According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of the word empathy is as follows:
1: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it
2: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for empathy
From my personal perspective, as an adult with Asperger’s Syndrome, I want to discuss to Simon Baron-Cohen’s “Theory of Mind” and why I disagree with it.
For me, every single emotion is intense. When I was a child and I saw my mother trip and fall I would cry hysterically. If I saw another child being bullied, I may not have expressed my feelings the way a neurotypical child would, but I became extremely upset. In those moments, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes I would chastise the bully only to be told by a parent that I wasn’t being nice. Perhaps, I had misunderstood what I had been watching/experiencing? Perhaps my perception was incorrect.
As a teenager, I sought out the lonely kids in school. I went to twelve schools in twelve years for various reasons (none of them having anything to do with my behavior). I was often the new girl but I sought out my “peers” who seemed upset. However, they often were not happy to have my “empathy” or “sympathy” or whatever it was at the time because no one knew me. I couldn’t understand that people don’t necessarily want a stranger to try to comfort them. I thought “If I was in pain I would be so happy that someone would sit beside me and listen.” But apparently, that’s just me.
All I know is that when I see someone in pain, I feel physical pain. When I see someone cry, my chest burns and I feel pressure behind my eyes. When someone is extremely happy, that is very intense for me too. Their voice changes pitch which can make it hard to listen to for me but if I look in their eyes, it’s still too intense.
This is partially why I do not like looking into people’s eyes. There is a whole world within someone’s eyes. I see pain, I see sadness, I see vulnerability and it’s too intense for me. It’s very hard to have a low key conversation when every time I look into their eyes I see this intensity that is unspoken. Sometimes the pain I see hidden in someone’s eyes is enough to bring me to tears or want to scream in pain.
I can understand that I cannot relate to lots of things neurotypical people express. That doesn’t mean I don’t care. It simply means that I don’t understand. In fact, I have a passionate aversion to injustice that I have never seen in a person who was not on the Autism Spectrum. I have heard so many neurotypical people brush off injustice because it didn’t affect them. Isn’t that an issue with empathy?
I’m not saying that people with ASD are more empathetic. No one is better than someone else and everyone is different. Sure, maybe there are people with ASD that truly struggle with empathy just like there are plenty of people who do not have ASD who struggle with empathy.
My theory is that we just process empathy in a different way. Should that surprise anyone? Not likely.
I attribute pain to pain. It doesn’t matter what shade of gray that pain is, I know what pain feels like. I know physical pain. I know emotional pain. I may not know what to say to you if you are crying. In fact, I might feel intensely uncomfortable. But for me, that is because I too feel pain even if I don’t say that in words.
Maybe this isn’t empathy that I am feeling. But if it isn’t, then I don’t know what is.