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The Empathy Conundrum

Let’s get the hard part out there first: I lack empathy.

By lack, I don’t mean a complete absence of empathy; I have an empathy deficiency.  If most adults are “doing empathy” at the calculus level, I’m still in Algebra II and solving for X in ways that would make your head spin.

Before I discovered the online autism community, I assumed that my impaired empathy was typical for someone with Asperger’s. Much of the published literature includes impaired empathy as a common AS trait. “Lack of social or emotional reciprocity” is one of the diagnostic criteria. My own experience didn’t disprove that.

Then I discovered the online ASD community and suddenly felt like I needed to hide my struggles with empathy. Everywhere I looked people were refuting the notion that autistics lack empathy.

Again and again I’ve encountered discussions about empathy online and quietly slunk away, feeling like there was something wrong with me–like I was a “defective” autistic.

I Googled empathy–probably one too many times. I read the long list of definitions at Wikipedia . I read Simon Baron-Cohen’s writing on the subject and felt the same anger others have expressed at his biases. I read looooong threads on Wrong Planet and Facebook. I revisited the diagnostic criteria. I combed through the #actuallyautistic tag on Tumblr.

The more I read, the more confused I became. I started to wonder if I was talking about the same thing others were talking about when I use the word empathy.

So let’s talk about that. What is empathy, exactly? What are we talking about when we talk about empathy?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Empathy, in the most basic sense, is the ability to understand and share an emotional state with another person.

As an adult with a good amount of life experience, I can often understand the emotional state of another person. I know that if someone’s dog has died, they’ll feel sad. Most people probably come to this conclusion in a more instinctive way than I do, but I get there all the same.

Depending on the situation, I may share an emotional state with another person to some degree. I know how I felt when my dog died. Logically I know that the other person feels very sad. If I knew the person’s dog, I’ll feel a sense of loss myself, and that will contribute to my sharing their emotional state. However, I rarely experience a strong emotional reaction to another person’s circumstances.

That’s not to say that I don’t experience concern toward other people. Simple concern for others, though, isn’t so much empathy as sympathy. Sympathy is a concern for the wellbeing of another person. It can exist in the absence of the empathic act of sharing an emotional state with that person. It often arises from empathy, but it doesn’t have to.

When my daughter says she’s had a bad day at work, even though I find it hard to share her emotional state, I sympathize with her frustration or sadness. I don’t know what it feels like to get a phone call from a suddenly homeless student. I can’t truly share what my daughter is feeling as she tells me about the experience. But I do worry about her ability to cope with the situation. I understand how important her work with is to her. I hear the distress in her voice and want to do what I can to offer comfort.

In this type of situation, I have a great deal of sympathy, regardless of how strongly rooted in empathy my concern is. My sympathy doesn’t always come across like a neurotypical person’s sympathy would–okay, it rarely does–but it exists just the same.

The Challenges of Perspective Taking

The examples I used above are fairly explicit in terms of the emotional content of the situation. Both a dead dog or a student who’s been kicked out of her home have obvious contextual clues to the emotions that are present. Even my rudimentary empathic radar is going to pick them up.

Where I struggle most is in subtle situations. I often say things that other people consider insensitive and then I completely miss their wounded reaction to my comment. Why? Because I didn’t know that my comment was insensitive in the first place and I have trouble reading nonverbal communication.

Think about it. If you didn’t know someone’s dog had died, would you find it easy to understand and share their emotional state? Probably not. You’d pick up that something was wrong, but you wouldn’t be able to truly comprehend how they felt until they explained the source of their distress.

For me, all the little things that people communicate nonverbally or hint at or imply are like a whole bunch of secretly dead dogs. Until some says, “your comment hurt my feelings because ________” all I have is a vague feeling that something is off. Maybe not even that.

This is why I “failed” the Sally-Anne test. Twice. I failed it when I first discovered it early in my reading about Asperger’s and then I failed it again a few weeks ago, because it was presented in a slightly different format. Yep, twice.

You can argue that the Sally-Anne test has little to do with empathy. It’s true, the Sally-Anne test doesn’t predict the emotional dimension of empathy. Taking the test doesn’t require you to share an emotional state with Sally. It does, however, require you to set aside your own knowledge of the situation and take Sally’s perspective.

This is where a more precise definition of empathy comes in handy. Empathy actually has two components: cognitive (perspective taking) and affective (emotional response to another’s emotional state). The Sally-Anne test is a test of cognitive empathy, which is impaired in people with Asperger’s. However, when it comes to affective empathy, according to a 2007 study* aspies are on par with neurotypicals.

So. Affective empathy? We have it. Cognitive empathy? Not so much.

This is why I can fail a simple test twice, even when I already know the “answer.” I automatically default to my own perspective. I can take another person’s perspective, but it often requires a conscious decision on my part to do so. This seems to be something that’s silently implied in the general, vague, oft-used notion of empathy: that one can spontaneously and instinctively understand and share an emotional state with another.

When I say I have an empathy deficiency, I mean that I struggle with taking the view of another person spontaneously and instinctively. I lack cognitive empathy.

Too Much Empathy?

Over and over again I see references to autistic people having too much empathy. While I think the people using this phrase mean well, I’m not sure it’s accurate. Is an autistic person who feels overwhelmed by an emotional situation truly sharing and understanding the emotional state of another person too much or are they overwhelmed by an inability to regulate their own reaction to a highly-charged situation?

Generally, when I feel emotionally overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, it’s related to my alexithymia (emotional dysfunction). In short, I have trouble regulating my own emotions and I have trouble discriminating between emotions that are “aimed at” me and emotions that are “aimed at” someone else. If I encounter two people having a shouting argument, my emotional reaction is the same as if I were the target of their shouting, as if they were both angry at me.

I don’t think this is empathy. I’m not sharing their emotional state (anger) so much as feeling like the target of it. If I were sharing the emotional state of the people in the shouting match, wouldn’t I feel like shouting at someone, too? Instead, I feel frightened and intimidated. I feel an intense need to escape from a situation to which I’m nothing more than a bystander.

In fact, in this kind of situation, the only person I’m thinking about is myself and how uncomfortable I am. There I go again, taking my own perspective. My distress at the situation might outwardly appear to be empathic but my internal reaction is a great big “MAKE IT STOP, NOW.”

This type of reaction is mentioned in the 2007 study I referenced earlier. The researchers found that the aspies scored significantly higher on a scale of personal distress than the neurotypical group, indicating “a greater tendency to have self-oriented feelings of anxiety and discomfort in response to tense interpersonal settings.” Note the use of self-oriented feelings in that sentence. Empathy by definition describes a state shared with others; an overabundance of self-directed anxiety or discomfort is not the same as “too much empathy.”

The Right Way to be Autistic

Circling back to what got me started on this post: the subtle implication in the discussion about empathy that there is a right way to be autistic and that right way includes having empathy or too much empathy. And perhaps as a corollary to that: autistics who have too much empathy are doing their part to subvert the stereotype of the unfeeling autistic.

That was probably an unpopular paragraph. If you found it offensive or upsetting, take a moment to stop and think about why.

Is there any difference between the subtle pressure to (appear to) have empathy and the subtle (or not so subtle) pressure to not stim in public or to make eye contact? Is advancing the belief that all autistics have empathy another way of making us seem more normal? Is there a difference between pressure to not look different outwardly and the same sort of pressure to not feel different inwardly?

Empathy is often philosophically framed as a fundamental element of the human condition. Without it, are we somehow less than human? What if we have impaired empathy–is our humanity impaired?

Choose Your Words

Perhaps we need to be more thoughtful about how we use the word empathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with sympathy.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotion.

Empathy is not interchangeable with emotional overload.

Empathy is not some hoop to be jumped through to prove to the world that we may be autistic, but it’s not that bad because “oh look, we have empathy just like you!” (Even if we do, in whatever form. There should be no burden of proof.)

Empathy has many definitions, but they all have at their core understanding the emotional state of another person.

When I say I lack empathy, what I mean is I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others. Hell, I have a deficit in understanding my own emotional state at times.

"I lack empathy" simply means that "I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others."
“I lack empathy” simply means that “I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others.”

This doesn’t mean I’m unsympathetic.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care for others.

It doesn’t mean I can’t show concern.

It doesn’t mean I have no emotions.

It doesn’t mean I don’t get overwhelmed by other people’s emotional states.

It doesn’t mean I’m any less human than you are.

What does it mean then?

That I may need more information than a typical person to understand a social situation. That my reactions to your emotions may be unconventional. That I have to work harder to grasp what comes naturally to most people.

Simple as that. Nothing more, nothing less.

——-

*Thank you to Pi for pointing me toward this study. It turned out to be the missing link in wrapping this post up.

For a mom’s point of view on this, check out Does My Child Lack Empathy? by Jeanie at Reinventing Mommy

111 thoughts on “The Empathy Conundrum”

  1. I agree with this post. :3

    Personally, I answer ‘normally’ on the Sally-Anne test, but it’s so much easier than it is with real people. :/ When I was eight, I told a friend of mine that his mother didn’t love him- and you know what? I didn’t understand that it was a rude thing to say at all. It was just the truth (or so I thought). Now I know that, while his mother was neglectful, she did, indeed, love him.

    But I didn’t understand this back then.

    I often say comments impulsively, without truly thinking about what it is that I’m saying. Either that, or I consider the fact that a comment could be rude, convince myself that it isn’t, and then offend someone unintentionally.

    When I see another person in physical pain, I often feel sympathy, but I also feel amused because they are reacting so strongly and I’m a bit insensitive to pain myself. When someone is crying, I don’t know what to do… and when people are yelling, I, too, feel as though I’m the one being yelled at.

    And yet when I’m writing, I’m very good at empathizing with a character (as well as with watching television or reading books), I’m just bad at empathizing with real-life, actual people. XD

    If I really put myself in some else’s shoes, I can understand their motivations and feelings, and I can logically understand why they’d be upset… but sometimes I just don’t FEEL it. Unless, of course, they are fictional, but that’s probably because I can relate to them, know their entire life story, and have obsessed over that specific characters for days. O.o

    The same goes for my own emotions, too, I’m realizing. Sometimes, I feel them… but I can’t identify them. Or, I can identify them through guesswork, but I can’t entirely feel them.

    It’s definitely a conundrum. :o

    1. There is actually a name for having difficulty identifying/sensing feelings: alexythemia. I’ve written a post about and I’ll stick it up soon, because I think it’s very closely related to this whole empathy discussion.

      I know what you mean about having to often make a conscious effort to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. If I’m not being conscious of the need to do that, I tend to steamroll over other people’s feelings. There are so many variables to deal with in social interaction. Sigh.

      I love fiction – reading and writing it – and have often wondered if that’s because fiction is a kind of internal social skills practice? You have plenty of time, like you said, to work out what’s going on with a character based all that you know about them. Their interactions then become a way to safely experiment with various social and emotional situations and to explore how “people” interact.

      1. Oh, I agree with you about fiction being skill practice. I trained myself in social interaction through television. :3 It’s the easiest way to learn facial expressions and body language, in my opinion.

  2. I, too, have failed the Sally-Anne test miserably. I still don’t understand the answer. I like how you spilt empathy into cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Cognitive empathy is something I do have trouble with, unless it has to do with my kids. I am a little better with them. I can honestly say I do have affective empathy The only time I feel I don’t have any form of empathy is when I can’t make a connection to an experience of my own. If I can make a connection, then I do think I understand the emotional state of another person, because I have been there.

    I do feel concern for people, but what I can’t stand is sympathy. I don’t want it and I don’t give it. I guess I am weird that way. Sympathy makes me feel really, really uncomfortable and upset. It doesn’t make me feel better at all. If anything, I just want some understanding and leave it at that. I really don’t even know how to show sympathy. I have tried in the past, but it is not natural for me. My husband had only recently come to realize this about me and he has accepted the fact that he can’t come to me for sympathy and I will just get mad if he tries to give me sympathy.

    People in the past have gotten upset with me over not showing sympathy. Then they say I don’t feel and they get mad at me. I have always believed that you treat a person the way you want to be treated. I will sit and listen to a person, because sometimes you just need to talk. Unless a person tells me that they want to vent, I will try to give some suggestions on how to improve their situation. I am a problem solver. If I am able to make a connection with what I have been told, then I do understand how the other person feels. At this point in the conversation I can see where the emotional overload component could take place. I am feeling what this other person is feeling, but because of my sensory issues I can’t modulate it. Then I begin to feel that I am losing control. I need to go directly into trying to fix the other person’s problems, so both of us can feel better. Emotions confuse me and it takes me a long time to process them whether they are my own or someone else’s.

    I think what this really comes down to is that whether you are neurotypical or autistic, we are all different and we all experience things differently. Autism is a spectrum disorder. No two autistic people are the same. I think it upsets people that “experts” lump all of us in to one category. It is said that autstics lack empathy. I think it is the way that the statement is written that gets to people. It implies that this is how it is for everyone on the spectrum. The truth is some do, some don’t, and then there are the variations in between. This could be applied to neurotypicals as well.

    1. “I need to go directly into trying to fix the other person’s problems, so both of us can feel better.”

      Yes, yes, yes. I do this all the time. It drives my husband bonkders and my daughter has literally said to me, “I just need a little sympathy here!” It’s the only way to stop me from offering solutions when all she wants is to talk about her bad day and have some acknowledge her misery.

      Your last paragraph is so important. The opposing notions that all autistics don’t have empathy or have NT-style empathy feel equally damaging to me. The type and amount of empathy or sympathy that we have is a personal thing. It shouldn’t be something that we have to prove or disprove or demonstrate to others.

      1. I lost my best friend of 10 years because she told me she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and my (deeply loving) response was to spend 20 hours straight researching MS and return to her with information and links to support groups.

        She got very angry with me, said some very nasty things, and finished with saying she never wanted to have anything to do with me again. To date, she hasn’t. That was a decade ago.

        It took me years to even figure out what I did wrong. I still haven’t really figured out what I was supposed to do instead.

        (p.s. I *love* “For me, all the little things that people communicate nonverbally or hint at or imply are like a whole bunch of secretly dead dogs.”)

      2. I get people upset because they “vent” to me and then I start getting into their problem instead of listening. I just do not understand why you would talk to someone about your problem if you do not want to hear anything back. Then I noticed when my good friend was listening to me talk she said things like “awe thats too bad” “Sorry to hear that” “Hopefully things will turn out better”… I was upset by it. I wanted advice and direction, she mistook what I was doing for “venting” when I was reaching out for something more. So instead of saying that, cause at the time I did not notice, I just kept repeating myself, I guess waiting for the result I wanted. Eventually I got tired of reaching out and asked her a question about herself. I hate how hours later of re-living the situation in my head, that I finally see what was really going on. It is sad to me to think I had such a large gap between her and I.

        And about this empathy. I think its a crock of poo! I say this because if people who are NOT autistic are “suppose” to feel empathy then why do I never receive any from them when I have an “autistic” moment? Why dont they pick up on how I am feeling and that they need to stop doing whatever it is that is bothering me so I can calm down? How is empathy real? I think its all acting, they just do it better than we do. When it comes down to it, I think if the world knew how to show empathy naturally I would like to think the damage we have done to one another would rarely, if at all, happen. So I ignore that “symptom” or “trait”. I do not think anyone knows how to do that naturally. Its just who is a better actor than the other.

        1. I think that ‘empathy’ of the type that autistic people may lack is in large part a type of social learning – people learn the cultural signals for displaying certain emotions, that everyone else is supposed to look out for and recognise.

          This ‘empathy’ is a learned language of nonverbal communication, not actually innate, it varies from culture to culture. There are different ways to display emotion, to give cues, depending where you grew up. These are learned socially., but autistic people tend not to learn socially, at least not subconsciously without special effort.

          That’s why non-autistic people, who supposedly have good empathy, can’t read the emotions and needs of many autistic people, because we’re not ‘speaking’ the same learned language of displaying emotion that they’ve learned, so they’re reading the wrong cues from how we behave.

          ‘Empathy’ only works if you’re both from the same culture, both understand the same shorthand, the same cues. Being autistic is kind of like being in an unfamiliar culture in this respect. So non-autistic people can struggle to understand the emotions and expectations of autistic people just as much as we can struggle to understand theirs.

          (I don’t actually think that this is ‘empathy’, but that’s what it looks like to people with poor ‘Theory Of Autistic Mind’).

          1. Oh yes, I sometimes forget about our different ways of expressing ourselves. I guess that could be confusing and give mixed signals. Like it is for us to relate to them. I get it now. Thanks.

        2. You just nailed the biggest problem I have with the empathy subject. I think what passes for empathy in the neurotypical population is really just active listening. It seems to be just another version of “mm hmm”, “sure”, “uh huh” and other little phrases to reflect that you are listening.

          It also bothers me that we are said to have a deficit with showing empathy to them, but when they lack empathy towards us it is normal.

          I think empathy is overrated. I don’t give people sympathy too often because sympathy feels like you’re looking down on someone and I find that offensive. I think compassion is a much more important trait. I am extremely compassionate, but the people I see who are said to show empathy often seem to lack compassion.

          1. Yes active listening. I am very compassionate. Too compassionate which seems to be annoying to most people. I just cant win lol.

  3. The Sally-Ann test is so annoying though because the question is “where should Sally-Ann look to find her marble? ” and of course the answer is that she should look in the box. The question ought to be “where do you think Sally-Ann will look for her marble at first?” Then I think many autistic people would answer ‘correctly.’ The more I find out about autism the more the typical mindset annoys the hell out of me! Anyway, another totally excellent, well thought and well argued post. I really enjoyed it. I score a low 12 on the Baron-Cohen empathy test and always wondered about my ability to understand people’s emotional reactions; however, your clear differentiation between empathy and sympathy has made the reason for that clear for the first time. Thank you!

    1. Oh, I absolutely love your point about the Sally-Anne test. I scored a 12 the last time I took the empathy test and before that an 8 and a 10–I joked to my husband that I’m now 33% more empathetic. Next week I’m covering the EQ for Take-a-Test Tuesday. One of the interesting things I found in reading about the EQ is that it actually measures cognitive empathy, affective empathy and social skills but doesn’t break them out as separate scores.

      Thank you for the kind words. I’m so glad you found this helpful.

  4. GREAT POST! I have a very difficult time recognizing what I’m feeling and then consequently allowing that out. Sometimes I intellectually understand that I’m supposed to be feeling empathy and I’m not, but other times I completely identify with someone, but it’s usually in books or films. Identifying that way with in real life with a real person would be too…emotional for me, I think. I prefer not to use or feel that kind of emotion around others if I can help it. As someone else mentioned, I too am a fixer, and have always thought that WAS empathy. Helping people fix a situation seems like a great and constructive way to help…though unpopular, I guess. I also find that I have a hard time turning off my pragmatism – for instance if someone is suffering because of something they did, I feel obliged to point it out, not to be mean, but to show them how they can avoid this in the future. Again, I have always seen that as “helping” but it’s not welcome and I understand that now. Mostly.

    I think for me, the block to expressing empathy is twofold – 1) Recognizing it and 2) Figuring out what to do about it with a real person. I wonder if it’s not so much that we don’t have empathy, but that the aspect of having to express it is too difficult to grasp because it involves sociability and interaction.

    1. I have a lot of problems with recognizing emotions too. I think that plays a big part in my impaired expression of empathy. Also, your last paragraph really hit home with me. There is so much that goes into the expression of empathy and we seem to struggle with all aspects of it in some minor or major way.

      “if someone is suffering because of something they did, I feel obliged to point it out, not to be mean, but to show them how they can avoid this in the future.”

      This is so not appreciated by NTs! :-D I still sometimes do it without thinking and it just ends in frustration all around.

  5. Hm. I got my definition of empathy (as it relates to NTs and the Autism Spectrum) from my sister’s (the Speech Language Pathologist) definition of Theory of Mind. In that, empathy is the ability to understand what another person is feeling. It is *not* the ability to take the other person’s perspective. That is a step up and is a / the step that autistics have a great deal of trouble with. Generally, my sister said, we can be *anywhere* else on the Theory of Mind spectrum, but you don’t usually find autistics up in the “taking another person’s perspective” part. In which case, I have empathy – but can’t go past that step.

    In your definition, musingsofanaspie, I have good affective empathy, not so good cognitive empathy (which, re-reading your definitions, is essentially the same as what my sister’s said about the higher levels of Theory of Mind). And yeah, understanding my own emotions is *hard*. My psychologist back in Toronto used to try to get me to identify my emotions by breaking them down, from the top up – what did I think I felt, what emotions were at the base of that, and so on. It sometimes worked. Sometimes didn’t.

    I think part of the problem is also people conflating “lack of empathy” with “emotionlessness”. *shakes head* Which I admit can *sometimes* go together, usually in psychopaths / sociopaths, who don’t have the emotional understanding to see other people as *people*. It definitely doesn’t go together in ASD.

    As for sympathy… I can dispense sympathy… but my understanding of the word “sympathy” involves “concern for a situation that you know upset someone but that you can’t understand from personal experience”. And I’m best at sympathy from a distance, i.e. over chat or email. The other term, when someone else is in a situation I’ve experienced myself, is “understanding”. I know the basics of how they feel because I’ve felt that way, and so I can assure them safely that I *understand*.

    *shrugs*

    Just my 2 cents….

    ;) tagAught

    1. I think that cognitive empathy, theory of mind and perspective taking can all be used interchangeably or nearly so. I’m starting to wonder if people with “in tact” (for lack of a better word) empathy come by it so naturally that they just assume empathy, emotions and sympathy are all the same thing. Maybe NTs don’t have the gradations of experience that we do?

      Saying that you understand a situation is I think a good and honest way to express sympathy. Most people will take it as such and even if what you mean is that you logically understand, it will come across as sympathetic and, well, understanding. :-) I like this idea a lot.

  6. Great post! I can really relate to the “inability to regulate their own reaction to a highly-charged situation” rather than empathy. At home, my parents (for example) would start arguing or bickering over something really minor that they’d forget about ten seconds later, but I usually ended up having to leave the room altogether. I definitely wouldn’t call that “empathy” because I actively avoided at all costs leading either of them to believe I was “taking their side”.

    I tend to have difficulty expressing emotions more than anything. Recently, I was one of a double-figure sum of bridesmaids at a wedding, and the only one not to cry; I felt so guilty about it later, but it’s not like I can just turn the tear ducts on and off like a tap, and besides, the wedding was a HAPPY event, not a SAD event. Same with all those films and TV shows that you apparently HAVE to cry at. I’ve cried at TV literally once in my entire life, and even that was relatively recently. It doesn’t mean I’m “heartless”, it means I don’t cry a lot.

    1. This might be a bit off topic, but here it goes. I don’t understand why people cry at weddings either, but I do get moved by performances on television, in movies, on stage, or by music. I do cry, but it is not always consistant. Let’s take for example the episode where the 11th doctor looses the Ponds. It was supposed to be this really emotional scene which resulted in world wide anguish from fans. I was just like, um, people the Ponds didn’t die, they just went to a time that the Doctor got locked out of. What’s the big deal?

      Then there is the other example of the most recent Star Trek movie. Kirk’s dad knows he is going to die and he has to say goodbye to his wife who just gave birth to their son. It doesn’t matter how many times I see that movie, that scene gets me every time. I have actually gotten in the habit of skipping that first part of the movie all together. Why the disparity? I can connect with the scene in the Star Trek movie. It tears me up inside, because pregancy, childbirth, and what happen after that was very tramatic for me. Even though my experience was not the same as the characters, I feel what the actors are feeling, and it overwhelms me. The anguish over the Doctor Who episode isn’t logical to me. Yes, the Doctor was very close to the Ponds, but the Ponds had been ready to live a “normal” life. They were happy with the life they were given after leaving the Doctor. Why were people so sad?

      So, in the end, I guess this is an example of how I lack empathy sometimes, but not lacking empathy all the time. Definitely an empathy conundrum.

    2. Thank you! I always have to leave the room when my husband gets into an argument or even a heated conversation on the phone. I have a post about alexithymia ready to go for next week that expands on the concept of emotional overload and having difficulty distinguishing between generalized emotion and emotion that’s targeted “at” me. It’s interesting to see that so many of us experience that in some way.

      I totally get your lack of an urge for happy crying and crying at films. I’m not much of a crier outside of meltdowns really.

      1. Me neither! Regarding the “difficulty distinguishing between generalized emotion and emotion that’s targeted at me”, I also have this annoying habit of apologising as my “default” response, even though I usually have nothing to BE sorry for. Looking forward to the alexithymia post!! :)

  7. I see what you mean. Funnily enough, the Ponds leaving was the one time that I DID cry at TV, but… let’s just say I had some “special interest” issues tied in as well, so it was probably that. On the other hand, personally I haven’t experienced pregnancy/childbirth. I guess the “empathy conundrum” is based on what the individual has been through (for example, the example of the dead dog in the blog post), as with neurotypical people. :)

  8. My doc, assuming he is an NT, must lack empathy – he wrote on my psych referral, “… (patient) is concerned she may have Ashbergers…” It’s not like he didn’t know how to spell correctly as in a previous consultation, he correctly spelled Aspergers.

    I won’t bother to confront him about this but Dr Trash will get no further business from me.

    Am surprised that an adult fail Sally-Ann Test twice, to me the answer was obvious (maybe I lack empathy?). Thanks for sharing that with us though, I thought only children fail to see this situation :)

    To be honest I am still confuse about what is empathy… Like Unstrangemind, I have lost close friends because I was trying to ‘fix’ their messy love life but couldn’t understand my solutions/analyses weren’t welcome. It was not like I was making something up, I saw obvious and pointed it to them with the hope they can feel better but all backfires.

    Or was it the case when hubby casually mention to me his sister’s boyfriend had a good operation, I said nothing. Hubby then thinks I am cold because I didn’t offer a “oh good to hear” or similar kind of response. After thinking about it, I thought having a response is just unnecessary, the kid was obviously doing well and me saying “good” won’t mean anything to the hubby for he was not the patient in question. Hubby thinks it is because I lack empathy, but was it empathy or sympathy?

    Is empathy is feeling and if it is, do one has to communicate that feeling in order for others to know empathy is felt?

    *Argh*

    1. Oh geez, what an insulting thing for your doctor to do, especially if you know that he knows how to spell it. I wouldn’t go back either. But you got a referral! One step closer.

      The Sally-Anne test. I don’t know why it tripped me up. Both times I answered and then a few seconds later, I was like, “oh, wait . . . .” which is how much of my life goes, come to think about it. :-)

      I guess empathy is kind of a feeling? Or feeling is part of empathy? Honestly, I’m not sure. I also don’t get the huge emphasis that NTs put on empathy. To them, we look cold. To us, they look overly concerned with picky little details like whether we come up with the “right” (to them only, obviously) response to a particular statement. I completely relate to both of your examples, which I think are either social miscues or impaired empathy, or a combination of the two.

      It’s like aspies and NTs are dancing to two completely different songs on this with each blaming the other for being off the beat. :-)

      1. Remember you wrote a post about your son fell off his bed at night and both you and the Scientist rushed to his side, the first thing you did was to check for injury and the first thing your hubby did was to offer him a hug? When I read that I was like, OMG that would be so me checking for injury!!!

        Both of you showed you care through different actions, was that empathy?

        My hubby said I always offer solutions, but it doesn’t mean I care less, I wouldn’t waste time to analyse the situation to come up with solutions otherwise – don’t believe in time wasting. Maybe people show empathy in different ways, just that the world is more use to the ways of the majority (the NTs?).

        Looking forward to your next post, like other readers, your blog is easy to read because the way you structure your sentences and thoughts, as well as the layouts of your blog, very user friendly! Do you work in the web?

        1. We have a daughter, but yes, that’s us exactly. :-) The people in my life know that I’m a fixer so I guess they’re used to being shown sympathy/empathy in that way.

          You’re exactly right that offering solutions takes care and time and effort, perhaps more so than offering a shoulder to cry on or some sympathetic words.

          I’m so happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog. I don’t work in an internet field but I enjoy thinking about design and user-friendliness.

  9. Ted has “passed” the Sally Anne test each time he has taken it. He thinks it’s a dumb test and from an experimental design perspective it is, for it does an terrible job of distinguishing between what a child can know and what a child can feel, rather, it conflates them. Ted says he just uses his intelligence when taking this test, that his ability to understand the motive of the test overrides his need to be empathetic. Moreover, he says he uses his intelligence to know that in certain circumstances he knows what is considered appropriate and will act appropriately, he knows it makes the situation easier. This has come with maturity. And he says, so often he lacks empathy by choice, he just simply doesn’t care about most stuff, but the stuff he does choose to care about he cares about deeply. He just doesn’t buy into the need to care about what most people care about. I find him extremely refreshing and honest for just that one reason alone! :-)

    1. “his ability to understand the motive of the test overrides his need to be empathetic.”

      This is genius and why someone said in a comment last week “most aspies have higher IQs than the researchers who study them.” :-D After reading Baron-Cohen’s work on empathy, I came away feeling like he goes about designing these tests in a way that will prove his predetermined points and theories. Of course people then accept his theories because they’re “empirically proven” and who’s going to go read the original research papers and look critically at the research design or the statistical analysis? Besides the aspies with a special interest in ASD tests, of course.

      Intelligence, pattern recognition and deriving my own set of rules has gone a long way toward helping me “pass” socially too. It’s easier to blend in or give the expected answer in a lot of situations (assuming one can figure out what that is).

      I like Ted’s philosophy of life a lot. He seems to have found a balance between making life easier and being his authentic self.

  10. p.s. (hit the post comment button too quickly) I really enjoy your posts. They are lessons, and I (that simple thing again) often have to read them several times to fully digest all the little nuggets contained in them. You are a wonderfully clear and systematic writer and I like that, a lot!

    1. Thank you! That means a lot to me. You leave such thoughtful comments and I always learn something from them as well.

      I’m writing a post about sense-making and how my blog has become my sense-making narrative. In thinking that over, I realized that the comments and the dialogue that happens “down here” are an essential part of the process for me, so thank you for participating so enthusiastically and genuinely.

  11. I hope you will not mind me contributing my thoughts on this. I am NT with a son on the spectrum. I am going to begin by saying that I think the autistic community should reject the notion that they lack empathy outright. Controversial I know :). Let me explain.

    Firstly let me state that my understanding of empathy is the ability to imagine how another may be feeling in a given situation. I think we should draw a distinction between understanding how another may feel and reacting appropriately to demonstrate understanding. For example, it is easy to understand the loss that poeple feel when a loved one dies. BUT people grieve in very different ways and what is an appropriate reaction to one individuals grief may not be right for another. In reality I wonder if anybody knows what to do to SHOW empathy initially. My hypothesis is that NT’s are better at mirroring and thereby displaying empathy. Some NT’s are masters at this and others of us struggle a little.

    I find it intriguing that the posts on this thread seem to be searching for sub definitions of empathy in order to justify how lacking empathy is a correct description of how they are. Yet every poster demonstrates, compassion and sympathy. However behaviours described might be out of sync with the herd. It strikes me that as a group those on the spectrum are generally more introspective and reflective than the population as a whole. I think it must be remembered that when the majority of people read ‘lacks empathy’ they understand this as cannot understand how another feels and cannot sympathise when another is in distress, and consequentially acts completely egocentrically. Because this is how ‘lacks empathy’ is interpreted I really think it should be challenged as an autistic trait.

    This is my hypothesis for APPARENT lack of empathy and the possible reasons why the autistic community may accept this critism, I will be interested to see how this is received.

    1. Reading and mirroring body language and facial expression is really difficult (or impossible?) so judging whether your reaction is appropriate for an individual is almost impossible. This must surely lead to a lack of confidence in offering any kind of reaction…? I wonder if changing scripts is also an issue here.

    2. Does overthinking what might be appropriate also lead to inability to react at all?

    3. I wonder if those on the spectrum overestimate how much NT’s empathise. It seems to me that there are plenty of NT’s lacking compassion and sympathy yet still ACTING appropriately in realtime (sometimes it seems without really understanding another individuals emotions.) My theory is that NT’s identify the leader in social situations and subconsciously mirror appropriately. Like everything, levels of skill in this area vary enormously across the whole population (I’m not wonderfully good at it personally, although I don’t have the same levels of difficultly as I am hypothesising those on the spectrum do.) Most NT’s don’t always get it right either, plenty of people say the wrong thing but perhaps we are better at noticing that and adjusting.

    In summary I suspect that the ability to empathise varies amongst both populations, rather that it is skills in reading and reacting to emotional pointers that are missing in the autistic population.

    Now I am taking a deep breath, and bravely posting :).

    1. I don’t mind at all. I’m glad you were brave enough to comment. I enjoy reading comments that question my thoughts or challenge me to look at a subject from a new angle.

      I agree with you that NTs are better at mirroring behavior and so probably come across as more empathetic on that score alone. There is actually a hostage negotiation tactic (yes, I’m a font of unusual information) known as mirroring in which the negotiator or hostage puts the hostage taker at ease by literally mirroring tone of voice, posture, gestures, etc. Apparently when someone mirrors our mannerisms, we’re lulled into a sense of security.

      Most aspies would probably make bad hostage negotiators because we don’t pick up on body language as skillfully as the average person. :-)

      I think that overthinking or fearing a bad reaction isn’t so much a problem as just not recognizing that our chosen response will get a bad reaction. I’m consistently surprised when someone is offended, upset, sad, surprised or angry by something I say or do or don’t say or don’t do. I think autistics have given similar examples of this in the comments here, often saying that they keep doing the same “wrong” thing time after time before finally learning it’s not welcome. So perhaps the problem is happening even earlier in the process than you suspect?

      At any rate, I’m not sure if I care very much whether people think I (or aspies in general) have empathy. It seems more important to NTs than to aspies? I’m a compassionate person who doesn’t want to hurt anyone intentionally and people who know me well know that. And I’m good with that.

    2. Great comment, very thought provoking!

      I’ve actually read that people on the spectrum are prone to being overwhelmed by the emotions of others and that this is why counsellors and other professionals are advised not to mirror the emotions of people on the spectrum as this can make things worse – it’s important to stay rational and calm, especially when someone’s in a state of meltdown or emotional overload, otherwise this can make things worse.

      From what I understand, neurotypical people will naturally start making appropriately shocked or angry or happy or sad reactions on behalf of the other person when being told about emotional life events, but this isn’t how autistic people naturally communicate. We tend to have to learn to do these sorts of reactions as stock scripted responses in order to not be seen as cold or disinterested (Tony Attwood calls this ‘social skills as a second language’). Conversely NT counsellors have to be trained to not do these things when interacting with us, so really they’re also having to learn our ‘social language’ that doesn’t come naturally to them.

      In fact I’ve seen quite a few people posit that autistic people are much better at doing cognitive empathy with other people on the spectrum with them, and that neurotypical people huge cognitive empathy impairments when attempting to read autistic people. If anything they can be worse at this than vice versa because they don’t learn through exposure to us as much as we do to them. I think this sort of idea is best explored in this book http://www.amazon.com/Theory-Perspectives-Autism-Asperger-Syndrome/dp/1843103613 Which looks at autistic people, their parents and the professionals who deal with them as a ‘triad of perspectives’, all of which have great failings in cognitive empathy for each other (NB, it’s more aimed at the experiences usually seen as being at the so-called lower functioning end of the spectrum).

      Most neurotypical people have a very poor ‘Theory Of Autistic Mind’ and will read autistic behaviour like flapping with joy as discomfort or agitation, or think that the best way to comfort someone is to grab them and stare into their eyes. Autistic people tend to understand how to comfort, understand and talk to each other a lot better (I can say this from having several friends on the spectrum and spending time in Autistic Space like Autscape).

      I think this sort of two way failure in cognitive empathy (between autistic perspectives and neurotypical perspectives) is why I’m almost exclusively close friends with people who are also on the spectrum, suspect they might be or are at least extremely comfortable with autistic social communication (through having aspie family members etc). We effectively ‘speak the same language’ both socially and emotionally, and therefore don’t have to translate our social skills and so our cognitive empathy into a ‘second language’ (as Tony Attwood puts it).

      (There’s your dose of neurodiversity to balance the much more deficit and impairment based viewpoint I shared below!)

      1. It’s very interesting to read everyone’s thoughts on this, I always find it much more informative to read what those on the spectrum say themselves than what the ‘experts’ say. Musingsofanaspie makes a good point that people here have described making responses over and over again before the realisation that others considered them inappropriate. This is something I hadn’t really considered. But is this a lack of empathy or an incomprehension of the response another would wish for? Perhaps the response everyone gives is the response they themselves would like to receive in the same situation, I think that is different to not understanding how another person feels and much harder to get right? Perhaps this is why as Quarries and Corridors points out, reading and empathising with those on the spectrum is equally as misunderstood by NT’s.

        I had no idea empathy was broken down into different types so I have learnt lots. This is a puzzle that intrigues me as I can relate to the over- empathising that Quarries and Corridors (below) and others on the spectrum describe. It amazes me that people chose to watch distressing movies, that they enjoy them…. Surely this is an inability to empathise with the characters. I struggle with other peoples distress, I describe it as secondhand sadness. And I find it hard to behave appropriately, I just cannot join in anothers sadness this seems inappropriate to me (especially in a group situation), I have a tendency to focus on problem solving if at all possible, or failing that look for practical ways to help like make meals or care for the children. All my children including my son who is on the spectrum struggle with over-empathising with characters. Which is quite a problem with children’s literature and films and the way kids are taught to ‘be caring’ in school by having shocking real life stories related. What I cannot unravel is if there is a difference in this area between my AS son and the rest of my family. I have heard it suggested that autistics get more emotional information, so deal with it by blocking it, as perhaps they do with other sensory input. Or perhaps it is blocking the other sensory input that blocks the emotional input too. Its so difficult to tell. I am reminded as I write this of when I got glasses at the age of 12. I had no idea the rest of the world could see so much better than me! We cannot experience the world as another does.

        I know families of autistics often share autistic traits, and I came across an interesting study that has shown that strangers in a room somehow manage to pair up with people with amazingly similar life experiences. There is so much we do not know about how human beings work. It seems to me it would be most interesting to have a study into the different ways people of all neurotypes empathise. I wonder if similarities would be found within groups or if within each group there is a diversity of empathy types too :). And indeed as musingsofanaspie says below what part does upbringing play…?

        1. I think you’re right that the response I give is often one that I would be fine with receiving, though others find it inappropriate.

          The blocking of information–I sometimes have to do this intentionally to avoid being overwhelmed in an emotional situation but other times it seems to just happen, because I’m not picking up on nonverbal cues. The “obviousness” of the emotion is a big factor in which one of these is the case. I find it very hard to regulate my emotions in the presence of others, even when I intentionally try to.

          There are quite a few studies that have been done about empathy, including some broken down by different neurotypes. The test that I wrote up for this Tuesday is the Empathy Quotient and the write up touches a bit on gender differences in empathy “tests” which I found interesting.

      2. NTmumofAspie, if you see this response, could you elaborate on your kids over-empathising with fictional characters? That sounds like something I can definitely relate to, but I haven’t really heard anyone else discussing it.

  12. I think as you get older figuring out if you can empathize becomes much more complicated because you rely so heavily on context clues. If my friend (that I know well) shows up with her eyebrows scrunched but raised and her lips have practically disappeared, I know she is upset and I should ask what is wrong. If she talks about how her parents are fighting again, I can completely understand how it feels to deal with arguing parents, but I don’t know if I can foresee all the consequences that she does concerning this issue. Without being the person in the situation, I don’t know how anyone can really empathize completely. I write fiction, but I need to put myself into my characters consciously to write. I sometimes need to ask my NT boyfriend about small talk and how a character should react because I have never been in a situation like they are in, and I can’t reason out the emotion like he can.

    1. Yes, exactly. I can read my husband fairly well because I know him so well, but I still have to ask at times what exactly he’s thinking beneath what he’s telling me. Like you said, what sort of consequences are a concern or what the emotional nuances of a situation are for him. Because the way I process things emotionally is different from the way he does and so it’s hard for me to extrapolate. In some way, I think this can make for stronger relationships because we aren’t assuming we know what the other person feels and we have to really listen and try to understand from more of a blank slate perspective.

      I’m so excited to find other aspie writers. From reading the literature, you’d think we were an unimaginative bunch for sure. :-D

      1. I’m pretty sure a lot of artists/writers were aspies since we see things in a different way than many NTs. Profound pieces of art and literature are considered as such because the artist takes something normal and portrays it in a different light.

  13. This is a really good post. I’m sorry that you’ve felt social pressure from the rest of the community to conceptualise your traits in the same way other people find acceptable, and so on this particular subject you’ve found yourself trying to ‘pass’ in the autistic community as much as around neurotypical people. I’m glad you’ve felt able to challenge that and give your true perspective.

    Autism is a spectrum condition and everyone’s experiences are different, I don’t have any problem with the idea that you find both types of empathy difficult to relate to. I know some autistic people think in pictures and others in words, two incompatible polar opposites that nonetheless meet the same diagnostic criteria. There’s a huge diversity within our community and space for a lot of differences.

    But maybe some people are doing what you say and trying to tell the neurotypical majority that “we have empathy just like you!”. I can only talk from my experiences, where my problems with intense empathy in some situations don’t feel at all ‘just like’ typical experiences. Maybe explaining how I’ve experienced ‘too much empathy’ can help with the conundrum in your title…

    Personally one of the things that stopped me from seeing myself in the Asperger’s criteria for quite a while was the fact that my only awareness of empathy was as something overwhelming and difficult, to the point where when I was a teenager whose self worth came from being rational and logical, I felt like my emotional over sensitivity was one of my biggest problems.

    I’m still notorious for being ridiculously over affected by fiction, especially films and TV. I cry at most drama, especially someone reacting to a loved one’s death or choosing self sacrifice to save a loved one. If I watch something genuinely tragic I end up feeling emotionally destroyed for hours afterwards. I feel excruciatingly uncomfortable if the viewpoint character tells white lies and is about to be found out (this makes children’s TV tricky!), or if anyone is in an embarrassing situation on screen I get so embarrassed that I have to leave the room or watch from behind a cushion. I’m also utterly overwhelmed with intense happy-crying by anything where characters discover art or books for the first time, or choose not to give up on their principles. If something extremely happy happens in the climax of a film I’ll struggle not to get out of my chair and jump around with joy. Drama is designed to evoke emotional reactions and it works incredibly well on me, far more than anyone else I know.

    I also have this sort of thing at in person events full of intense emotion. I find funerals for people I barely know unbearably sad and have to hide and sob in private because the degree of reaction I have is socially inappropriate. I also struggle at other people’s leaving parties when everyone does something to show how much they care, or during public declarations of love. It tends to overwhelm me emotionally and react like it’s happening to me.

    Not always, but sometimes I can find spectator events difficult to cope with, if it becomes very tense I find I take on the feeling and become anxious (anticipating the strong reactions likely to come at the end?), even if I don’t actually support the team or competitors involved.

    I’ve more recently found some group social situations difficult because I can pick up the discomfort of other people and not be able to ignore it without dissociating. Other people’s anxiety, if obvious to me, can make me feel sick. I’m prone to getting dragged into other people’s negative feelings and as such can feel dreadful at some support groups, then fine after I’ve left.

    I’ve always assumed this is why I have such a strong sense of social justice and fairness and why I’ve tended to step in (when physically safe to do so) to try to stop bad situations even when perhaps it isn’t wise socially.

    So because of all this, I had a really difficult time seeing myself in descriptions of not having empathy, because I struggled with being way too emotionally sensitive and having to avoid things and situations that everyone else had no problem with (like kids TV and soaps, or people’s leaving parties) because I could have socially inappropriate over empathising reactions.

    It wasn’t until I read about there being two types of empathy and autistic people generally only having a problem with one of them that things started to make sense. Because what I seem to be over sensitive to is ‘affective empathy’ while I am clearly extremely impaired when it comes to ‘cognitive empathy’.

    If an emotion is too subtle or if it’s being intentionally masked from me, then I don’t pick it up at all. My difficulties spotting body language and tone of voice are obvious in person.

    I think that I react hugely to drama because in drama every actor emotes amazingly clearly, every significant facial expression gets a close up and an appropriate music cue and all sorts of other thematic tropes to hammer it home. On top of this you’re an external observer who has no role except to sit in comfort and focus on the situation. There’s nothing to multitask, no unexpected questions, you can ‘lose yourself’ in the narrative. So in those situations I have no problem understanding the emotion, I have ‘emotional subtitles’ or I’m on rails on an emotional ‘rollercoaster’, there’s no cognitive barrier I have to pass to access the empathy and so I can feel it.

    In contrast, personal interactions have none of the narrative clarity or cinematic/televisual cues to tell me what’s going on, and I’m often having to deal with sensory onslaught and keep track of what I’m thinking and I need to say next. I don’t have any of the narrative handholding present in drama, and so rather than losing myself in an emotional story I’m stuck doing an incredibly difficult puzzle in real time with slow processing speed while trying to keep focused enough to follow a conversation. As such my emotional awareness (of self and of others) pretty much shuts down and I take everything literally and only focus on what I’m thinking and what the other person must mean. What they’re feeling and what might have happened to them before they met me is very rarely going to get a chance to even start to be on my mind.

    This means that in most situations when someone tells me about what’s going on in their life, I won’t automatically know how they might feel as a result, I often remember only as an awkwardly delayed afterthought that I should also ask if they’re OK because the things they’ve just told me about is likely to have an emotional affect.

    I seem to be especially poor at the social context and implications of what I’m being told, meaning I almost always miss euphemisms or messages being told to me ‘between the lines’. This means I also miss people telling me that they want to be closer friends (or they’re romantically interested), which means this is probably my most difficult and most severe (in terms of life impact) social impairment.

    It doesn’t help that I have extremely poor awareness of my own emotions and generally don’t feel them until they’ve got too intense to manage (and I meltdown or breakdown and then other people’s emotional reactions to me just make things worse). It’s often the person who’s with me who’ll tell me that I’m subtly anxious or upset, because it’s more obvious to an outside observer than it is from within my head. As such I’ve generally tended to ignore emotions entirely and think about myself in a purely logical/rational way, gradually adding more and more rules and workarounds to my life to stop myself from getting into situations that I couldn’t cope with emotionally rather than being able to say ‘I don’t like this, I should leave’ (or change the subject) while it’s actually happening.

    So with my impaired emotional awareness combined with impaired cognitive empathy (understanding/working out the emotions of others), I don’t have much chance of picking up on affective empathy (feeling/taking on the emotions of others) in real time communication, unless the emotions are extreme and obvious OR they’re reflecting my own emotions and helping me to become aware of how I feel (I’m low level anxious in a social situation, therefore I’m more receptive to other people’s anxiety and so take it on). I think this explains all the examples of empathic emotional overload above, while not contradicting the fact that I’m generally useless with subtle emotion.

    These days I utterly love and revel in my sensitivity to drama because, as long as it isn’t too subtle, it lets me enjoy affective empathy and gives me access to all the emotions that I generally don’t get to experience because of my terrible self-awareness (incidentally, this is probably why there’s so many aspies in fandom). I’ve learnt a huge amount about relationships and other perspectives and gained a lot more emotional literacy through watching shows like Quantum Leap and Being Erica, I’ve searched out characters like myself in shows like Bones, Alphas and Community and learnt from how they interact with the world and others interact with them. I feel emotionally closer to some TV shows than I do with most people.

    The rest of the time my cognitive empathy impairments combined with alexithymia keep me feeling disconnected from my own and other peoples’ emotions except in extremes. I only feel instinctive affective empathy in person when the emotions are too intense to miss or when I was already feeling the emotion myself and hadn’t noticed. When this happens it’s as difficult to handle as when my own emotions overflow past the point when I can’t miss them. I’m vulnerable to other people’s extreme emotions (even positive ones) and can’t keep appropriate emotional distance. I’m not sure if this is really ‘too much empathy’ or too little experience learning to deal with empathy and emotion in general.

    It’s quite likely that when I was a teenager I experienced empathy solely as an extreme and negative thing because I didn’t have the experience or awareness to modulate or process the feelings it evoked, or the self awareness to conceptualise what was happening. Back then my self worth and understanding came from seeing myself as rational, logical and sensible, and dismissing social situations I didn’t understand or feel included in as trivial and silly. And so the fact that I could sometimes feel uncontrollable emotion from situations I was intellectually distancing myself from was clearly a disturbing source of cognitive dissonance. And therefore back then the empathy that I did experience was always ‘too much’.

    Thanks again for a really interesting post and I hope you found this autistic person’s experience of empathy interesting (and don’t think I’m deluding myself!).

    1. First, let me get out the way the fact that I never know what to say when someone expresses that they’re sorry for something they haven’t personally done. But I appreciate the sentiment, so thank you for acknowledging that aspect of the post. This was a hard post to hit the publish button on and the response has been helpful in shaping my thoughts about empathy further.

      Second, I would never question someone’s personal narrative or experiences. I completely buy into the idea that you’re overly empathetic based on what you’ve said here. What I do often question is someone telling someone else that a third party has too much empathy or someone telling me (or another autistic) person that I must have empathy, especially as a way of proving a point.

      I totally agree that we each have a unique experience/presentation of autism and I know that sometimes I paint concepts too broadly and see things in black and white and forget to account for other people’s POV. Because, you know, autistic. :-)

      I’m wondering once again how much upbringing factors into our experiences. If I can ask, were you encouraged to express your emotions as a child? It seems like a lot of young autistic children are discouraged from expressing too much emotion, especially in the context of meltdowns or as a way to head off meltdowns or a way of preventing over-stimulation. This was certainly true of me as a child. If we have more an on/off switch than a volume control, it seems like your default emotional state tends toward “on” while mine tends towards “off”? (grossly oversimplying, obviously)

      In your examples, it definitely sounds like what you’re experiencing is more empathy than general emotional overload. Or a more conventional form of empathy which leads to emotional overload. Unlike what some of us have described here, your emotions are more closely mirroring those of the other people or the situation.

      Your point about drama requiring you to be only a spectator with no other role to play is really insightful. I think this is why it’s easier for me to grasp the emotions in a film/tv show than in reality. And perhaps why social skills need to be practiced “live” for any progress to be made.

      It’s interesting that we’re at very different ends of the empathy continuum, but we each talk about our empathy skills as being impaired in some way at various points in our lives.

      (if you run out of “reply” buttons, just start a new thread)

      1. You’re right that I was taught that crying is a good way to release emotions, that it makes you feel better and that’s much better than keeping it inside. In fact I think the only skills I’ve actually developed for emotional regulation are letting it all out, and/or cheering myself up with singing.

        I find it hard to see my emotional switch as ‘on’ though because I’m virtually never aware of my emotions in my daily life and feel like I have lots of difficulties because of that. But I suppose I’ve cried four times watching TV today though, and jumped around with joy at a dramatic climax twice, so that’s probably more ‘on’ than many neurotypical people :)

        I think you’re probably also right about needing in person practice to develop social skills, but I do think I’ve learned a lot of ‘emotional literacy’ from watching drama, and also learned more about how my socialising is different from the norm by watching series with autistic or socially awkward and literal characters. I’d say that I’ve actually learnt usable social skills from watching those sorts of shows in particular. So I think while dealing with real people is the most important way to learn, watching drama too usually doesn’t hurt :)

        1. I feel like our conversations are helping me slowly tease apart the autistic parts of me and the “nurture” aspects of my personality and behaviors. That probably sounds more literal than intend it to, but I’m enjoying thinking about it in that way for now. It’s fascinating.

          I like the idea of learning emotional literacy through fictional characters. The opportunity to see inside a “person” is what draws me so strongly to reading fiction and perhaps the “fly on the wall” aspect of TV is what made me such an avid TV watcher as a kid.

  14. People have a lot of interesting comments about their own adventures with empathy/alexithymia/perspective etc. and I would love to join in but no spoons just now. However I had to leap up and flap for you saying no to whoever is telling you how to have your Autism. Because, really? That’s not cool.

  15. Wow, what a powerful and thought provoking post, musings. You have my brain binging in a million different directions. Like the fact that my nt son and I(also nt) both failed that stupid Sally-Anne test and my aspie son didn’t. Which is based largely on the fact that my aspie son takes In and carefully analyzes ALL information and this was a logic puzzle to him and nt son and I both only half listen and react.
    The funny thing about “correct” emotional response is, I would say I am quite good at getting it right in person, but I wouldn’t say that says anything about my empathy, honestly. I read non verbals really, really well. In fact all my interacting in this online realm has really made me struggle because I realize how much I’d like to be watching your response to what I am saying to tailor it for your comfort. But, me responding “correctly” to people’s nonverbals doesn’t have so much to do with my “feeling” the correct feeling. I can just read what that person wants in that moment from me. It is much later for me to understand my own feelings. Maybe they were empathetic feelings, maybe they werent, but that is sepaerate from my emotional response in the moment. I dont know if that makes any sense or seems relevant? But, I try to use that when understanding my autistic son. If so much of what I do is just an instinctual or conditioned response to nonverbals and he can barely read nonverbals then I need to look at other ways to understand his expressions because we simply just do,it differently, and it needs to be on me to redefine my expectations of “correct”

    1. Thank you! It’s so interesting to hear you say that you’re able to sense what the other person wants and that guides you in your interaction and yet you don’t feel it’s connected to your own emotional state. I’m struggling to process that and I think I get what you mean. It sounds like you’re more outwardly focused while interacting with someone and then inwardly focused after the fact?

      I’m leaning toward thinking that your overall communication style is very empathetic because you say that you want to communicate in a way that is most comfortable for the receiver. And this is where I think autistic people often stumble because we’re using so much of our communication resources on getting our own thoughts organized and into words, that we have little processing space left over for observing and thinking about the other person.

      I’m curious whether you’ve had to develop a different “dictionary” of nonverbals to read your autistic son? My husband is great at reading the nuances of nonverbal communication but he literally had to throw out what he thought he knew and develop his ability to read me from scratch because my nonverbal cues are often different from the norm.

    2. Outrunning the storm,

      ” In fact all my interacting in this online realm has really made me struggle because I realize how much I’d like to be watching your response to what I am saying to tailor it for your comfort.”

      You just made me think of something. I used to spend a lot of time in online forums and one thing that always amused, annoyed and confused me was how easy and often people would get into arguments over seemingly nothing. I would see people up in arms over some comment and I would think, “Really? How is that offensive?” I wonder if a lot of NTs struggle with proper response in a non-verbal environment because they don’t have all of the social cues to play off of.

  16. Great post. I wasn’t sure about commenting because there is such a huge crowd of comments already and it is obviously a very intra-autistic-community controversy, but it made me think so I’ll share my thoughts anyway.

    I think I lack empathy in the same way you do, the way you define it. I can easily understand when a person is distressed (I also acknowledge it well when I don’t understand it), but I don’t feel their pain. I can’t pretend that I do either and find the whole mirror-feelings circus a bit alienating. It can be awkward in situations where someone is crying or in other ways express distress, and they don’t get the emotional response they expect. People seem to expect I-share-your-pain-like face expressions, sounds and statements, and that can be a source of awkwardness, tension or a sense of awkward emptiness (like ‘something that should be there isn’t there’).

    In some situation where I express distress (or the other person just thinks so), the other person may attempt to mirror my feelings, say ‘understanding sounds’ and pretend to share my feelings – and that is even more awkward. Copy-cat face expressions and empathetic sounds and statements can be very distracting when seriously trying to tell something… I wish people wouldn’t do it, although I do realise they do it because they think it is helpful and appropriate.

    1. I’m glad you commented. This is a bit of an “inside baseball” subject but I think we can all have feelings/opinions about regardless of how engaged or not we are in the byplay of the autistic community.

      What you describe here is exactly what I experience. There’s a specific situation that sticks in my mind – my husband was very upset about something, to the point of tears which is unusual for him, and I sat in my chair, across the room from him, frozen in my place with no response at all. Mute and unmoving, the whole time. It wasn’t that I didn’t see or understand how upset he was, but I couldn’t bring myself to physically move or speak. It almost felt like I’d left my body. And it was awful for both of us, because the expected response in that situation is mirroring the other person’s tears, giving them a hug, reassuring with words, etc. And that’s not reflexive for many of us.

      I’m also someone who doesn’t want/need a lot of sympathy when I’m upset. Companionable silence is nice though. :-)

      1. I agree with companionable silence (Thanks for the addition to my inner dictionary!)

        The situation you describe sounds familiar. However, I know what to do and say when my husband is upset (what helps) and he knows what to expect from me. So those situations rarely get awkward. I think that has to do with the fact that my husband just needs a few cues for it to be ‘right’

        1. It’s great that you and your husband have developed a common understanding of sympathy and each others needs in that area. I think a lot of marriages fall apart because of unmet (and maybe unreasonable) expectations.

          My husband has reasonably low expectations of sympathy from me and he knows how to interpret the intent of less conventional offerings, so generally we get by pretty well. Occasionally, though, it can be rough.

      2. I think it is mainly a case of me knowing that he only needs a few clues to feel heard/understood, and e.g. empathetic face expressions are not amongst them. I don’t actually think he notices my face expressions much anyway … unless if they were totally inappropriate. (e.g., looking overly happy when someone tells about a sad problem)

        Just came to think of this also: I’m very tactile oriented as a person and in my interaction habits at home and wherever I’m, comfortable (don’t get me wrong, I don’t go around and touch people in general, and I don’t like if people want to give me a hug to say hello or something. I don’t know how to explain it… It is hard to put words on the everyday tactile communications aspect of life, because it gets to sound sexual when it is not. Written/spoken language just isn’t geared to express a wide array of tactile actions and feelings).

        Here is the point: probably the tactile communication renders the ‘typically expected’ empathetic/sympathetic gestures unnecessary in close relationships anyway. E.g. leaning my head on my husband’s neck or some other tactile communications gesture when he is distressed serves as a supportive message along the lines of ‘I’m with you, I know you well, you can relax with me’. Super-companionable silence… No need for words or sophisticated body language in that situation.

        1. Yes, I think you’re right that having the option to respond silently in a physically affectionate way in intimate relationships does make the verbal response less necessary/emphasized. My husband is generally good with companionable silence most of the time, but I know there have been moments when the right words would have been welcome. Still, we’re realistic about what we can each give so it’s fine, I think.

  17. Ok, and this is from the pocket-philosophical corner, and will possibly get too long;-)

    The last thing the post got me to reflect about, is how both empathy and sympathy tend to operate within ‘silos’. The silos can be big or small; they may encompass ‘all of humanity’ (in principle) or a narrow segment of people, animals too or just certain types of animals, or pets only. In any case, people can have strong empathy and sympathy for what’s within the silo,while be totally cruel or careless about whatever is not in the silo.

    People can be very empathic to other people, and have no empathy for animals. Or be empathic to some categories of people and despise other categories, thinking nothing of what happens to them (think of Nazi Germany). Or they may exclude certain types of animals they would normally include, because these are deemed ‘pests’ or are in other ways considered unworthy of consideration.

    E.g. feral rabbits, goats and pigs are pest in Australia. Ever hear of pigging? It is the legal sport of hunting feral pigs with packs of big brutal dogs, strong enough to hold a boar in its ears and where ever they can get hold, until the pig is sufficiently exhausted, injured and shocked so the hunter can get close in and kill it with a knife. Anyone who has ever worked with pigs (I have) knows how incredible hysterical pigs get if they are grabbed and fixated in some way (e.g. held in their ears, or with a rope around the snout) – and that is domestic pigs, used to human contact!. Then think how a feral boar reacts. I’ve watched a few pig hunting videos on YouTube, I felt so angry and couldn’t believe that it is legal. But it is! because the pigs are feral and a pest, the empathy is in the ‘Off’ position.

    (I am not talking about the hunters, I think they are all rednecks and may not even have a moral compass. I am talking about all the reasonable persons who allow it to take place)

    Another example: people’s lack of empathy for fish. When I’ve been on fishing trips, I was appalled to see that the fish weren’t killed after they were caught on the line, but put all together in buckets and containers because the longer they stayed alive, the better change they would stay fresh till the morning. That included fish with long spikes that were obviously piercing the other fish, aggressive eel that attacked everything that moved… where obviously none of the poor more docile fish could get away from them. It got more and more crammed and the volume of fish gradually out-massed the volume of water. By the morning none of the fish were alive anymore, but probably fresher than they would have otherwise been.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there is anything wrong with fishing and hunting… not at all. but I can’t understand how people can be so empathic in some situations, yet empathic when accepting to put other living creatures through slow, long suffering deaths. I don’t know if I get upset because I feel these creatures pain when I observe them, or just get to the conclusion that they suffer … but I’m consistent. I don’t tell myself that a certain species’ pain doesn’t exist because the creature isn’t on the list of creatures whose feelings are considered valid. I hate cockroaches and don’t want them in my house, but I always try to minimise their pain and stress when I kill them because I do acknowledge that the struggle and fear of living creatures is universal. I don’t need empathy to understand that. Or is it empathy? It is confusing.

    1. “In any case, people can have strong empathy and sympathy for what’s within the silo,while be totally cruel or careless about whatever is not in the silo.”

      Yes, yes, yes! This hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve seen this over and over again in relation to people especially. Some people can demonstrate so much empathy/sympathy towards certain people and then be so cruel to others and justify it based on some unseen criteria that somehow legitimizes their behavior. The idea of certain things being in their silo and others being outside it is the perfect way to describe this phenomenon.

      1. Thank you. I often speculate about what makes people carry out reckless actions towards other people or animals, sometimes in a shockingly organised way and large scale. Silo thinking is undoubtedly part of the explanation.

  18. The more of these responses I read, the more useless the term ‘empathy’ seems to me.

    I think it’s a lot more helpful to talk about well defined terms like ‘social imagination’; understanding what another person might be thinking and feeling and why, and ‘social and emotional reciprocity’; responding to situations with the ‘appropriate’ emotional or social response. These correspond to two of the corners of the ‘triad of impairments’ and so are things that everyone on the spectrum should experience to a significant degree.

    Despite having lots of problems with being emotionally over sensitive (as mentioned above), I still have just as much difficulty with doing neurotypically expected social imagination and reciprocity as people who are supposedly on the opposite extreme of ‘empathy’ (ie, unmoved by emotional displays that would overwhelm me).

    The vast majority of the time I would not comfort someone or make appropriate emotional displays in response to their stories about things that have happened to them despite this being expected or ‘appropriate’. I find trying to fake an emotional response because I’ve realised that it’s socially expected feels extremely awkward and forced. If someone tells me that something that happened to them was upsetting, I’d generally ask them if I can help in some way and give options like providing a distraction or analysing how and why it happened. I don’t assume what the other person’s feeling and why or what they want/need to help, because I can’t possibly read their mind.

    If the person’s actually crying (the emotional situation is obvious), then my instinct is to be present but silent until they’re able to talk about it calmly. If I’m crying (or having another extreme negative emotion) then I need people to do this for me and adding something like a social situation to it is very uncomfortable and overloading. This is partly keeping myself out of it so I don’t also get upset by their upset and make things worse, partly behaving in exactly the right way to treat an autistic person like myself in that situation.

    The thing I perceive as empathy (of the ‘too much’ type) is never an appropriate social response, so when it happens and I’m around other people my instinct is to retreat from the situation or repress the emotions if I can’t. Having way too much sensitivity to emotional displays doesn’t help me with social imagination or reciprocity, if anything it hinders both considerably.

    On top of this, I often don’t understand why people are upset or angry about things that seem illogical to me. I don’t tend to get disgusted by things some people find disgusting. Insults against me and especially against my family almost never bother me if they’re false or indeed true but I don’t seem negative. I miss the reasons why people tell me things and as a result fail to realise that things I’m saying back will upset them, because they have additional unintended contextual social meanings. Things that actually upset me are often things that most neurotypical people don’t see the problem with or are actually intended to be friendly.

    I think this is more about being ‘culturally out of step’ with most people, rather than an empathy problem. The average person probably doesn’t understand me as much or more than I don’t understand them.

    So what is the word ‘empathy’ useful for anyway? Other than being a vague term that means different contradictory things to different people, which causes people taking ‘symptom lists’ too literally to conclude that autism and psychopathy are the same thing when even Simon Baron-Cohen describes them as mirror opposites.

    1. It does seem useless. When I see someone use the word empathy now I reflexively question whether they’re talking about the same thing as I’m perceiving the word to mean. Social and emotional reciprocity is likely the one we should be using since it’s the diagnostic term and accurately descriptive rather than cryptic.

      Present but silent is my ideal response in a situation involving crying too. It’s about the only thing that’s comfortable for me, regardless of whether I’m crying or observing. But this only seems comforting to other autistic people. So yes, it keeps coming back to cultural differences again and again.

      1. But this only seems comforting to other autistic people.

        I don’t think you are right, if you are talking about companionable silence. There are of course many persons who expect active, extravert expressions of emotional support when they experience distress – that is why it is considered a norm. However, that it is a norm doesn’t mean that everybody prefer it. I don’t know enough people to have a real proportional idea of this, but it is my impression that ‘silent understanding’ ~ just being there for someone without hijacking and imitating their distress – is an appreciated response by some, considered ‘a rare treasure’. I can imagine that extravert persons tend to expect dramatic expressions of sympathy/empathy, while introverts may tend to prefer companionable silence without interference.

        1. I think I don’t know enough people to generally make this assumption either, probably. Perhaps it’s more welcome when people know each other very well and therefor recognize that it’s companionable and not withholding or stony or some other unfavorably perceived type of silence?

      2. Yes, that sounds right. ‘Being together without having to talk’ is usually considered a sign of close friendship, knowing each other so well that words are not necessary, I am pretty sure about that.

  19. Finally just got around to reading this one. With the Sally-Anne test, I knew that Sally would look for the marbles in her own basket… but only because THAT’S WHAT I WOULD DO. When I’ve got something or lost something, say in my purse, I’ll look in my purse first and then empty the whole thing out before I look elsewhere. It seems illogical for Sally to look somewhere else when she last left the marble in her own basket (is that a cognitively-based response or what?), at least until she has established that the marble isn’t in the basket anymore. If I was Sally, I might ask Anne if she’d seen my marble anywhere, but I would look in a lot of places of my own before I suspected that Anne might have taken my marble.

    I can’t tell what my own emotions are a lot of the time, unless they are glaringly obvious. I used to hate it when a therapist would ask me how I felt about something (uh……>llllooooonnnnngggg pausetrying to figure out what the “right” response should be<……I dunno). On the other hand, I can feel emotional overload when I'm around somebody else with heightened emotions, happy or unhappy. Disneyland, a.k.a. "The Happiest Place on Earth," leaves me with an emotional hangover the next day – waaaaay too much emotion at that place.

    When someone is in disress, I want to take action to relieve the distress, to fix the situation. This means I'm great in a crisis and a good listener for people who are upset, since I don't get emotionally involved. I love "Romeo and Juliet," and I always wanted to be so emotionally spontaneous that I could act and feel as the two young lovers did, but I was always somewhat distant from the story, thinking that surely they could have made some other choices. On the other hand, I will find myself deep in contemplation of the brevity of life and the suffering of so many, and I have to avoid listening to the news too much to prevent me from feeling overwhelmed by all the upsetting reports.

    We are what we are.

    1. I just discovered that I either didn’t reply to this or WP ate my reply. :-( You raised an interesting point about how you think you’d look in a lot of places before assuming that Anne took your marble. I think I would too. I tend to assume the best of people and would naturally jump to the conclusion that I’d somehow misplaced something before thinking that the other person was being intentionally deceptive. This can lead to complications in social situations where people are being deceptive and I just completely miss it.

  20. This has set up a great debate in my head now (and it’s the holidays and I’m in charge of smallish children. Ho-hum).

    This is the one area where I always thought ‘I can’t be autistic because…’. I CAN be very empathic and other times I am rubbish at it and do the ‘solving’ thing.

    I have in fact banned myself from the more problematic areas of online parenting forums because I unintentionally upset people. Face to face, I am WAY better.

    On the empathic side, I’ve been a breastfeeding supporter and been told I’m very good at listening and empathising (the organisation I worked for were very anti ‘solving stuff’ and very into empowering women to solve stuff themselves.)

    But after taking some of the quizzes and talking to friends, I so am autistic. Sorry for the ramble

    1. The empathy question is a confusing one and I don’t see why autistic people can’t simply have uneven empathetic skills the way we have other sorts of uneven communication skills. If I have to interact with people for work, I’m much more socially fluid than if I you plunk me down in an unstructured neighborhood gathering. When it comes to work, I could talk about what I do for hours on end.

      Perhaps empathy is like that too. There are areas where we feel very comfortable empathizing with others based on our own experiences or areas of confidence and other areas where things just break down and we go straight to fix-it mode or “I have no idea what to do” mode. :-)

  21. I had never heard of the Sally Anne test until I started researching and was fortunate to happen across a video of the test without prior knowledge of the NT answer. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjkTQtggLH4)

    This was absolutely fascinating for me. I was already in a heightened sense of self-examination having conducted a few other tests that session so I was ‘sitting at the back of my mind’ watching the foreground activity.

    When the examiner asked the relevant question, I noted my intuitive response immediately offer the Aspie answer and then after a couple of seconds lag my logical response followed with the NT answer.

    In contrast, when conducting the Raven Progressive Matrix test, that same part of me that offers the immediate, intuitive and ‘incorrect’ answer to Sally Anne spins columns, superimposes figures and offers the contents of the missing square – I just have to glance down to the 6 – 8 options below and choose the one I recognise. However, if I want to achieve an intellectual satisfaction that I am correct, my logical mind then has to go back and ‘check my working’ which takes longer.

    Perhaps, then, as an adaptive response to the difficulties I had when I was younger, I have developed a logical modelling of the world which provides a reasonably serviceable model of others’ emotional states based on facial expression, body posture, tone of voice etc. However, since it does so relatively slowly, and then I must adopt an outward expression that coincides with their state, this strategy produces a lag which unnerves the neurotypical who are hardwired to receive a hardwired (i.e. immediate and intuitive) response.

    I notice that when I’m tired or overwhelmed, this modelling capacity fails or falls short. I can keep it up for a while in public but then I need to stop.

    I wonder if my intuitive answers to the Raven test, ones that just ‘feel right’, are what it is like to have empathy – an unthinking, intuitive awareness of another’s emotional state without having to process it first.

    1. For ASD assessment, the matrix test was one of the ones that I got a perfect score on and yet I failed the Sally Anne test twice. :-) I had a similar experience with the Sally Anne test – having that correct answer pop into my head soon after the incorrect one.

      I definitely use pattern recognition (what you call modeling) to interpret social situations. The problem as you say is that that it’s a bit slower than the usual method that NTs seem to instinctively use and sometimes I need a lot of repetitions of a particular situation to discern and store the pattern. Not very efficient, especially with the inherent difficulties we have with generalization. I often need the exact pattern to repeat many times and if there’s a variation, I need that exact pattern to have many repetitions as well. Not very efficient but better than nothing I suppose.

  22. I think the phrase “I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others” applies to me, and I can see now that not all aspies have “theory of mind” or empathy, but I’m pretty sure some do. I definitely experience the affective part of empathy in, such as feeling that the anger of two loudly arguing people is directed at me and being upset, even though I know that I’m not the target,. When someone is upset, rather than being consoling, I will often try to find a logical solution to their problem instead, because, I think, it upsets me that they are upset, and I want to fix it. I assume this “It pains me to see you sad” reaction is affective empathy, and I feel it frequently. I think this is probably what most aspies feel when they’re saying they have too much empathy. We might mistake it for proper empathy because affective empathy seems a bit selfish, and when we try to help, we still think we are doing it to ease the other person’s pain, not to ease our distress at their pain. Which one it is, I still don’t know. While I feel sympathy, I will often have a harder time “putting myself in someone else’s shoes”, sharing their feeling and having real cognitive empathy.
    However, when I’m removed from the situation, such as when considering history, fiction or hypothetical situations, I feel I can easily see from another’s perspective and share their emotion, even in situations that I have never experienced. I might still look for a solution and think, “Well that’s silly, obviously their problem could have been dealt with like this instead”, but I do understand and experience their emotion beyond just personal distress over it. (and if it’s fiction, I wouldn’t feel affective empathy so much, like in real life. The person’s emotion doesn’t distress me personally since it’s not real). For example, I had the same reaction as Erin mentioned to the Star Trek movie when Kirk’s father died. I could imagine the characters’ emotions and feel them. Or, when I was younger, one of my favorite movies was Bruce Lee’s “Fist of Fury” because it was pretty powerfully emotional for a kung fu movie. It could make me to feel the character’s rightful anger towards his friends’ tormentors. Similar things happen reading books or when I was in history class in school, when I would imagine (and sometimes get disturbed by) how real people must have felt experiencing things like being a slave, or an early scientist, or a soldier, or in a Nazi death camp, or travelling to uncharted places. “What was it like?” rather than why or how, was the root of my fascination with history.
    What I can’t seem to do is truly identify with people in person and in real time unless I’ve experienced the same thing, maybe because in fiction emotion is obvious and played up, and in life the signs are less focused, subtler, more complex and not always obvious from context.
    I suspect that I might not have passed the Sally-Anne rest when i was younger, but I did just a minute ago. I was surprised that anyone would fail. I can understand the reason they would, but I immediately know that Sally thinks the marble is where she left it because she doesn’t know, as I do, that Anne moved it.
    The concept of cognitive empathy still confuses me though. I think we can agree that people with Asperger’s are emotional, caring, feel concern for people and respond to others emotions, but we all have some trouble with understanding and empathizing.

    1. Affective empathy is feeling sad when someone else is sad or feeling angry when they’re angry. Wanting to fix the problem is only empathy if they want they’re problem fixed (in which case you’re truly taking their perspective, which is what cognitive empathy is). OTOH, if they want something other than having their problem fixed then you’re working from your perspective, which is what I think many aspies tend to do. We would want the problem fixed so we assume others do as well, when frequently what they want is simply sympathy, comfort or being listened to. It’s quite frustrating if you ask me. :-)

      That’s interesting about you feeling it’s easier to take another’s perspective from a historical viewpoint. Perhaps because you have more time to think about it or because you have more complete information? History is presented narratively unlike real life which just seems to happen in a chaotic fashion.

      1. When I was a child, my next door neighbor was my best bud. We had an old B&W TV, but my bud’s religious family said no to TV watching for him. He managed somehow to see some shows and had one real favorite. So we set up a tin can telephone between his bedroom and my kitchen. On Wed nights I watched his show and then told him, laboriously, the details. That string, that gossamer link between two little boys in my opinion is empathy. Creating a space for two people to communicate at the most basic, trusting level doesn’t happen all the time…but when it does, you’re not all alone in the world. NT’s are constantly trying to find like minded folks and establish a dialogue of communication. There is no “doing”, simply “being”. Cheers!

  23. One of the things that bothers me about the Sally-Anne test is that if you fail it might you also not be good at looking people in the eye and lying to them? I keep trying to see how something seemingly negative can turn out to be a positive and I’m surely over simplifying some things but in order to see myself clearly, do I have to always see what I do as being symptomatic of a disorder? I don’t think so.

    1. I’m sure if there’s a relationship between cognitive empathy and lying. But I think there could be, because lying is related to both motive and making assumptions about what the other person knows/believes. Interesting.

    2. When I was learning about the difference between cognitive and affective empathy as used by Simon Baron Cohen I remember reading that people who score very high on cognitive empathy are people who are good at manipulating others: used car salesmen and the like. For this reason I think scoring low on cognitive empathy should be considered a benefit, not a deficit, because it means we are less likely to manipulate the thoughts and emotions of others for our own gain.

  24. This text helped me to understand quite a few things better :) and it made me feel less alone with my problems.

    The problem that I have the biggest issues with is how I react to stuff people say…. I often offent people without being aware of it and people get upset or hurt without me intending to make them feel like thst…. I dont know if there is a way of chanfing that because it makes eel terrible…. But this pst made me feel better because I see that others have thexsame problems. :I

    1. I have this problem too and often don’t even know that I’ve offended someone. It’s so hard to guess at what might be offensive at times, because it can be very subtle or even be cause by failing to do something. I wish I had an easy solution for us. :-/

  25. This post is gold. I too have been puzzled by the whole ‘people with autism have too much empathy.’ To me, it’s an emotional reaction to both sensory and emotional external stimuli. I react the same way to anger and joyfulness. Either annoyed it’s happening and sometimes negative emotions of other people do make me feel frightened.
    Lately, I’ve been saying a lot of inappropriate things to people which was made worse by my own anxious/depressed feelings at the time further blinding me to the emotional states and the reasons behind them in others. I never completely understand why my words were inappropriate too. I just get a feeling I have pissed people off so much that they get so angry with me I think they now hate me, yet days later they have calmed down and talk to me as though nothing has happened. So I ‘m going to attempt to write about impaired empathy in autistic people for my next blog entry. The people that most need to read it probably won’t take much away from it, but the post is more for me and I suppose if it helps others that’s great too.
    Thanks again for this post.

    1. This was a really hard post to write and the stance I took is a pretty unpopular one. It’s good to hear that you’re able to relate to it and have similar experiences. I’d like to read your take on it when you blog about it.

  26. It is an interesting point the difference between empathy and sympahy. I have virtually no empathy but a lot of sympathy. I have tried and tried to empathise with people with no success. Fortunately I have people I can talk openly about this and reason on it. As to why I am SO deficient I do not know, the wife says she will make a T-shirt for me to wear on special occasions.
    Personally I think it also has something to do with my upbringing, past experiences and not just aspergers. Meaning logically I find that people have different reactions to different situations and it is their emotion and situation, how can I posibly know for sure what they are feeling. And in the past I have thought I knew and have tried to express support only to be shot down so I gave up trying.

    1. A t-shirt would be most helpful!

      Past experience and how we’re raised most definitely factor into how we approach empathy. I think people who are raised to consciously engage in empathetic actions will probably be better at it that those of us who aren’t. And those who have more positive or at least neutral experiences will be more willing to keep trying.

  27. I find myself extremely confused by this. And angered, on some level. I find it offensive that yet again we’re being indirectly accused of self-centeredness – at least, that’s how I felt – when you discussed the “self-oriented” feelings part. I’m not thinking about myself when I lock up at a funeral – at least not consciously. I’m not thinking about how it affects me when I see an animal or child in distress and start shaking. Maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but us being self-centered is a trope that really gets my goat. It makes me start to wonder if I’m even on the spectrum, or if I’m massively deluding myself about feeling for other people and I am autistic, but I’m also a selfish bitch. Just … this really confused and upset me. I know that probably wasn’t your intention, but I’m feeling defective right now.

    1. In my experience of people on the spectrum the opposite is true, that they are the least self-centered compared to many NT’s. It is the expression of concern and the management of emotion that is so difficult for many of us so that for researchers, who usually try to isolate aspects of the human condition to try to understand it, fail to grasp or take into account the many other factors that affect us all. Hence terms such as self centered or self oriented are used in an attempt to categorise, label or explain.
      While there is some good research generally the more I read the research done the less impressed I am with it, and the biases, misunderstandings that come through. And that the only people that really understand someone on the spectrum, is someone on the spectrum.
      Thats why I like places like this, so we can all express ourselves and get different perspectives from people who experience the same or similar in their lives, rather than just theory, to help us work through things.

    2. I think you misread what I meant in that section about self-oriented feelings. It’s not talking about being self-centered but about how alexithymia impacts the way we experience emotion. And of course what I wrote doesn’t apply to everyone on the spectrum. It’s my truth and your truth maybe completely different.

  28. The cognitive vs. affective empathy makes a lot of sense. A couple of years ago, my daughter (PDD-NOS, then 3 years old) was in the same room with my son (then 6), who was crying and crying because his grandparents (who live far away, we hadn’t seen them in years and didn’t know when we’d seen them next–we still haven’t) were leaving town and I was going to go with them for a few days. She was singing very happily and he would look at her totally shocked by her apparent lack of response to his feelings. A couple of months ago, she saw me crying and came to see why, I explained that one of my aunts was very sick. She hugged me, tried to comfort me and then asked me if I needed a tissue, went to get it, came back, dried my tears and kept hugging me. Once the cognition was there, so was the affective response. She’s acted the same way several times with different people by now.

    And the difference between sympathy and empathy… ditto. I think what most of the NTs/allistic (me being one of them) really mean is sympathy. Somebody mentioned that real empathy was only possible within your own culture and I think that person is right. Also, though, I don’t think we’re that good at it, even then. For example, I went to see Titanic with my sister, who was already a mom. She started crying with the scene where a mother gets her children in bed to sleep, so they would die in their sleep. I just couldn’t get it. Now, I cannot read/see/watch anything to do with children suffering. I can slip into those shoes because they’re very much like mine ;-)

    It is extremely annoying to read the responses when someone writes about being sad, frustrated, etc. Most of them are the sort of “you’ll feel better tomorrow” “be optimistic” “trust God.” Not really empathetic. What we think is “what would I do in this case” and not “what would I do if I were so-and-so facing this issue.” Our cultural, emotional, whatever baggage plays a big role in how we react to life but when we’re seeing a situation from the outside, we don’t even think of that part. I agree with what they show in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw , and based on it, most of us are not empathetic, we’re sympathetic.

    1. You make a great point about shared experience being the basis for much of the strength and “accuracy” of our empathic responses. I feel so much empathy when I read the stories and comments of autistic people and it’s certainly because we have common experiences. Whereas often with neurotypical people, my experience of even a similar situation will be so different that it can be very hard to relate or understand what they might be thinking.

  29. This is an interesting post and I can relate to a lot of it. I’m still trying to figure out the degree to which I have empathetic shortcomings, but I can think of a few examples off-hand.

    I’ve learned a few things over the years–for example, I figured out how you’re supposed to react when someone is upset or crying–but for me, it’s all very much a cognitive thing. If someone’s crying, I may try to console them, but I’m not feeling any of the emotion (aside from my own feelings of “oh crap, get me out of here). It’s more like, “OK, this person is upset; I’m supposed to go embrace them because I’ve seen other people do that.”

    I operate similarly when it comes to perspective-taking. I went to lunch with some coworkers are my last job one day, and while there, someone had taken $60 from a coworker’s purse while she wasn’t paying attention. She realized it as we left, and while my other coworkers were trying to console her and offer he their sympathies, I was actually getting annoyed over the whole thing. After all, it had kind of ruined my lunch break. And it was only $60, I thought; it wasn’t like someone stole her credit cards or her ID or anything like that. Not that big a deal; get over it. It wasn’t until I stopped and made an effort to think it through that I was able to get the sense of why she may have been so upset.

    The last example: My mom was ill last year; while she was recuperating, an old church acquaintance of hers asked me where she was and if she was OK. I told her what had happened and that my mom was doing better, and as she walked away, I was able to tell that she was bothered by something (I’m OK with facial expressions; I struggle a bit more with reading body language). Initially, I felt like I had said or done something wrong. It wasn’t until I thought about this interaction some months later that I realized that I didn’t do anything wrong–she was just upset and concerned about my mom. I figured that since I wasn’t concerned about my mom’s well-being that this acquaintance wouldn’t be concerned, either.

    Funny thing, this empathy. And that was a lot more than I planned on writing.

    1. It’s generally very cognitive and rules based for me too. Recently I’ve learned how to cope with emotion a little better thanks to learning more about alexithymia and practicing some strategies but my instinctive reactions are still kind of small and far between.

  30. You put into words the same problems I have! I was getting upset reading how many other autistics have empathy and wondering why I was different.

  31. I am one of those people who have written or shared posts on empathy and excess of empathy. Strangely enough, a lot of what you write would apply to me as well. What I’ve come to believe, is that there is a serious disconnect between how researchers use the word “empathy” and how the lay public does. Also, researchers are not consistent on it either. I moderated a debate for the Guggenheim on the topic of empathy, with one of the authors of the study that said that mice “have empathy.”
    Her definition of empathy, and the “test” the mice passed to in order to be said to have empathy was that they saw when a fellow mouse was trapped and acted to free said mouse. Yet other researchers refer to it is as synonymous to “mind reading” or perspective taking. Big disconnect — by one definition, saying we lack empathy makes us look like monsters who would don’t care if others suffer, by the other, we may care about the feelings of others but not read their distress spontaneously.
    I think one of the reasons it’s such a sticking point to so many is because the way that it is approached (especially in cases where the definition is given “mind reading”), is how huge a double-standard is applied between NTs and autistic people. NT people are presumed to “have empathy” fait accompli. They are somehow not required to “prove” that they do, yet we are. And those tests are set up in such a way that they are biased toward typical NT ways of processing the world. Meanwhile, I’ve known plenty of NT people who are dismal at “mind reading” autistic people.
    One huge factor in the real-world application of empathy is differences in body language and other non-verbal signals. It’s known that many of us have issues in that way, but that, in my opinion, is not and should not be synonymous with lacking empathy. That’s like saying “this person lacks language skills” when the fact is the test was given to them in greek, a language which they never learned. I think researchers vastly under-recognize the role of shared experiences and frames of reference in the efficicacy of “mind reading.” It seems taken for granted that “mind-reading” is some innate thing, but if it is so innate, then why does it fail when dealing with someone whose body language doesn’t fall into the same norms as ours?
    Why is it, for example, that people seem so shocked when the role of sensory issues in a meltdown is explained to them? If they can “mind read” as researchers suggest, then shouldn’t they be able to “read” that? But they can’t. Why? Because they lack the basis of shared experience to anticipate that such a thing can be possible. The result? Lack of empathy for the person experiencing the meltdown. So why are the people in that scenario not being called out in research projects as “lacking empathy?” Because they’re NT, and it’s presumed that if empathy fails, it is the fault of the autistic person’s deficiencies, rather than as the result of conducting a social interaction across a neurological divide.
    For me, while I might struggle some times in reading peoples’ body language, I do tend to intuit peoples’ feelings even if it’s not verbally expressed. I tend to “take on” other peoples’ emotions, sometimes in its exact form, or sometimes in a slightly different form. The issue is, that paired with alexithymia, I don’t always know I’m doing it in the present, or even till much later. This makes the information really tough to react upon in the appropriate way in the appropriate time, and also predisposes me to meltdown based this unprocessed emotion, unless I can find a way to access it and process it. It was in learning to do that, that I realized to what extent this was occurring.
    How I’ve learned to access it mirrors what I’ve had to do in areas such as pain processing and others — I often have to interact with it in a non-standard way, through secondary indicators. Emotions, for example, can be experienced by me in an almost synesthetic way. I’ve learned that certain physical sensations go with certain emotional states of others…and I’ve learned to heed them. They’ve saved me from danger a time or two, situations when I couldn’t “read” the malice in a person’s non-verbal signals, but recognized something was wrong by heeding those physical sensations that might have been otherwise unexplained.
    An example I wrote about is here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/201012/encounter-the-salesman-smile It’s experiences like this that lead me to embrace the “excess of empathy” theory. I wouldn’t have called it that 10 years ago, or even 6 years ago (in fact one of my first articles on my Psychology Today blog talked about cognitive empathy and affective empathy in the same way you have here), but the more I explore this stuff, the more I feel it’s valid, and the more I question the constructs that researchers seem to accept with seemingly little question.
    I think many of us experience the deficits you describe, but still experience empathy, just in a vastly different form than is assumed by researchers’ paradigms. I think there’s so much more to this empathy discussion than meets the eye…the first of which, like you said, has to do a lot with the perspectives and paradigms people have, and the vast gulfs between how different people comprehend the term.

    1. Since writing this, I’ve processed the concept a bit more and now think that both alexithymia and the difficulties that arise between people who speak different nonverbal languages are big contributing factors. I’ve seen so many instances in which nonautistic people seem to have no empathy toward autistic people and so often it appears to simply be a lack of understanding due to a lack of shared experience or social language.

      This continues to be a complex topic and I’m glad people are still discussing and leaving passionate comments here!

  32. Thank you for sharing — your description seems perfect.

    Here’s what I think re: aspergians DON’T lack empathy. Yes:
    1. empathy is poorly defined and gets confused with sympathy and emotions
    2. lack is poorly defined — as you point out it might, in fact, mean less rather than utterly and totally absent

    But the bigger issue is that with this incomplete and inaccurate information people (both NTs and Aspies) then ACT on the basis that it is somehow appropriate or acceptable to make negative judgments on how Aspergians behave. As if it’s somehow ok to say “you’re being too logical”, or “you’re so cold” or “why aren’t you upset?” to anyone under any circumstance.

    In some ways an Aspie saying “I don’t lack empathy” is a immediate, messy and equally imprecise way of saying “your words can hurt me”. As an Aspie I may have a deficit in my ability to understand (spontaneously) the emotional states of others — and myself but I am not a robot and other humans have the ability to hurt me. While I may accidentally hurt someone with my words, it’s usually not intentional. But that’s not an equal relationship.

    I don’t feel your pain (very well or much) but you can hurt me is a hard concept. It’s way easier to understand “This person is blind. He doesn’t see me waving my hand in front of his face.” And no reasonably polite person does that. But lots of people seem to go “hey, Aspergian doesn’t feel empathy. It’s ok for me to discount everything to do with his feelings.” Best attempt at an analogy: I can’t understand precisely and quickly the pain in your legs. So you then deliberately poke me in mine on the basis that it doesn’t hurt me. Except it does hurt me.

    So the response, however inaccurate, becomes “I do so have empathy!!”

    I waaay like the box. I wish it’s what everyone wrote. “I have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others” is soo much less judgmental than “I lack empathy”.

  33. So many threads of discussion here are self-identified Aspies dissing the whole concept of empathy. That feels totally ironic, since…well, THE POST is about acknowledging, understanding and responding appropriately to another’s perspective. As a partner of an Aspi, I am just pointing out that his is all business as usual, so none of us should be surprised at all the ‘black or white’ comments that seem insensitive to a non-Aspie.

  34. I know I get into a lot of strife, especially with my wife, because I tend to address the issue instead of how the person feels about it. My first thought is to offer a solution. When my daughter was a teenager, she and I would sometimes get into a disagreement over some (usually minor) issue, which often ended with her storming out of the room with an exasperated “Oh! you’re too reasonable!”. While some of it might be put down to wisdom that comes with age, I think a large part was due to my failure to see things from her point of view.

    In my case, I believe at least some of the problem comes down to Alexithymia. I have just tried the on-line alexithymia questionnaire where I scored 152 Points. According to the questionnaire, I have high alexithymic traits in all seven categories. I’m not convinced that the results are entirely accurate, but it does explain some of my problems in managing empathy.

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