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asperger’s syndrome and empathy
Almost every definition I’ve ever read about Asperger’s Syndrome lists among the traits and/or characteristics attributed to those with it as not being able to feel empathy for others – as not having empathy for others. I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I have tremendous capacity for empathy for others. I have continued to increase my ability to express that empathy. Do Aspies really lack empathy or is it felt, experienced, and expressed differently? Perhaps in ways that neurotypicals (NT’s) do not recognize as empathy or do not experience as being the way they expect to be given empathy.
As I’ve likely written about in other contexts related to Asperger’s Syndrome, it seems reasonable to say that there are many differences in those who have Asperger’s Syndrome (AS). Men and women seem to have differing ability and context as well as understanding when it comes to something like empathy and compassion as well. (Attwood) There is still a difference not only in the way boys and girls are socialized, what those social norms contain, but also in what society expects from boys versus girls. Attwood, in his book, “The Complete Guide To Asperger’s Syndrome” talks about this and concludes that females find ways to learn to express and to care-give in ways that perhaps many aspie males don’t.
In my own experience with empathy, as an adult with AS, I know that I feel tremendous empathy for others. That can be someone I am talking to, sitting in a room with, or someone I see on the evening news who has suffered a tragic loss. There is also a very profound sense of connectedness to humanity in its macrocosm that means I experience a lot of empathy and compassion for a lot of world events and things that I see on the news and so forth that aren’t a part of my own life.
A lot of this empathy that I have and feel that is palpable within me there isn’t maybe as much expression of it at times. It depends if I am coaching with someone, or writing. If I am just in my own world, doing my own thing, in the splendor and wonder of my narrow focuses of interest (which are in themselves paradoxically vast) then there is much more that I feel that others can’t know – that isn’t measurable.
The way that Asperger’s Syndrome is defined, like many other pervasive developmental disorders, or even mental illnesses pathologizes and categorizes differences in what are highly divisive and negative ways. There is little if any consideration given to the different ability of many with Asperger’s in and through which things are felt, experienced, processed, and expressed differently. Not being the same as the feelings, experiences, processing, and expression of neurotypicals (NT’s) the presumbed NT’s who set out the defining criteria of Asperger’s Syndrome fail to give consideration to different ability. What is different about those with AS in the minds of those defining it and those who continue to forward that narrow definition of it, despite endless individual manifestations and expressions of AS from all the people who have it, is that there is a tremendous lack of tolerance for difference.
It’s as if there is some segement of society, “professionals” (?) that are charged with defining the ever-illusive “normal”. It’s flawed logic to begin with. It leaves no room for each to march to the beat of his or her own drummer, to be introverted versus extroverted without scrutiny and/or without penalty of judgment and being patholigzed.
I don’t happen to think there is anything particularly horribly wrong with my brain as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. Again, the differences between aspie brains and NT brains, see the NT’s pathologize the aspie brains as “dysfunctional”. Why not just different? For all that people with Asperger’s have contributed to this world through the unique genius that is a bonus to our differences, geez, I don’t see that being categorized as negatively as the ways in which we “don’t get NT social”. Who needs it? I mean I straddle that line. I have pushed myself way far to “get it”. However, “getting it” to some extent, and being able to connect socially, feel and express empathy and receive it doesn’t mean that I want or need to be in that “space” that often. I just don’t. I do find myself in that space often in terms of the work I do, writing I do, and knowing what others need from me at times. The rest of the time, time I can have for me, in my splendid aspie world, is time cherised in that world. That is not a statement about egocentrism or being unaware. Again, it’s difference.
The egocentrism of my Asperger’s is something that I am now very aware of. There are ways around it. Do they feel natural – no. Will they ever – I doubt it. Does it matter to me – not any more.
There are also many feelings, such as love, empathy, compassion, and so forth, that are compromised to varying degrees with individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome. This does mean they can’t continue to learn ways to increase understanding these emotions and their expression. Within the social impairment (so called – I’d say again, different ability) of Asperger’s Syndrome in terms of social relating does feeling or expressing empathy become more challenging or difficult for many with AS, yes. This has to do with the different ways that we process information. It has to do with the NT social context that most with AS, even when we understand it to varying degrees, do not find it to be the way that we engage, the way that we would relate that would be first-nature to us.
Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome have a capacity for empathy. Some more so than others. Some maybe not so much. Again, Asperger’s Syndrome is not the same for each and every person who has it. However, the blanket statement in the pathologizing DSM-IV definition of Asperger’s Syndrome (which by the way is not even slated to exist as such in the up-coming DSM-V professionals now preferring it just be lumped in with autism so that everyone can get even more confused) that people with Asperger’s lack empathy is not all that accurate. It is a statement without explanation. A statemment, black-and-white as it is, that doesn’t take into account each aspie’s individuality, and the reality that people can feel more than you can know. This is especially true when much that can be felt by those with Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t met with the same need for expression, socially or otherwise, often as it is for those who are neurotypical.
This begs the question how professionals can even really accurately assess what someone with Asperger’s feels or has the capacity to feel. How can you know if I lack empathy just because perhaps I didn’t express something that was wanted, coveted, expected or that NT’s define as a “social norm”?
You really can’t, can you?
Should we as people with Asperger’s Syndrome, make up some book and pathologize NT’s who have a greater need and/or desire to relate many things, empathy being perhaps one of those feelings, to others more often than we do because to us that is not “normal” or necessary?
I believe that most aspies do feel empathy. I also believe that they want to experience empathy from others but that often both are lost in terms of expression and reception to the different ways in which we think, process information and to the different degrees to which we feel the need to actually “socialize”.
That does not a lack of empathy make. That makes for difference. More difference that is not understood, not tolerated and that is pathologized by the “powers that be” who decide how it is that we are all “supposed” to relate to one another.
Small box that, don’t you think?
© A.J. Mahari, April 13, 2010 – All rights reserved.
Executive Dysfuntion is, in my opinion and experience, a different way of functioning.