Aspergers and Lack of Empathy

Aspergers is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and is now referred to as "high-functioning autism" in the U.S. It is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom, and is characterized by (a) qualitative impairment in social interaction, (b) stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and (c) no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language. Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody, and physical clumsiness are typical of the condition, but are not required for diagnosis.

The lack of demonstrated empathy is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Aspergers. People with Aspergers experience difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, which may include a failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others, a lack of social or emotional reciprocity, and impaired nonverbal behaviors in areas such as eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gesture.

A mother of an Aspergers child tells her story of a son who seemed to lack empathy:

“The realization that my child was lacking the feeling of empathy gradually came to me when he was between the ages of 2 and 4. I had a vague idea someplace in the back of my mind that a part of my child's difficulties with coping in the world around him had something to do with the reality that he did not seem to really feel his emotions apart from experiencing anger and sadness. Even if I said that he was happy, he could not agree with me proclaiming that just because he was poking fun at something did not mean that he was happy. 

As a young child, he totally couldn't cope with his 8 month old sibling crying whenever he fell down, bumped his head or pinched a finger. My child asked the most perplexing questions like "why is that baby shouting?" …"why is he doing that?" …and, my personal favorite …"can't we take that loud baby back to the store and get a new one?" I patiently spelled out many times that after an infant injures himself, he or she whines until the discomfort stops but my child continued to be convinced that this infant made that racket simply to irritate him.

When my child was 4, it started to be clear to me that he was not able to empathize. I had come down with an especially awful flu virus and passed out on the family room floor in the center of a game that I was playing with the children. When I came to, my younger child was patting my cheek and saying "Mommy, what's wrong?", while my older child had a meltdown because I had stopped playing! Actually, after my hubby raced me to the hospital, children in tow, my Aspergers child continued to be upset with me for interrupting "his" game. 

Soon after that, I had a summary of feelings stuck on the refrigerator in big letters and spent part of everyday hoping to get him to comprehend his emotions and the emotions of other people. He came to hate the "face game" when I put a collection of catalogues in front of him and asked him to cut out all of the faces that matched up the list of feelings. Since I did not know back then that he had Aspergers, I'm not completely sure I approached this issue in the best way. 

As he grew older and began school, we experimented with numerous discussions around the issue of emotions, how they may control us, or we can control them. We talked about how to be warm and friendly to other children, how they would feel if he treated them all like insects, and how to recognize his own emotions. Honestly, I don't know that we really succeeded in this area. I believe he has learned not to say what he truly believes in certain circumstances due to parental disapproval. It is really an issue that we will most likely focus on for a long time.”

Aspergers individuals have difficult reading body language (i.e., non-verbal communication). This reduced ability to read body language means less displays of empathy; however, in this case, "empathy" is used in the sense of mimicry of emotions.

There is a natural tendency of people to mimic others in their behavior. So if one person laughs, it is more likely that other people within earshot will laugh too. The same occurs with sadness. Empathy comes to play because sadness is not just tears but an entire set of circumstances.

So what happens is that the Aspergers individual is seen as responding inappropriately to other’s emotions. That's because he/she is not connecting through body language. So in a very real sense, the person with Aspergers is less empathetic. One would not expect an Aspie to respond to body language just as you would not expect a deaf person to respond to your voice.

Does this mean that people with Aspergers have no feelings? No. In the commonly understood sense, Aspies have feelings like anyone else. If you don't know about an event, you have no feelings about it. So to use a rather strange example here, you would have no worries about running over an invisible man. There are people and events we know about only by reading about them or by hearing the stories. Just like people without Aspergers, Aspies have empathy with people they read about.

Many people with Aspergers have the ability to feel empathy (some more so than others, some maybe not so much). Aspergers is not the same for each and every person who has it. However, the blanket statement that people with Aspergers lack empathy is not all that accurate. It is a statement without explanation –a statement, black-and-white as it is, that doesn’t take into account each person’s individuality, and the reality that others can feel more than you can know. This is especially true when much that can be felt by those with Aspergers is not met with the same need for expression as it is for those without Aspergers.

A groundbreaking study suggests people with Aspergers do not lack empathy – rather, they feel other’s emotions too intensely to cope. Thus, the “lack of empathy issue” may have more to do with “sensitivity to stimuli” than an inability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.


More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

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