraw, some would try to connect to others by launching into monologues, some would engage in “stimming,” which is a repetitive action that can bring some sense of peace and control, and others would lash out. Being on the Spectrum is a very difficult thing when the world around you — with its constant noise, confusion, emotional inconsistency, and demands for attention — is built for neurotypicals who aren’t aware that everything is engineered for their comfort.

The mind-blindness of neurotypical privilege

The lack of awareness neurotypicals have — their blind acceptance of their world “the way it is,” without concern for the needs of others — is called privilege in sociology. For example, a young white man who lives in Northern California in 2011 and states that racism is no longer a problem is speaking from the ignorance of racial privilege. He may not be cruel or inherently racist himself, but from his social location, he cannot see or experience any direct racism; therefore, he mistakenly infers that racism doesn’t exist. Privilege is a form of mind-blindness that is, sadly, absolutely common in neurotypicals.

Neurotypical privilege relies upon the same unaware and insufficient reasoning as racial privilege does: If I don’t experience the sound of the dryer next door as being extremely loud, then it shouldn’t bother you, and you certainly shouldn’t start rocking, flapping your hands, hitting yourself, or pulling out strands of your hair in order to deal with the aural overload. Or, if you know two people who have been fighting for months on end, and you clearly understand all of the issues that they’ve been ignoring, then you should never, ever speak aloud about it, because that’s not how we do things! It’s rude! Wake up and act like a neurotypical!

What? Ouch! This “normal” social behavior — this insensitive and emotionally incongruent behavior — is only deemed normal because neurotypicals agree that it is. Neurotypical social behavior isn’t objectively correct or better than any other way …. in fact, neurotypical functioning is tremendously problematic, and as I wrote above, it is often deeply unempathic as well.

Neurotypicals who learn to manage in the social world aren’t displaying signs of superior mind-sight, functioning mirror neurons, or a healthy dose of empathy. Neurotypicals — for whom mind-blindness and a lack of empathy are common, everyday behaviors — learn to manage because the neurotypical social world was created by them and for them.

Furthermore, this idea about mirror neurons being healthy in neurotypicals and unhealthy or deficient in people on the Spectrum … it’s only an idea; it’s not a fact. Mirror neurons are not fully understood yet, and it’s not clear whether the original findings in primate studies actually translate into human neurology. This 2008 paper points out eight problems in the mirror neuron hypothesis, and researchers are working to get to the bottom of the real story.

Last year, neuroscientist Ilan Dinstein and colleagues performed an fMRI brainscan study on 13 autistic adults and 10 neurotypical adults to test whether the mirror neurons of autistic people are deficient, but he didn’t find any evidence that they were. The mirror neurons in the autistic adults were normal. You can see a video about the study here.

Dr. Marco Iacobini, a neuroscientist at UCLA who is a vocal proponent of the mirror neuron deficit hypothesis, thinks that a study with a total of 24 people isn’t large enough to draw conclusions from, but Dr. Dinstein disagrees:

Dinstein stands by his team’s conclusions. The number of participants he examined is typical for brain imaging studies, he says, and their autistic participants, though high-functioning, possessed the most extreme form of autism spectrum disorder, not milder forms such as Asperger’s syndrome.

He supports a different theory for autism: that it is the product of “noisy brain networks” that don’t communicate as predictably as those in normal people. He says his latest study offers support for this, as his team noticed more variability in the brain activity of people with autism, compared with controls.

He plans to probe this theory by searching for noise in other brain areas in people with autism. From NewScientist.

Noisy brain networks. Overwhelmed by incoming stimuli. Hypersensitive. Or, as I said above, “… overwhelmingly, intensely, unremittingly, outrageously empathic — not merely in relation to emotions and social cues, but to every possible aspect of their environment.” It seems that the real story of the Autism Spectrum is yet to be told, and you know what? It’s not going to be told by neurotypicals unless they learn to check their privilege at the door.

Here’s something that might help. This video is an awesome invitation into the inner life of a non-verbal autistic woman named Amanda Baggs (she posts on YouTube as silentmiaow). In the first part of the video, Amanda shows you her non-verbal language and the way she interacts with her environment. In the second part, Amanda uses a program that interprets her typing into speech so that she can explain her native language to neurotypicals.

Amanda writes: This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.

Amanda’s mastery of both languages is awesome, as is her ability to explain the “constant conversations” she has with all parts of her environment. This is a powerful commentary on neurotypical privilege — and it’s a real lesson in empathy.

In part 2: Speaking directly with Simon Baron-Cohen

About the Author: Karla McLaren is an author, social science researcher, a cappella arranger, and an empath. She worked as an empathic healer for twenty-five years, and once thought that her empathic skills were mystical. However, she questioned that and returned to college in 2004 to learn about the roots of her empathic skills. She discovered that empathy is a natural human ability, but it looks magical because most of us are so confused about emotions.

Karla is a Certified Human Resource Administrator and a Certified Career Development Facilitator. In her sabbatical from her healing career, she also had the opportunity to work as a Prison Arts Educator for the William James Association’s Prison Arts Project.  She has re-written her 2001 book, Emotional Genius, to include excellent new information — not just from the academic world of sociology, neurology, social psychology, and cognitive psychology, but also from the mythological, poetic, artistic realm where true empathy and deep healing reside. This book is The Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings Are Trying to Tell You.

Empaths on the Autism Spectrum was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.