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.
It IS empathy, and I completely agree with you. Having empathy and expressing them in the expected way are such different concepts. It’s surprising and upsetting how many people don’t get this.
I have 2 lines of thought coming from this:
1. Recently I’ve seen others with Asperger’s and autism write how they feel others’ pain so intensely they find they have to attempt to distance themselves to avoid absorbing too much and feeling ill. Not appearing to get involved might look to neurotypical people like not caring but it is probably quite the opposite.
2. We process things slower. So often our reaction comes after other people’s. We might lie awake at night dealing with or worrying about something to do with someone else long after other people have moved on. I believe I, and many others, have huge empathy and, like you, absorb others’ pain very deeply and hurt for those we see suffering but we sometimes lack the speed to react the expected way.
I am upset by “lack of empathy” being used as a marker for autism. I think it is not only inaccurate but rather short-sighted.
Thanks for writing this 🙂
Yes and yes!
I think of a few things that come to mind personally:
1) Slower processing & literal understanding:
When I was in school the teacher told the class we were going to adopt a whale. I was apparently the only student who misunderstood. I raised my hand and asked “Will we fill the gym with water? Where will he go? When can we see him?”. The teacher looked very confused and then laughed. I was very upset that the whale wasn’t coming to our school. I didn’t find it funny at all because I had thought she meant that the whale was homeless and needed a family and we were just going to leave it in the ocean but get pictures of it? It made no sense to me.
2) Emotions are a double edged sword. I cannot handle horror film previews for this very reason and it’s partially the same reason I cannot handle watching those ASPCA or St. Jude’s commercials. I feel sick to my stomach every time because I want to do more than give $1/Day. (Although I cannot even afford to do that) I want to go save those kids and animals right now. This instant. I want to stop the pain.
This is exactly how i feel too. Autistic people not only seem to have more intense experiences of empathy but also ones that are unconditional in a way they rarely seem to be for neurotypical people. People often dismiss each others pain because they see it as deserved or as being for an insufficient reason or maybe because the person belonged to the wrong group. I can’t dismiss anyone’s pain. When the tears start flowing all my hate melts away.
Well said. Even writing about this subject felt painful (chest pains) remembering all of the times I’ve seen people in pain and felt “How do I help? How do I stop the pain?” I think if we responded verbally with what we felt it might actually freak NTs out. It would sound like we were crossing social boundaries that are not meant to be crossed.
Thanks for this My son is only four but I have felt all that you say from him since he was born. He is so sensitive, caring and loving. It makes me feel so proud of him. I relate to your article too for myself. I used to find eye contact hard as it felt just so raw. I can’t let go of things easily and things pain me so much for others, it can leave you vulnerable by being misunderstood. I have been shown how to be immensely proud of my compassion and empathy, blessed that I can recognise and nurture it in my son. It is a beautiful gift. Almost the opposite to the way that people or how I used to understand autism.
This is so beautiful and true! Thank you so much. I also have empathy that is very intense but different than other people. In fact, I addressed it a while ago on my blog. Hearing from other people with autism about this issue is so helpful.
It’s good to know I’m not alone with this! 🙂
This is so powerful. May I include a link to this in a website I’m creating? It’s for parents/anyone who want to know more about autism and is a doorway to AUTISTIC voices/bloggers and neurodiversity friendly parents/professionals. The website is under construction but the facebook page (Autistikids) is up and running – full of links to the same type of posts. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions. Thank you!
Thank you for the honest and personal share ~ I have two nephews who are autistic so I can more or less relate to the personal challenges ~ Take care dear ~
Autism speaks pushes a deplorable message that we are broken and diseased. I reject this; I am not disabled, I am just differently abled
(((Gretchen))) Thank you for alerting me to this post of yours. So glad you’ve written this. I don’t know if you saw that the final two comments, before they closed comments, on that HuffPo piece were from SBC. It’s too bad he cannot see your piece and so many others, who’ve written about feeling empathy, though I am not convinced it would change his mind, but I do keep hoping, as his opinions reach so many…
Hello: I have a blog on Blogger that critiques the entire “Asperger Industry” Psychology is not a science! Especially the myth of empathy…. you might enjoy it. http://aspiemanifesto.blogspot.com
Thank you so so much for writing this article, you have given me so much help with this topic. My son is four and has asd, but a few months ago his OT told me that she didnt believe he had asd because he had empathy. This totally crushed me because I know my son so well and knew in my own heart she was wrong.
The problem is i did start second guessing myself and have been struggling ever since, thinking to myself well if it isnt asd what is wrong with him? Why am I missing something.
Your article describes my son perfectly and for that I can only thank you for giving me a boost in carrying on and helping my son!
PAIN IS PAIN (from a post on my blog, which deals with myths and untruths about Asperger’s)
I am an Asperger female unable to tell the difference between physical and emotional pain. There are times I’ve gone to a medical doctor, because I really can’t figure out if I’m sick or upset. As a scientist (geologist) I have looked up information about how the brain processes pain and “feels” emotions. Guess what? There is only one circuit in the brain for BOTH: EMOTIONAL PAIN IS PHYSICAL PAIN. How could it be otherwise unless you believe that emotions are supernatural, which I’m sure many social people believe. Don’t trust psychology to be factual or science-based! It’ a belief system about human behavior and has a built-in prejudice toward non-conforming human beings…
Empathy is not a real in terms of science! It’s mind-reading, magical “vibes” – Sci-Fi, not science.
Whether or not an individual will help another person likely depends on how they were raised. Values determine how we see and behave toward people. In my opinion, you help, or at least offer to help, a person in distress, regardless of their social status or what they can do for you. Unfortunately, “normal” people view other people as either useful to their social goals or not worth bothering with. So Asperger’s who offer help should be prepared for rejection.
I was very interested in something I read in “intense Worlds” which states that the experience of speaking English means we combine 2 definitions of empathy into one world so that the process of feeling is combined with expressing empathy. Defining empathy this way makes it more difficult for those who aren’t neurotypical to show.
The 2 definitions you refer to are Emotional Empathy and Cognitive Empathy. Autistics and Asperger’s supposedly only have Cognitive Empathy, which conveniently, “Doesn’t count” toward being a real human being. It has nothing to do with speaking English. Empathy is a “concept” – it does not exist in the way that vision or hearing or touch exist. It’s an invention of psychology to explain why Autistics and Asperger’s aren’t “normal humans.” Psychologists have set up a system of how they think humans OUGHT TO behave. Think of the Ten Commandments, only it’s a Bazillion Commandments of psychology. It’s not science, it’s religion in a “new” presentation.