Monday, June 22, 2009

Aspergers and Empathy

I just received a link to a interesting article on some research on Aspergers and Empathy that I wanted to share with any of my aspie readers...if your out there...give me a shout out .

The article basically posits the theory that persons on the autism spectrum do not lack empathy or feeling for others, as is sometimes said of us, but may suffer from to much feeling which causes them to with draw from human contact . I think this also ties into why some autistics find it difficult to look people in the eyes . If they are truly the windows to the soul...perhaps we are picking up a bit to much "soul" and it feels like an intrusion...(like accidentally walking in on someone in the bathroom ? )

The subject of empathy happens to be an important one for me . I first resisted my Dx of Aspergers because I believed that my problem with empathy was not a lack of it but an over abundance of it . Although I was often seen by my family as selfish because

-I did not show "enough" gratitude for gifts,

-did not ask questions about them but stayed focused on tailing about myself or my interests, -often forgot birthdays, missed funerals or avoided family get together...

I can see why they would come to the conclusion that I didn't care about them . The truth is more complicated then that . I did have their pictures on my walls and think of them often but I often would buy them birthday cards and forget to get stamps until it was to embarrassingly late to send even a "belated card" . I would have no money for a gift, or lose the paper with their address on it or the list that I wrote their birthdays on would go missing . The past year I spent days working on a gift for my mother only to convince myself that she would hate it and I chickened out of even sending it .

As to missing family gatherings....I knew my very presence often upset my mother and thought the best gift I could give her was to let the family enjoy their holiday with out that tension . There were other times when I was just afraid that my "weird appearance" would upset them or that I could not leave my boyfriend for long as he would likely find someone better while I was gone .

I'm not saying that I am not selfish....I can be incredibly self interested but that does not mean I don't have feelings for others, only that I feel that if I sacrifice to much, I will lose myself all together . I am not trapped behind the walls of autism...I had to build them for self preservation.

Let me give another example from my personal perspective . When I was younger, I would see a dead animal on the road and it hurt me . not just from the selfish perspective of having one less fuzzy thing in the world but because I could see the car coming at me from the animals eyes...the panic and pain of impact . When I saw other kids teased at school, it hurt me more then if kids teased me . At the time, I simply could not understand why perspective of those who did the and white thinking was an issue and I simply saw them as bad...having no awareness of their own vulnerabilities that might make them behave that way .

I recall sharing these experiences of peers misbehavior with my mother and being told that I was being "self-ritious" , but I don't believe my focus was on thinking I was better then them as much as wanting to understand why people were so darn mean to animals, bugs and each other . Didn't they feel pain when they hurt others ? Didn't the very idea of causing harm seem painful enough to want to avoid .

As an older child and into my teens years, I became more and more depressed and disillusioned with human cruelty and indifference to suffering of others . I read books about the burning of witch's, slaughter of buffalo, stealing of indigenous peoples land and a 100 other very "human" inhuman acts . Each new historical fact was like a scar on my body and I could not help but internalize it all . The world was an evil place, not safe and full of malice and selfishness . My walls became thicker and I became torn between loneliness in my inability to understand humans and my desire to find some connection .

10 year of suicidal attempts and fantasies, 10 years of obsessive relationships, 10 years of drinking to forget to be afraid so I could connect for a few hours with humans . And all those years filled with the nagging feeling that I must be an alien because "others pain" did not seem to hurt most people .

I would love to say that I have out grown these problems of "over feeling" and now feel comfortable in the human race having learned that many humans do kind things, are good at heart and sacrifice more of themselves for others then I ever could . I know this to be true but it has not helped me when dealing with the daily apathy of many of the others towards the "vulnerable" . It still hurt me when I was working with animals and felt no "love" for them from other staff . It still hurts when I see the same reaction towards the disabled clients I work with .
I still become enraged, not sad or angry but enraged, when I see how some people mistreat children, animals or anyone weaker then them . It even hurts when I know a company is lying to sell something that they know to be "crap" .

So with that is the article in question...

The first thing my college professors would tell me about reading research is...who is it by, what are their credentials, who sponsored the research (and do they have an interest in the outcome of the research conclusion) . Then you need to look at some of the statistical information...large enough subject pool, how did they recruit subjects and could that bias the result, are there gender or cultural biases, are the statistics manipulated by graphs or other visual information .

Using that criteria, I would have to say that I know nothing about any of those details and can't say that the hypothesis is correct, but it sure "feels correct" from my own aspie experience and warrants further investigation in my opinion .


  1. Krex, you are absolutely on target. As a musician there are some pieces I simply cannot perform because in rehearsal I am so overcome by their beauty or power that I cry. I'm also right with you on your other observations. I'm in my sixties so I have had a while to work on ways to control this strong empathy with people, animals, situations, but it is a lifelong work and I am convinced that wise selection of experience with appropriate nutritional supplements, as well as deeper understandings of the relations and functions of the body can give me a more skillful grip on the reins. But this is our gift and our destiny, to ride this pure and amazing Arabian steed of empathy. Thanks for your post.

  2. Thank you for your comment .

    You bring up a very good point that inspite of the obvious draw backs of feeling to much of the worlds pain...we also get to share in more of the intense beauty that others seem numb to . For me, it is the feel of an animals fur against my face filling me with bliss.... the patterns, shape, color, texture of moss, rocks, wood . I believe these to be powerful notes of the universe and all people are tuned into them but some of us can not tune out as well as they neurotypicals can .

    I can not recall who I am quoting but....
    "in this home of the brave and land of the free
    they once burned people for being a little like me"

    They don't burn us anymore but they have no problem under-employing us, sticking us in institutions,drugging us and certainly have the goal of finding the genes that cause such abominations of feeling.

    It maybe true that I do not "function well"...if function is defined as making money, not questioning the stasis quo ,and being able to lie well, consume more...but if it is defined as being able to see God in an animals paw or a dogs eyes...I function quite well .

  3. I think you function quite well, too - and I know from experience that you are quite empathetic and sympathetic as a person. You don't necessarily express that fellow-feeling in the same manner that many people do, but that's a Communication issue, and perhaps an Organization issue... not a Feeling issue.

    I may be biased, I suppose, because of having traveled on the same road, and feeling that we're very much alike in many significant ways. But having spent time with you in person as well as online, I think you are much more likable and lovable than you give yourself credit for.

    I hope that in time we can accept the admiration and affection that others feel for us, and come believe that it is just as legitimate, if not more so, than the irritation that may be coming at times from family and/or employers.

    The fact is that family and employers often have motivations to judge critically (regardless of how lovely or difficult we are personally), while friends usually arrive with no agenda - which should weigh in when we assess their sincerity and the legitimacy of their opinions of us vs. the opinions of those with more murky motivations.

    All of which is by way of saying, "Give yourself a break, girl!"

  4. I cried after reading your article cause you painted my pain. For as long as I can remember, I had been rescuing animals including ants, cats, duck, cockroches, mouse, chicken, turtle, road kill... cause I can always feel their pain. When I accidentally crushed a cockroches on the street, I can literally feel how his body exploded under a giant shoe. And how painful it must have been. Too much Empathy.



Related Posts with Thumbnails