Sunday, July 5, 2015


Another thing I'm curious about. Aspies are supposed to lack empathy? You seem to me unusually empathetic.
These were the words in a mildly-amusing-as-well-as-flattering private message from someone I am friendly with online. Yes, the pervasive myth that people with Asperger's Syndrome lack empathy is still making rounds. It reminds me of some kind of abstract Hydra: That is, instead of cutting off one head just to watch two grow in its place, I clear up the "Aspies don't have empathy myth" for one person just to to have to clear it up for two more people. It is a myth that has gone viral and just seems impossible to stop.

Do Aspies lack empathy? The problem is that the term "empathy" has two very different meanings. Here's's definition:
the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

In other words, the definition can be interpreted in two ways: 1) Cognitively understanding that someone else is suffering (or joyful); whether or not the person cares about these feelings is a different question entirely. 2) The visceral reaction someone gets when seeing someone else suffering (or being joyful); that is, he's suffering (or joyful), so I'm suffering (or joyful) too, or  Unfortunately, when most people use the term "empathy", they use it in the second definition I am referencing: they believe that the Aspie knows that the other person is upset or joyful but simply does not care.

Reasons Why Many People Believe Aspies Lack Empathy

1. Difficulties with cognitive empathy are mistaken for lack of sympathy 

Yes, it is true that people with Asperger's Syndrome sometimes have problems with cognitive empathy, which is one thing that gives rise to the myth that they lack sympathy, more specifically, for another person. Sometimes Aspies do not realize that somebody else is upset. Or perhaps they do understand that the other person is upset but cannot quite understand why (depending where on the spectrum they are!) and the upset person thinks that they are self-centered and don't care how other people feel. Often, once the Aspie realizes that the person is upset, he or she cares just as much as any neurotypical person would. Conversely, sociopaths have a lot of cognitive empathy-- and they exploit others' emotions for their own selfish whims.

To give a very concrete example of this phenomenon in my own life, I need look no further than my horrible years in middle school. More times than I can count, I would approach a crying friend (and I use the term loosely, because they were fair-weather friends!) and ask her what was wrong. Her other friends would glare at me and ask, "Where have you been all week?" Because I missed subtle cues that something had been bothering a friend all week and did not realize it until she was doing something obvious-- crying-- the other girls thought that I didn't care, that I was only concerned about myself. Middle school is often the worst for girls with Asperger's because girls at that age tend to form relationships based on emotional intimacy, secrets, etc., rather than a shared interest, such as a favorite movie. The social dynamics become more intense and demanding. Boys that age are more likely to form friendships around shared interests-- it is for that reason (and more) that I wish I had tried to befriend boys at around that age. I had much more in common with them in terms of interests and styles of social interaction. Today I find that I generally get along better with men than with women (unless it's in a setting with like-minded individuals; then gender makes no difference).

2. We find it exhausting to be social butterflies

My very neurotypical mother is a high school teacher. She learns all of her students' names very quickly. She gets to know each kid individually and knows all their likes and dislikes. Years later, if she runs into one of her students again, she usually remembers him or her. I could not do what she does. Ever.

In my years working at summer camps, I bonded with a few kids over common interests. For example, if a camper wanted to learn to draw, we would bond over that because it was something concrete I could teach them. Or they could at least show me their drawings and I would be interested in seeing them. But I have difficulty pretending to be interested in a little girl's love of princesses, for example. I was not one of those counselors who knew everything about each camper, and it always took me forever to learn everyone's name. I'm also terrible with faces, which didn't help matters.

Fortunately, many of these kids usually liked me because they thought I was fun and funny. In a video I shot during my CIT year at Camp Negev, some 11-year-old kids are jumping up and down and shouting, "We love you, Julie!" But I don't remember the names of most of the kids that I've worked with. My style in terms of working with kids involves a very narrow, usually impersonal focus. Kids who wanted to bond with their counselors on a more personal level usually went to their other counselors. Unless, of course, the kid has psychological/neurological issues. Then they came to me. Kids with such issues usually liked me, probably because I understood them better and could give them better advice.

3. We react differently than neurotypicals to another's joy or distress 

If somebody I barely know at work, for example, tells me that their mother is in the hospital, I do not gush with emotion. I think it's unfortunate, but I am not overwhelmed with emotion at this news. I say, "Oh, jeez. I hope she gets better," and I forget about it ten seconds later. The expected reaction-- from both sexes, but I think women especially-- is to react viscerally, or at least pretend to. That is, people are expected to at least seem extremely upset even if they don't know this person. And sorry, I think a lot of the time it is just an act if the person doesn't know the other person well. It is a social ritual to stay in others' good graces. Same with the social ritual where everybody tells a new mother that her baby is "perfect". Sure, some people mean it, but I think a good portion of them are lying, just saying what is expected of them. What do I say? I say what I mean. I tell the new mother that she's going to be a great parent.

The thing is, I sometimes question my own capacity for empathy. When something bad happens to a friend, I try to console him or her. But I do not get emotionally involved with the friend's issues. I just try my best to help. Am I in the minority? Do most people get emotionally involved? Do they get a visceral reaction, feeling the ache of the friend's breakup (for example) as if it were happening to them? I don't. And also, do I try to anticipate the possibility of hurting another's feelings or annoying them in some way because I genuinely care about their feelings, or am I just trying to avoid trouble for myself? Or both? I really don't know. And why do most people try to avoid hurting or annoying others? Does avoiding trouble for themselves factor in as well? I really don't know either.

I am more likely to get visceral reactions when I see a suffering animal than when I see a suffering person. I once broke off two pieces of bagel to give to two pigeons. One larger, dominant pigeon ate his share and stole the other pigeon's piece. When the smaller pigeon tried to eat his own share, the larger pigeon bit him. This made me really upset. I wanted to kick that bullying pigeon away from the little pigeon. I tried to feed the small pigeon again, but the same thing happened. I tried scaring the larger pigeon away by stamping my feet. It didn't work. I threw a piece of bread a few feet away so the larger pigeon would have to chase it. Unfortunately, the smaller pigeon gave chase as well, so I was unable to feed the smaller pigeon separately. It made me so angry that this little pigeon was barely able to take a bite while this alpha male (or female? I don't know what sex it was) got his way because he was bigger and stronger.

As for suffering people, I rarely get visceral reactions where they're concerned-- unless it involves children, particularly children who are victims of bullying. And I suppose the pigeon incident ties in nicely to my visceral reactions for the children who are victims of bullying.

4. We find ourselves in very extreme circumstances that makes it look like we lack empathy

The obsessive crushes I've discussed in a few blog posts immediately come to mind. Most people are able to move on if they think their crush is avoiding them. I simply couldn't. But I knew that it was also wrong to be pushy towards these guys that I liked. It was this constant balancing act, a psychological war in my mind to try to figure out how to allow myself to interact with them without being too pushy. As for the times I waited for them outside of buildings at summer camp and on my Israel trip, that was the end result of the warfare in my mind. On my 1997 Israel trip I didn't say, "Hey, you know, I think I'll wait for Charlie outside a building. That's not weird at all. That sounds like a great idea." Of course I knew it was weird, but I was just experiencing intensely powerful emotions that I couldn't handle. As a friend from that trip put it: "You were so gone over Charlie that you didn't know what to do." But to the observer it looks like stalking and lack of respect on my part. Even the following summer back at camp, in 1998, it was not enough that I implemented strict, assiduous controls for myself to make sure I did not fall into those same behaviors again (also discussed in the above linked post). Why? Because in the last week  or two of camp I did fall into those behaviors. People commented that I seemed self-centered for hyperfocusing on these crushes, and they did not realize that it was not a conscious decision. It was that my brain was hijacked by neuroterrorists, as I call it, and I just didn't know what to do.

In other circumstances, such as trying to navigate middle school and having to watch my every move lest others start trash-talking me, people would ask me, "Why are you so focused on yourself? Why don't you ask other people how they're doing?" Because when your emotional survival depends on not becoming a target for bullying, the last thing on your mind is how other people are doing.

5. We don't always relate to what upsets others or makes them happy

I get a strong, visceral reaction from seeing victims of bullying suffer, from seeing children with psychological/neurological issues suffer, and from seeing animals suffer. I do not get a visceral reaction from hearing that my friend is having problems with her boyfriend. I've never been in a relationship and cannot relate directly to this. When I try to help, I tap into my issue of obsessive crushes to try find something relatable, but that is the best that I can do. I really cannot deal with a friend's relationship drama, and I don't want to (though I want them to feel better, of course), and they probably shouldn't come to me anyway because I have no good advice for them. But I suppose I am flattered that they do come to me.

In terms of joy, I really cannot relate to the joy a parent feels when having a baby. I can't even imagine feeling joyful about having a baby. And if I had any doubts about my declaration about not wanting kids, they were torpedoed when I began having recurring dreams about being pregnant and feeling horrified (in a couple dreams, I had the baby and thought, "What am I supposed to do with this?") The only time I really cared when someone I knew had a baby was when my cousin gave birth. But it wasn't this whole motherhood-is-an-amazing-and-rewarding-and-beautiful thing or a babies-are-so-precious thing. It was more of, "Oh, cool.  This person I grew up with is having a kid. It will be fun to watch him grow up."

The Irony

Now wait a second. Isn't it only natural that people tend to empathize with and therefore sympathize what they can relate to? Most people can relate to relationship drama and babies, and so most people are going to have the expected reactions. On the the other hand, most people can't relate to a lot of what I have been through. The girls in my middle school could not relate to my inability to see that another girl was upset, and so they could not empathize with how my confusion tormented me. Most people cannot relate to needing space from games of social football, so to speak. They cannot see why such a thing would be exhausting. No sympathy there, either. Most people cannot relate to being bullied at school. They think that to be bullied as bad as I was that you have to bring it upon yourself. No sympathy. Obsessive crushes? Same deal. Not thinking about others' needs because one's own emotional survival is in jeopardy? Forget it.

In other words, many neurotypicals lack empathy and sympathy for people with Asperger's because they cannot relate to what we go through. But because their neurotype is in the majority, our not relating to them looks like lack of empathy and sympathy whereas their inability to relate to us simply means our circumstances are too weird to be relatable.

And one more thing...

I'm going to, once again, plug a book by my favorite non-fiction writer, Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. It is a great book with a misleading title, and the gist of the book is that natural selection works on the level of the gene rather than the organism. The genes are selfish (in a metaphorical sense), and this selfishness of genes gives rise to altruism. After all, family members share copies of these genes, and being altruistic towards them increases their chances of being passed on to another generation.

I once had a conversation with my mother about how people go through social rituals that are often phony: telling someone their baby (which they really think is ugly) is "perfect", insisting on paying for a meal even though they know damned well that the other person is going to cover them anyway, offering a Christmas guest leftovers to take home even though the host knows the guest probably doesn't want them... I told my mother that I think these rituals are really to stay in the good grace of others who might be able to reciprocate someday when the stakes are higher. My mother, missing the point that I was trying to offer an evolutionary explanation for these rituals, said, "No, it just makes them feel good." Okay, fair enough. But what does "feeling good" mean? There is a reward system in the brain that perpetuates behaviors that benefit oneself. If I remember correctly, oxytocin in the brain is the reward. So while the person might "feel good" from helping someone else, ultimately the individual (or their genes, if you want to get technical) are benefiting.

We are all out for ourselves in the end, and no amount of sympathy and empathy-- no matter how genuine-- changes that fact.

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