Aspie Empathy

There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’
No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.

By Dalai Lama XIV

Pema Chodron says Pain has its virtues.

Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), an Autistic Spectrum Disorder on the mild end of the spectrum, is often characterized by a supposed lack of empathy. What it really means, and many professionals still do not know this, is that there is a different kind of empathy. An empathy in which we, Aspies, are so overrun with feelings that our system crashes– to use a computer analogy.

For example, my aunt is on death’s door and my cousin calls to give me the news. Suddenly she starts crying hysterically and shouting that her mother can’t die and leave her, that she needs her mother, and conveying a powerful sadness. I start crying, too, and try to say some words of comfort or of wisdom acquired from losing my own parents. All pales and I am reduced to stuttering. Why does this happen? I am overcome with her feelings and feel them myself. And the computer freezes up. System crash– whereas, a Neurotypical (NT) would know what to say and be sympathetic and empathetic and help my cousin. I make vague attempts that wind up as feeble words. Does that mean I am an unfeeling person? No. Ineffectual, yes. And maybe seen as heartless despite my attempt to convey love and sympathy for what my cousin is going through.

Another example shows me as a monstrous teen. I am 15 and my mother gets a phone call and starts crying hysterically.   I immediately know it means that Grandpa is dead. I adored my grandfather and had a very special relationship with him. In some ways which I will not go into here, too special in a not-good way, especially for so young a child. I know there is no room for my grief. It is only my mother’s that counts. There is no one to go to with the devastation I feel inside. So how do I express it? Do I cry? No. I say to my father, “I guess we won’t be having hamburgers for dinner.” A totally callous remark. And my father chastises me for being “unfeeling”—for my lack of empathy, when all the time I am in great pain inside. This on the surface is what Asperger’s lack of empathy looks and sounds like. Underneath the surface there is a chaos of feelings rampaging within. Now an NT might actually feel less deeply, but would act and say something appropriate and certainly wouldn’t make a remark like the hamburger one. It is not that I wanted hamburgers– I hated them. To this day, I don’t know why that remark slipped out.

Things like that still happen.   I did not get officially diagnosed with AS until age 61, though I knew I was autistic decades before, having worked with autistic children on the serious end of the spectrum. Aspies feel emotion and shut down, just like an overloaded computer. It does not mean that they have no feelings nor empathy. It is a different kind of feeling and empathy.  And I have noticed a tremendous reservoir of feeling for animals that can be expressed more easily, for animals are so less threatening and more straightforward than human beings.  If I were more intelligent, I would become a vet.  Now, whenever I can the chance with an animal, I give Reiki, which many animals respond to quite naturally.  It is definitely easier to give Reiki to an animal rather than to a human being.  My husband is the one exception.  He is a special case, lumped in with non-humans simply because I am so comfortable with him, a high-functioning Aspie himself.

I learned to try to pass for normal– in some ways, quite successfully. I became an expert observer of people though I could not, and still cannot, interpret what I observe. But I owe my success to my mother having a mood disorder which got passed down to me as Bipolar Disorder– and to my father being an alcoholic. Why? Because in order to survive, to minimize fear and pain, I had to become a keen observer of my mother’s moods before she lashed out at me. I would scour her face for every nuance of mood although I still seldom knew what was to come.  This extreme vigilance served to protect myself. Similarly with my father. I would study him, scrutinize his behavior when he came in the door on the  rare nights he came home when he said he would, and did not stay out drinking.  Just because he came home early did not mean he was not drunk. A facial expression, a different gait wherein he tried to walk normally, the way he said hello,  would give it away. I became expert at detecting drinking, often knowing long before my mother did that he was drunk and would tell her. She wouldn’t always believe me.  I was terrified of my father when he was inebriated. Once, as a very little girl, I heard him sick in the middle of the night and my mother was with him in the bathroom, semi-hysterical, yelling at him for my father was obviously out of control.  I felt sick myself, tried to drown out the sounds with a pillow, and was scared to death I would have to run to the bathroom and be ill also. This turned into a life-long phobia and obsession. I loved my father but when he was drunk I didn’t want him anywhere near me. And sometimes, especially when drinking gin, he could be mean.  Were his true feelings coming out—“In Vino Veritas” or were they just drunken ramblings of a disturbed mind?  For he did have a disturbed mind, an outcome of a tragic childhood and he used alcohol to self-medicate his demons.  His father was an alcoholic, too.

Pain has its virtues. I learned to study people and became so astute that it hid my Asperger’s symptoms for years. Female Aspies seem to be better at hiding their disability than males. I learned to study people but I still cannot decipher what expressions mean. I can see something happening on the face but am often still not be able to tell what it means.  This just increases what is already acute social anxiety and is hard to translate into socially appropriate responses.

“Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.” Certainly my childhood was not a tragedy by any means. But parts of it were tough and those parts made me strong.

Next time you see an Aspie act without empathy, especially a child, you might check in with them to see just what they are feeling. I would wager that they are feeling a great deal and simply cannot process or express their feelings.


26 responses

  1. April

    I relate to this almost too well! Since i was a child i thought most people were unable to understand my emotions and even saw them as emotionless because of that. Because of that i didn’t open up to anyone since i thought they’d never be able to feel what i feel (and i thought being that sensitive is “not normal” and they’d make fun of me :/)
    I also thought that expressing my emotions is not really important since how i feel about something won’t change reality, and i didn’t want people to see me as whiny.


    January 30, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    • So glad the post reverberated for you. There’s lots of us out there in hiding. Having emotions, to my way of thinking, is not whiny at all. To feel is part of being alive.


      January 30, 2013 at 10:46 AM

  2. Whereas I don’t have Asperger’s, I, too, had to be careful around my parents and I learned to “sense” the air before I walked into a room where one of my parents was. This was for my own safety. I became very sensitive to other people’s emotions, moods and attitudes as a result, and my moods would change to accommodate whoever I was around. At school, at church or at work I could be with someone who was happy and I’d be happy with them. That person might go somewhere else and someone sad would come and sit next to me/work beside me/whatever and I’d do my best to find out what was wrong and help them not be so sad. And on it went. One would think this was a good thing — and I have no doubt that this is how I learned to help, encourage, support, etc. other people. Yet knowing now that I was bipolar since around age 9, I think all this did for me was to reinforce the mood swings. I would go up and down the full spectrum of emotions all day long, every day. It’s no wonder when I got home from school or later from work I didn’t want to be around anyone. I’d been drained for the day and needed to be alone with God, with my music, with my books, with just me.

    My emotions have always been extraordinarily big and powerful. I’ve posted about how deeply I would get into my music, my books and movies as the words in music would allow me to express my emotions and get them out of me before I exploded and how I would, in my mind, become the characters in books or movies and, by becoming one with them, with their thoughts for however long it took to read the book or watch the movie, I’d again be able to get those powerful and sometimes overwhelming emotions out of myself. I remember the aftereffects of books and movies would last for days, sometimes weeks. To this day there are actors I feel animosity towards whenever I see them because of some powerful movie I watched as a teen where they played a mean person.

    It was more than just identifying with these characters in books and movies — it was as if I truly became that particular character. Sometimes, because I’ve always been good at seeing both sides of an argument, for example, I would become more than one character because I completely understood them/related to them/ identified with them, etc. This often left me feeling as if I had a split personality — which I never have, it’s just that sometimes the characters were so vastly different and if I “became” both of them . . . well, it was just incredibly strange!!

    I spent my teens and 20s getting all those overwhelming, powerful emotions out in song as I sang my heart out with those singers; spending hours reading and running the gamut of emotions the characters in the book had, sometimes literally holding my breath, crying, laughing out loud, worrying, etc.; going to movies with friends that I now realized I trusted enough to sit beside in a darkened theater as I got so into the movie that I was terrified to the point of shivering; crying; holding my breath; laughing hysterically; sitting on the edge of my seat as I leaned forward as if to get closer to whatever was going on as I became more and more a part of the story.

    So Ellen, even though we’re different, we’re the same — if you know what I mean by that. To me, what you’ve written here is not like seeing two sides of the same coin but rather looking at one side of a coin from different directions.

    Thank you for writing this, my dear friend!!


    January 31, 2013 at 7:23 AM

    • Hi dear Kathy,

      Thanks so much for responding to the post and sharing your experiences. I am also Bipolar so I can relate to everything you wrote about except for singing. I wish I could sing but can’t. Like you, I even thought I had 2 personalities and gave them names. I wrote all about this in my book and won’t go into it here. I was split though– I guess from being Bipolar. So I do understand some of where your coming from if I can presume to say that.
      Do hope you are feeling better and hope to be reading one of your posts soon.



      January 31, 2013 at 2:37 PM

  3. I re-read this post for the second time, a lot of information in it. Well written. Have to digest it


    January 31, 2013 at 9:42 AM

  4. Thanks for explaining about Aspie empathy. I have a young friend with Asperger’s, and this is helpful in understanding her. I’ll try and check in with her more now.


    February 2, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    • Glad you found the post helpful. That is why I write them–so nice to hear feedback like yours.


      February 2, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    • P.S. I was just admiring your blog this AM– love the headline quote, too. 🙂


      February 2, 2013 at 5:53 PM

      • Thank you 🙂 “We’re all born in the heart of a dying star”, do you mean? That’s from Prof Brian Cox, particle physicist. So it’s scientific fact, as well as being analogous for the little births and deaths we experience every day. I’m sure he didn’t mean it like that, but it works too well ;~)


        February 3, 2013 at 11:29 AM

      • Yes, that’s the quote I mean. I did look up the quote and found a video by Dr. Brian Cox. It was very intriguing. I had once found a quote about being born in the belly of a star and posted a link to that on my blog. There is a post in all this in me which I hope will come out. Anyhow I admire your blog and look forward to more posts from you. 🙂


        February 3, 2013 at 12:59 PM

      • Thank you. You’ll have to let me know when that post comes out, it’ll be an interesting read.


        February 6, 2013 at 10:53 AM

      • Will do. Thanks for writing.


        February 6, 2013 at 11:43 AM

  5. Wow! This was a really eye-opening post. We have a few friends who are also have Aspberger Syndrome and your post will certainly help me communicate with them more effectively. Does it help you when your friends verbalize their feelings? Do you feel like you’re able to respond to their emotions more appropriately?


    February 11, 2013 at 4:27 PM

    • Well, glad you found the post interesting and helpful for dealing with your friends. Aspie women tend to be more the way I described. It does help when people verbalize their feelings– it helps a lot. Yes, it helps me to respond more appropriately. But if it is an overwhelming display of emotion or if I am feeling a powerful emotion in response I might freeze up. It is hard to navigate and every Aspie is different. My husband, also Aspie, is a clinical social worker. Part of the reason he can do the job is because his feelings are sometimes not there. But he does sometimes get overwhelmed and he has to deal with that. I get overwhelmed more easily. It also helps when friends help me feel. I remember when my best friend died I was with some of her friends and they were laughing and joking and I was crying inside but couldn’t get it out because of the way they were behaving as if nothing happened.
      Anyhow thanks for your interesting and thank you for liking some of my posts. When I get a little time I am going to explore your blog. I really do appreciate your interest. I guess the best thing you can do for your Aspie friends is not to assume they are like Data on Star Trek, even if they act like that. They can be sitting on feelings or have no feelings or any number of things but they may act like Data.


      February 11, 2013 at 6:36 PM

  6. Thanks for visiting my blog! Yours is very interesting.
    I’d been wondering about the impact of the recent constant connection made in the media between Asperger’s and mass shootings. Even though I’m not informed in a detailed way, I certainly knew enough to eventually begin yelling at the TV (this always brings about immediate social change) since all you have to do is open your eyes and pay attention to the world for five minutes in order to recognize sheer nonsense.
    I think they’re looking for another easy target by now – I heard those people with dyslexia are a pretty suspicious lot.
    If people would just cooperate and be exactly like the majority! (:


    February 25, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    • I wish there were more people like you. I think it is all very stigmatizing (as if there weren’t enough stigma) and upsetting. Even some Aspies begin to believe the hype. I wish that yelling at the TV would bring about social change.
      Thanks for writing. YOUR blog was very interesting, as well as your interest in doing work with people that other people would rather forget. My husband is a clinical social worker in a very poor area in the Bronx in New York City. I admire his work and your work. I do what I can in my little world but nothing like you guys, nowhere’s near it so I am in awe.


      February 25, 2013 at 8:13 PM

  7. Thank you so much for this post! My 8 yr old son was diagnosed with Asperger’s when he was 4. I’ve only just started reading your blog but as a mother I’m finding it so very helpful as I work to see inside my little Aspie’s heart and mind. Thank you for the hope and inspiration. This is how I hope everyone will be able to see my son, as someone with more compassion and love than he knows what to do with…



    March 2, 2013 at 11:22 AM

    • Stina,
      Thanks so much for the lovely comment. This is the reason I write about Asperger’s and Bipolar Disorder. When one has suffered, one wants to put it to use, to help others. Everyone is different, of course, but the symptoms draw us together. Your son has several advantages: being diagnosed early and a loving mother. In some ways not being diagnosed until so late in life pushed me to my limits, but it was also really tough in the self-esteem dept. I wish you and your son all the best and hope he can reach high without all the pain of failure.


      March 2, 2013 at 2:00 PM

  8. Quite a powerful memoir. I found myself both moved and informed. Thank you.


    March 10, 2013 at 1:36 PM

  9. Inspirational – thanks for sharing! I’m learning a lot from you.


    March 15, 2013 at 4:34 PM

  10. Great Post! The answer or the solution is right on top. Needless to ask/seek anything more. It is but the human spirit in spite of tragedies and disgrace, miseries and failings, we will rise again and walk. Healing others is the way to mend ourselves. Thank you sharing this wonderful post, Ellen!


    April 3, 2013 at 12:29 AM

    • Thank you, Arjun, for reading and commenting. Appreciate your input and reactions, dear friend.


      April 3, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s