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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.