Autism Awareness Month, Day 13: Empathy


I’d like to see things from your point of view, but I can’t get my head that far up my ass. ~Popular Bumper Sticker

The motto of Buddhism is *not* ‘Every man for himself.'” ~From “A Fish Called Wanda”

Ken, you're really a nice guy...I just don't empathise with you

Lucky Day 13 brings me to a touchy subject for all Aspies: that of empathy. This tricky little word has two common meanings: the first being “the intellectual identification with, or vicarious experiencing of the thoughts, feelings or attitudes of another [person].” The other, perhaps less common definition might be something like “the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or artwork, feelings or attributes present in oneself.” The way I see this, it’s either feeling for someone else (difficult at best) or imagining your stuffed animals or action figures coming to life with your voice (a lot easier.)

Empathy becomes such a difficult subject because, especially in young Aspies, a lack of it can easily be confused with self-centeredness, vanity, aloofness, or even sociopathic tendencies in the worst-case scenario. “Why,” asks an Aspie, “should I care about others when they won’t even give me the time of day, and call me the R-word to my face?” This is a hard question even for a philosopher to answer, and one to which I may devote an entire post in the future. Nor do the typical “Golden Rule” maxims typically work on Aspies, for Aspies are usually not wired to think much about what others’ motivations may be. It’s as if you were to take a cat and try to explain to her to understand and sympathise with the neighbor’s loud dog. Not going to work.

And I should care because?

Personally, I think the whole idea of Aspies being cold, emotionless machines a la Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or Mr. Data is an outdated one. Every human being has emotions and subconsciously picks up on the feelings of others, even Aspies. Many scientists, including Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, believe that there are actually several different kinds of empathy. For example, some people will be moved by the scene of an airplane crash or a terrible fire on the nightly news or in a film. Aspies are very unlikely to react that way. However, Aspies often possess, the way dogs and cats seem to, the ability to just “know” when they are needed to provide support or comfort. As anyone who loves pets, or has a devoted Aspie friend, can tell you, this can be the best kind of empathy.

Our culture sends out mixed messages when it comes to empathy, too. In many schools, kids are taught that a group is greater than the sum of its parts, and that getting along is the order of the day. In many of the video games or movies they may watch, they see renegade loners who are more concerned about their next meal than the welfare of others. One cannot have it both ways. For a sensitive Aspie, who is more than likely to be a solitary type, his objective may be to be left alone. Never mind the insistent demands of others. Why, when he can take care of himself perfectly well, should be be the least bit concerned about the feelings or needs of anyone else?

There is a wonderful article about the myths and realities of this topic at the GRASP website which can be found here:

http://www.grasp.org/media/empathy.pdf

Whether, in the end, the Aspie’s inability to empathise is due to different wiring, mind-blindness, or any combination of traits is irrelevant. Speaking for myself, I know I had a hard time providing any kind of empathy to family members when a close relative died, but have cried buckets at some shamelessly manipulative movie like The Lion King. An outsider may look at it and see the following equation:

Dead family member: no visible reaction

Dead talking cartoon animals: Pass the Kleenex

If we are to go back to that second definition of empathy, I’ve been moved to write letters of appreciation to artists and writers I’ve never met simply because their work moved me. Many of them, such as bestselling author Dean Koontz and actor Dwight Schultz, were kind enough to write back.

Empaaaaaaaathy!!!!

One of my pet theories is that, when it comes to empathy, familiarity breeds contempt. This would easily explain why an Aspie is unable to cry for a friend’s deceased grandmother, or cannot understand why calling a plus-size lady “fat” to her face is wrong. The same Aspie will be deeply moved to tears at an art gallery or a symphony concert.

Since this is such a difficult topic for me, I hesitate to offer any usable advice in the way that I have in previous posts. One very useful tidbit I can throw out there for those who have an Aspie family member or friend: understand that it is not you, it’s them. I know I was never trying to be rude, aloof, conceited, cold, or any other number of things when dealing with others growing up. I was only ever trying to be authentic. If I hurt feelings along the way, well, I’m sorry.

I’ve really tried to get better at the whole empathy thing as I’ve gotten older. It’s not been easy, especially living for over a decade in the uber-social, uber-emotional South. (If you’d like an idea as to what hell is like for an Aspie, picture a typical Southern church social or funeral and you’ll get an idea.) I’ve never been good at it and I don’t pretend I am. I have a slightly better bedside manner than Greg House but I’m no Florence Nightingale. That’s all I know.

If only it were that easy...

My advice is, if you are an Aspie, be true to yourself, but understand that NTs speak a different language and respond to a different set of social cues than you. If you’d like, think of it as different cultures. If you were from Japan, you might feel as if someone from Brazil or Nigeria or Sweden was not just different, but rude. Ditto from someone from one of those countries visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan. This is as good a metaphor as I can think of, and certainly more apt than the typical “other planet” image for Aspies.

I’ve also tried to ask myself the question “How would I feel if a certain person did ‘x’ to me?” I’ve never been able to answer it the way I want. Maybe it’s because I’m more thick-skinned than many NTs, and I usually don’t care so much what others say about me. I’m not sure. That’s a different post for a different day.

The main point I’m trying to make is that a lack of (traditional) empathy does not necessarily make an Aspie cold or cruel or, God forbid, the next Charles Manson. He or she is only trying to communicate in their own way. It may be perceived as emotionless…but inside there may be a great deal more happening.

To my readers: Sorry this one is a little late, and perhaps not as exciting as some of my earlier posts. Tomorrow’s topic should be of more interest and more pop: Aspies and special interests! Thanks to all who continue to read and support this month-long project.

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~ by Howlin' Mad Heather on April 13, 2011.

3 Responses to “Autism Awareness Month, Day 13: Empathy”

  1. No photo of the “goddess of empathy?!” πŸ™‚

  2. […] http://wikusandmurdock.wordpress.com/2011/04/13/autism-awareness-month-day-13-empathy/ […]

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