Startling Facts About Aspergers Empathy

Aspergers Empathy

I used to watch Star Trek.  Remember Mister Spock, and later, Data?

aspergers empathy

According to Wikipedia,

Data is physically the strongest member of the Enterprise crew and is, in ability to process and calculate information rapidly, the most intelligent member. He is able to survive in atmospheres that most carbon-based life forms would consider inhospitable, including the lack of an atmosphere or the vacuum of space; however, as an android, he is the most emotionally challenged and, with the addition of Dr. Soong’s emotions chip, the most emotionally unstable member of the crew. Before the emotions chip, Data was unable to grasp basic emotion and imagination, leading him to download personality subroutines into his programming when participating in holographic recreational activities and during romantic encounters.

Keeping these characters in mind, I now want you to think about the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, which held that the sun and all other planets revolve around the earth.  Years later, Copernicus threatened the academic and religious institutions of his day when he posited that Ptolemy was wrong – the earth, instead of being the center of the universe, revolves around the sun with the other planets.

I’m writing this post for neurotypicals.  Most Aspies and autistics reading this article won’t find anything I share particularly startling.  But neurotypicals may.  I, for one, when I didn’t know much about Aspergers and autism, held a stereotype of Aspies and autistics as being like Mr. Spock or Data: unfeeling, logical, and not particularly interested in empathy.

Every neurotypical parent, therapist, teacher, and scientist should keep an open, inquisitive, and flexible mind about autism facts and theories.


a)    We’ll treat autistics and Aspies according to our understanding about autism facts and theories.

b)    New information can help us better understand and relate to autistics and Aspies.

Asperger Plus, in one of his articles about autism as oversensitivity, referenced a 2009 Swiss study about the nature of Aspergers empathy.  While this proposed Intense World Theory needs a lot more study and peer review, it jolts neurotypicals out of their stereotypes about autistics and Aspies.

Here’s what many neurotypicals think –   Aspies don’t feel many emotions, like Mr. Spock or Data.  And as a result, they don’t sense and are not interested in the emotions of others.

On the contrary, suggests this study, Aspies don’t lack empathy, but rather feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.

One member of a autism researcher’s group shared this great analogy.

My first encounter with a tape recorder was in a classroom, our French teacher had rercoded the class while we chatted without telling us, she then played it back to us, the most noticeable thing was the volume level of background clutter and noise, (i.e a desk or door being banged closed, car noise from an opened window, the school bell, people talking etc,etc.  Everything invaded the tape.  I could now hear things I just didn’t hear during my conversation with others. I was very surprised indeed.

It was many years later during my mental health nurse training I discovered the reason behind this, normally the human brain is capable of filtering out background clutter and focus in on a conversation radio TV or phone calls, the micro phone cannot discriminate in that way, of course anything that affects this mechanism will disrupted an individual’s ability to filter out the clutter making it extremely difficult to concentrate on conversation etc, I have never forgot this lesson and I tell the story to parents of autistic children by way of example how their children may become overwhelmed by sensory input. The thought of all that noise/clutter hitting my brain 24/7 is enough to make me cringe , is it any wonder autistic children have difficulty making sense of this noisy world, now add in the other senses sight, smell, taste , touch and it can get really scary for them, thankfully not every child will be overwhelmed but it is a factor which must be considered and planned for when working and caring for our autistic children.

[This quote reminds me of the video about sensory overload in my article, How To Deal with Stress and Aspergers.]

Theory of mind research posits that Aspies and autistics struggle with interpreting the information gathered from other people.  Unfortunately, people often then jump to the conclusion that autistics don’t care about others’ emotions, thoughts, and feelings.

This quote highlights an issue many autistics have about assumptions of Aspergers, emotions, and empathy:

A longtime sore point for me has been that contention that just because a person can’t interpret external social cues, they lack “empathy”. The article is spot on in addressing that in fact Aspies (myself included) have very intense emotional — yes, empathic — connections with others when we do interpret them. The crux is that Aspies tend to be equal-opportunity empaths, in other words, we don’t subjectivify whom we empathize with … which leads to trouble and the label of “insensitivity” or “lack of empathy”. When looking at humans, all are equal, and I don’t put the “tribe” into context, which gets me in trouble. Ironically, true empathy — objective feelings and sympathy for others regardless of personal connection — is often viewed as some manner of coldness or disconnect. I’ve been in situations where a work acquaintance has openly related some sadness, e.g. death of a loved one (something that requires no nonverbal social interpretation), and teared up… other people then say to me “why would that upset you? You hardly know that person”. I have the same experience with movies, I really get emotionally drawn in, to the point that I avoid movies with certain subjects that I know will upset me.

Research That Challenges Neurotypical Assumptions About Aspergers and Empathy

Dr. Gaus, in her book, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, shared a 2007 study by Rogers, Dziobek, Hassenstab, Wolf, and Vonvit.  They organized two groups, one group of 21 Aspergers adults, and one group of 21 neurotypical adults.  They administered the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which measures four subdomains of empathy.  Two scales are assumed to measure the cognitive component of empathy – Perspective Taking (tendency to spontaneously adopt the point of view of others) and Fantasy (tendency to identify with fictional characters).  The other two are assumed to measure the emotional component of empathy: Empathic Concern (tendency to esxperience feelings of sympathy and compassion for unfortunate others) and Personal Distress (tendency to experience distress and discomfort in response to extreme distress in others).

Results showed Aspergers adults to significantly struggle with the social cognition and cognitive empathy scales.  However, on the Empathic Concern subtest they scored the same as neurotypicals, and on the Personal Distress test, they scored significantly higher that neurotypicals, suggesting they become more upset than typical people when faced with extreme distress of others.  [The authors of the study also shared that this subtest also taps into anxiety, and that the high scores could reflect overall high anxiety levels Aspies typically feel].  This finding, overall, is inconsistent with neurotypical assumptions that Aspies and autistics are uncaring.

So What?  Thoughts for Neurotypicals

For parents, teachers, therapists, and other professionals working with autistic people.

Treat each person as unique.

As one long-time professional put it,

Anyone wishing to work with ASD individuals must increase their understanding and be prepared to think outside the box, not just relying on the standard training.  There are so many competing styles of intervention, many standard training models simply don’t have enough box’s to tick, it seems to take a long time for the establishment to adjust their training models to better understand autism. There is always room for improvement in training in any field, the application of that training in the field is where it counts. practical interventions which fit the client need can only be delivered by better understanding that version of the individuals autism not just autism.

Don’t under-estimate what an individual can do.

My Aspergian friend, Rod Wintour, shared the following advice:

Don’t underestimate what Aspies can do.  In my experience I don’t under-estimate what the child can do.

We adapt in ways people don’t expect and develop our own ways of doing things.   For example: In an Aspergers study at Auckland university , it was found that I could interpret facial expression and interpret tone of voice correctly only 47 percent of the time.  This was only about seven or eight years ago. But I have been a Morale officer in the Fire service, A Team leader, Head of Security in a shopping mall teacher aide and so on. All these require good communication skills.

It is also very true that I experience ASD the same as I did when I was a child. Learning strategies hasn’t cured my Autism or the way I experience it , but I have adapted and changed my behaviour in the way that I deal with it.

Respect their challenges.

One of my Aspergian friends, (I’ll call her Violet, to protect privacy), told me that living day to day with Aspergers challenges is like running a marathon every day.

Listen and practice empathy and compassion.

Don’t underestimate what can be learned.

Here’s what Valerie Gaus, author of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Adult Asperger Syndrome, has to say:

…any therapist who is working with adults with AS should not assume that a skill not yet learned cannot be learned.  it is better to start off assuming that a person’s missing skill was not acquired because the individual could not learn it in a typical way, but that he or she may be able to learn it in an atyical way.  The opportunities that were not provided by the natural environment can be provided in the psychotherapy setting.  I have a lifespan developmental perspective on AS: Even one new skill acquired at one point in an adult life can improve the way that a person experiences his or her world.  In that sense, the intervention affects the course of development from that point on, no matter how old the person might be.

Learn from Your Aspergers and autistic friends, children, students, and/or clients

The more I read blogs and books written by Aspies and autistics, the more humbled I become.  I realize that I have to re-examine my own assumptions about language, communication, and neurodiversity on a regular basis.

Aspies and autistics have raised my autism IQ and have become some of my greatest teachers.

When I combine their lessons with everything I can find about solutions to make their lives better, I am on my way to becoming a better parent/teacher/therapist.

In conclusion

1.  Aspies are not unfeeling robots.  In fact, autistics are intensely emotional, but struggle with cognitively grasping the social cues of neurotypical relating.  So neurotypicals falsely assume that Aspies don’t care about feelings.

2.  Aspies can learn ways to cope with lack of empathy over time.

3.  Neurotypicals [especially practitioners, parents, teachers] need to practice empathy and walk in autistic’s shoes before making assumptions about any one person.

Other Resources for Your Reading Pleasure that can Make Us Think about the Nature of Aspergers, Autism, and Empathy

Wrong Planet features the Intense World Theory of Autism, which proposes that autistics actually experience too much input and withdraw, versus not being interested in the world.  This theory would shed new light on how Aspergers empathy is challenged by intense experiences of others’ emotions.

Here’s another article by the authors of the intense world theory, in Nature.

Although there doesn’t seem to be later peer-reviewed literature on this theory, it does represent another way to look at autism.

I’d love to hear from both Aspies, autistics, and neurotypicals about Aspergers and empathy.  What are your thoughts?

Print Friendly
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Website

 I'm Steve Borgman.  I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

Are you tired of feeling alone, like you're the only one in this world? Please join the Thrive with Aspergers Community to connect with others just like you!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Bob Yamtich

    I enjoy the distinction I learned from Nonviolent Communication between sympathy and empathy. I enjoy parts of Intense World Theory for sure, and some of what is written about super high empathy (by Autistics, I think Simon Baron-Cohen’s description of high empathy is uninspiring.)

    Empathy doesn’t have to be overwhelming. When accurate empathy is multiplied by other factors (secrecy, incongruence), then the dissonance is its own sensory overload. In a crisis, it is possible to be present with even, consistent attention.

  • Bob, thanks for sharing! It sounds like, from my previous conversations with you, that you are particularly good at being present and empathizing. You shared how, in your work with incarcerated people, you were particularly good at being able to listen with empathy to what might seem overwhelming content to others.