An as Aspie, I get annoyed every time an expert says either that I have no empathy or that I am not capable of empathy. I don’t know one Aspie that does not experience empathy in one way or another, especially in relation to others being bullied, teased or just plain not valued. I suspect that researchers, psychologists etc have come to the erroneous conclusion that we do not experience empathy because the Aspie expression of empathy is atypical.
The concept of empathy is actually ascribed to two different things; the intellectual identification with the thoughts or feelings of another and then the different experience of – the actual experiencing of thoughts or feelings that another is having. Intellectual identification is the most common empathy experienced and expressed by Aspies, whereas I suspect that neuro typical (NT) people may actually experience the feelings of another, they certainly are observed to express themselves in a way that indicates this is the case.
An example – Ms A is in a singing competition and loses in the semi-final because she lost her voice. Ms A cries and says thing like, “I am devastated, I can’t believe this happened.”
An Aspie response would most likely be something like this: Ms A must be devastated, it can be really disappointing not to achieve something you really want. If pushed to discuss the situation further, an Aspie response would become even more of an intellectual identification, e.g., “it is however a competition, and you can’t win a singing competition if you are unable to sing.”
As I understand it, a NT response would be more emotive, as evidenced by the crying of fellow competitors, who may actually be experiencing the same thoughts and emotions as Ms A, “how devastating to lose, what an awful time to lose her/my voice, I can’t believe this happened.”
To an observer behind a sound proof screen, the only evidence of empathy will be in terms of the second meaning, the actual experiencing of the thoughts or feelings as evidenced through body language. It is not possible to observe intellectual identification, but it does not mean that it does not exist or that it is not equally valid.
In addition, the Aspie style of empathy is extremely useful in emergency situations, or in disasters. Instead of being overcome with emotions, following on from intellectual identification, Aspies are highly likely to then continue along their intellectual thought path to think about what they can logically do to alleviate the situation.
This leads me to sympathy, which I think may actually be more of a difficulty for Aspies that empathy, because there is no rational use for sympathy, although the dictionary suggested the act of sympathy is powerful and/or harmonious for the person being sympathised with and the sympathiser. Sympathy is the agreement in feelings between two or more people, more usually understood to be the expression of that agreement. This implies that sympathy is the expression of empathy, but only in instances where that empathy is the actual experiencing of the feelings of another.
Even if an Aspie is sad at the same time as another person and because of the same thing, they are less likely to express that. Because many of us are very sensitive to the emotions of others and have an intense need for social justice at the same time as an abhorrence of suffering, if we sense another is very sad, we are more likely to change things than express empathy or sympathy. I don’t know if this is because we identify more with a need for social justice or because by the time we are adults we have learnt that most people do not appreciate the way we respond to their extreme distress.
Interestingly many Aspies work in people orientated professions, and seem to have some similar experiences. For example people tell me their life story within a short time of meeting me. People ask me for advice around relationships and careers. I have since discovered that this is because I, like many Aspies listen to what people say to us and rarely respond with anything other than logical responses of the, lets look at the pros and cons and then make a decision type.
When a child falls over in the playground and cries, I check for injuries and if there are no visible injuries suggest that it will hurt for five minutes and then be better. This is usually true and always effective at ending the tears. I have seen my NT colleagues provide far more empathy and/or sympathy and the tears take half an hour to subside. It is not that I don’t understand the child is crying because they fell over, it is just that I know there is nothing work that will hurt for long and that if I say this, the child will go off and play, get distracted and forget they had fallen and hurt themselves.
I identify myself as a kind and compassionate person, as do most of the adult Aspies I know. None of us is particularly good at expressing the culturally appropriate responses of sympathy, but we are all capable of intellectually empathising with others and working to help others live the best lives they can in that moment or in the long term. If Aspies stopped being labelled as un-empathetic then maybe our type of empathy can be accepted and valued by the majority and not just those who know us very well personally.