WHAT ABOUT ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND EMPATHY: Aspie vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder

MY ASPIE HUSBAND IS NOT A PSYCHOPATH & NEITHER IS YOURS

There is a lot of information out there alluding to the fact that aspies are psychopaths or sociopaths, or at a minimum, behave the same way as someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder.  One of my favorite posts on this controversial comparison was written by a woman who took a lot of flak for her opinion (http://psychopathsandlove.com/psychopathy-or-aspergers-syndrome/)

This author predominantly writes about psychopaths, but I must say, her article specific to men with Asperger’s syndrome struck a chord with me.  It struck a chord because it was so disturbingly accurate to what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a relationship with an Aspie partner that I wanted to commend her for bringing it to light in a harsh but unnervingly truthful way.  The only thing I would have to disagree with in her article, is that she alludes to there being no hope for the Aspies she is referring to; I submit that the reason behind their behavior is a little more innocent and heartbreaking than she is willing to consider (although I haven’t any blame for that).

There is a reason that the women in relationships with adult Aspies have so much negativity to put out to the world (or anyone who will listen).  It begins with the very simple fact that the men in their lives either lack a formal diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome, or, they have opted to do nothing constructive with the diagnosis to improve their relationship (like acknowledge it at all).  The wife or girlfriend, in contrast, doggedly searches for help, advice, and knowledge.  She has no idea she is receiving useless information along the way.  All she knows is that she is investing all of herself in making the relationship better, and her partner is completely disinterested in joining her efforts.

The resulting effect on the devastated and desperate woman, who continues to try to make things “better” is the so-dubbed Ongoing Traumatic Relationship Syndrome (OTRS) or Cassandra Phenomenon (http://www.faaas.org/otrscp.html), or any other name by which these ill-effects have been titled.  If you don’t care to check out what those “non” diagnoses are, I can sum them up by telling you they are the negative physical and emotional distress experienced when the person you love fails to regard you in a compassionate and empathetic way… day after day.  

If you are an Aspie husband reading this, you either have to consider your wife’s crying and constant demands for attention and love (combined with the complaints she is not getting it from you) means she is truly an emotional wreck (through no fault of yours) who imagines things… or there is something else going on that it may be time for you to consider.  

While this may initially sound like another bashing of those men out there with Asperger’s syndrome, please read through the post before deeming it as such and closing the page (this is different).  

 

So I believe in this diagnosis (OTRS), speaking from the experience of living in it, and I believe it should be acknowledged by the medical community.  On a side note I find it disturbing that the mental health community embraces PTSD but chooses to turn a blind eye to those still in the midst of what will inevitably become that diagnosis!  I also believe I fully comprehend how and why OTRS has come to exist.  I also believe I know how to make it go away… and it is as simple as grasping exactly what empathy is and how it has managed to adversely affect the lives of almost all (ok ALL) Asperger adults and their neurotypical loved ones.

Ok, here it goes… try to keep up with me if you can because this is going to be a doozy….

 

If you are a highly empathetic neurotypical, then you grasp empathy fully and completely, right?  You may or may not have read my rants about how the only thing lacking in an Aspie from birth is empathy… not another damn thing other than the completely absent and all-encompassing necessary life force that is empathy.  I have said that everything else that exists (sensory issues, absent ToM, preoccupation with special interests, ADHD, OCD, ODD, Tourette’s, etc.) are all secondary manifestations of this lack of empathy. 

I hold strong to this.

I have to rescind my previous statements though that male aspies have ZERO empathy.  I was not really clear in what I meant by this so I am going to clarify it once and for all.

 

Male Aspies have ZERO cognitive empathy

 

What the hell does that mean?

Cognitive empathy is the ability to read facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and other nonverbal messages, as well as inferences that aren’t directly stated.  All of these (alone or combined) enable a person to decipher what someone is thinking or feeling.  I realize this concept may be incredibly challenging to grasp for a person with Aspergers because they can look at someone and identify that they are smiling or frowning, happy or sad (for the most part).  They can also make many inferences within verbal communication by the time they are adults and learn to “read between the lines” to some extent.  Aspies are not “dumb” as my husband John always wants to point out when I tell him, “you can’t see what I do.”

What they do not realize (and nor do their loved ones) is that there are about a thousand other messages that come in the form of nonverbal communication that someone with Asperger’s syndrome will never be able to pick up on and even though they can learn to identify some of these with a great deal of assistance, this ability will never come naturally.  They will never be able to develop their cognitive empathy to that of a neurotypical individual, or even come close.

 

Cognitive Empathy Development

I am not going to tell you I know the cause for the disconnect with cognitive empathy, but I lean toward it actually being a complete absence of synaptic neural pathways to the lobes of the brain that control it from the time this person is developing in utero.  Not that they have synapses connected but lack enough neurotransmitters to send the messages across them… I think the synapses simply do not exist, at all.  In fact, I think the absence of these neural pathways that connect cognitive empathy are utilized elsewhere in the brain (same overall numbers, connected in different regions).  For instance, the Aspie without the neural pathways for cognitive empathy got a few more connections elsewhere… maybe in the lobes that control mathematics, or art?  This certainly accounts for why so many Aspies have gifts in one special area (talent) at a higher rate than their neurotypical counterparts though, doesn’t it?  I strongly suspect that this also accounts for all of the other deficits, heightened sensory or tactile issues, and behavior manifestations that people lump together as “characteristics” of someone with Asperger’s syndrome. 

After exhaustive research, I have concluded that a child born with Asperger’s syndrome lacks connectivity in those parts of the brain that control cognitive empathy.  

They simply are NOT talking to each other… AT ALL.  

These are all just *Kara-Facts* and cannot be proven or disproven with what currently exists in neuroscience.

Since the brain develops at a rapid rate in our early childhood years through interactions that enable environmental and social awareness, it would make sense that certain areas of an adult Aspie brain also become less developed than their neurotypical counterpart who did not encounter the same horrific social alienation an Aspie child does.  

  Outside of the absent neural pathways for cognitive empathy, I do believe that the underdeveloped neural pathways for all of the other social awareness abilities (to include emotional empathy and Theory of Mind) can be improved upon at any age.  I am not entirely convinced that cognitive empathy could not be created for an Aspie at a VERY early age either, since the study of neuroplasticity suggests it might be possible to rewire synaptic pathways that don’t exist if it is caught before those lost connections are cemented as permanent.  Even with a remote chance that this were possible, without the studies confirming my personal belief existing, there is no hope of accomplishing such a profound thing.

Let’s consider that cognitive empathy cannot be had in a child born without the connections in their brain to ever have it.  This would not mean that all of the other synaptic connections that are incredibly weak (areas like Theory of Mind) cannot be strengthened, regardless of the individual’s age.  In regard to neuroplasticity, the science suggests that as long as there are neural synapses in existence, call them thready or weak, they can be strengthened at any time.

The brain is an incredible machine.

I get that I am oversimplifying something that is incredibly complicated.  I get that there is a whole lot that goes into empathy in regard to neurology and that science is still unclear of what’s connected to what, etc.  At this time, I am just going to simplify it and say:

Adults with Asperger’s syndrome = ZERO cognitive empathy

 

So what can those with cognitive empathy do that Aspies can’t again?

We Neurotypicals can and do communicate with one another nonverbally to the point that we can generally tell what another is thinking without any words being spoken.  I am not suggesting we are psychic or telepathic, and holy shit do Aspies (especially the female-type) want to bash anyone who suggests they can “mind-read” as being the claims of egotistical narcissists with delusional ideas they can defy human possibility.  Some Aspie bloggers take it a step further and suggest that an NT’s claim they can read minds shows just how un-empathetic neurotypicals actually are (snidely giggling to myself as I recall these posts).

By now I will bet a ton of the NT women reading this post have stumbled on the news that “Studies have found those with Asperger’s don’t lack empathy, in fact, THEY HAVE TOO MUCH OF IT!”

Yeah, if you are like me the second you read any suggestion of this you wanted to vomit, or perhaps you did a little?  I don’t think any article about Asperger’s syndrome ever made my stomach turn and a bitter vile anger burn inside of me more than when I first saw that load of garbage.  Here I was, crying my eyes out for the millionth time over my husband’s cold and cruel behavior and some asshole out there thought it would be great to tell me I am obviously just as insane as my husband says I am because he has a ton of empathy… just not for me?

Oh please add some more salt in that wound and twist the knife in a little deeper if you would

Those with Aspergers were all over this one as well, so much so that countless bloggers out there have highlighted this brilliance as their #1 defense to the evil neurotypicals who are ruining their lives.  One blogger I follow regularly (and gain a lot of insight from) blogged on the subject:(https://seventhvoice.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/new-study-finds-that-individuals-with-aspergers-syndrome-dont-lack-empathy-in-fact-if-anything-they-empathize-too-much/). It is not so much what her post said, but the many, many responses that made me realize how clueless everyone seems to be about what empathy is.  Most of the comments go on and on explaining sympathy in the mistaken belief they are describing empathy. 

This is common. 

The reason it is so confusing is because the majority of the information out there is often so incorrect about what empathy actually is that people are regurgitating false definitions every time one opens another article.  I can promise you that any search on Autism and/or Aspergers in relation to empathy will yield you a whole lot of misinformation and angry people fighting a word that they hardly comprehend.  

I have described cognitive empathy for you.  It is as simple as I described it:  Cognitive empathy is the ability to read facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and other nonverbal messages, as well as inferences that aren’t directly stated.  

 

What I have not really clarified is that people with Asperger’s syndrome do have empathy.  

THEY HAVE AFFECTIVE EMPATHY!

 

Ok, so what does THAT mean?

Affective empathy (or emotional empathy) is the automatic desire to respond appropriately to another human being’s emotions.  This is the contagious part of empathy; when you know someone is sad and it makes you feel sad inside (you FEEL what they must be feeling) so you want to alleviate their sadness.  

Some people break apart empathy into one more term, “Compassionate Empathy.” They describe the affective side as “feeling that person’s emotion” and the compassionate side as being “spontaneously moved to help them.”  I do not see a difference in the two, as I have yet to uncover an incidence where a person has emotional empathy and does not want to then act out compassionately.  They are co-existing as far as I am concerned, therefore I only differentiate between affective and cognitive empathy in my writings.

 Affective empathy is what it is all about when we are talking about humans and love, and this is the part of empathy NT wives want the most from their husband’s but don’t seem to get (leaving them feeling unloved and unacknowledged).  This is the empathy that Aspies know damned well they possess and find themselves enraged or heartbroken over when someone suggests otherwise.

So if Aspies have affective empathy, why don’t they utilize it?

Don’t worry, I will get to that…

For now, let’s get back to the cognitive empathy that is absent and this idea that a neurotypical person can look at someone and read their mind enough to know what they are thinking and/or feeling.

Saying that a neurotypical has the ability to read someone’s mind… is a tad delusional (I’ll give that one to ya). Guess what though?  We can get pretty damn close, and the more developed a person’s cognitive empathy, the closer we are to accurately “guessing” what that person is thinking or feeling at any given time.  Give us some background information or a close relationship with a person and that accuracy gets a little more on target each time. 

Having highly in-tune cognitive empathy within a relationship enables a strong intimacy between partners.  When you can look at your partner and get a general sense of how they are feeling about something, you can respond accordingly without them having to ask.  This becomes an unspoken language between the two and enables a deeper comprehension of how the other person thinks… leading to a heightened sense of trust and security in one another and a bond that they do not share with anyone else.

Unfortunately, no level of “closeness” develops this intimacy with an Aspie-NT union because the disconnect and defensive walls built by the Aspie make it impossible for the NT wife to implore her cognitive empathy toward her husband. Actually, she RARELY has a clue what her husband is thinking because there has lacked validation for it from day one.  The most bizarre part of an Aspie-NT relationship is that the longer it goes (without knowledge and/or therapy to improve communication) the more the NT and Aspie share similar deficits in cognitive empathy toward one another.  

The NT does not lose cognitive empathy abilities for anyone else, but becomes devoid of it for her husband (but she doesn’t know this so she keeps incorrectly “guessing” what he is thinking or feeling each day).  This inconsistency in the application of cognitive empathy on behalf of the NT wife leads to a whole lot of assumptions that are harmful/hurtful to her husband.  He is not able to articulate this to her so he responds to her incorrect assumptions with hostility.  It is important to realize that despite responding to her assumptions with hostility, she is never proven wrong (by way of him expressing calmly what he WAS thinking) and so she continues on thinking that her cognitive empathy is correctly identifying her husband’s thoughts and feelings.  BIG PROBLEM.

 

I know this is difficult to keep up with, but bear with me as I try to make it easier to comprehend…

 

While the whole concept of cognitive empathy is still going to seem foreign to an Aspie reading it, the neurotypical reading would have to agree that this is not really a conscious or difficult thing to do, as we do it every single day with family, friends, and even strangers.  While it still sounds hokey, one only needs to consider the fact that there is scientific data to back it up.  The data is so prevalent that it is now common knowledge across the globe that most humans communicate with nonverbal means more than verbal… a LOT MORE.

We (NT’s) learn how to utilize our cognitive empathy from such a young age (because it is intuitive and natural) that most grasp enough to do it effectively and without any effort by the time they are in kindergarten.  It is not a big secret that by the time someone is in grade school they comprehend that the mass majority of information they receive from others and in social settings comes from nonverbal communication.  75% – 93% are the best scientific guesstimates out there, but since Aspies (like my husband) love to disprove things (much the same way I do) here is the best link to go to from a group of people who have dedicated their life to the subject: http://www.nonverbalgroup.com/2011/08/how-much-of-communication-is-really-nonverbal

If you are willing to just trust my summation of the data from that link, here is their opinion: “The fact of the matter is that the exact number is irrelevant. Knowing that communication is specifically 75% nonverbal or 90% nonverbal holds no practical applications. The important part is that most communication is nonverbal. In fact, nonverbal behavior is the most crucial aspect of communication.

 In other words, lacking cognitive empathy meant that while everyone else was communicating with one another from early on in their development, without ever using verbal words, the young Aspies were missing the majority of the communication taking place.

If everyone is now on board (or at least humoring me) that cognitive empathy is non-existent (and the defining characteristic) for those with Asperger’s syndrome… then let’s look at how it snowballs from youth to adulthood into everything that goes so seemingly wrong.

 

A VERY LONG LETTER TO MY HUSBAND TO EXPLAIN THE COGNITIVE EMPATHY DOMINO EFFECT:

Being unable to understand what people were thinking, meaning, intending, etc. without directly saying it; a billion misunderstandings occurred at an age so young you could not have possibly known what the hell was happening (nor did anyone else).  You missed all of the nonverbal messages being sent to you because you were neurologically incapable of receiving them.  Let me give you a few examples:

Example #1:  Try to take yourself back to when you were young.  Let’s say you are in kindergarten and there is a little boy named Peter sitting in a corner playing by himself.  You want to play with him, but he seems content playing on his own and he did not ask you to play, so you continue to play by yourself.  A few minutes later Peter is playing with other kids and you feel all alone now because everyone else is playing together.  You go to join in and Peter is not very nice to you and says he doesn’t want to play with you and nor does anyone else in the group, so you go back to your corner and play alone. 

You have no idea why the kids don’t like you and it hurts your feelings a lot.

What you missed was that when you were looking at Peter thinking about asking him to play, Peter gave you a nonverbal message that he was sad and wanted you to come talk to him.  You missed that message, and you kept playing alone. 

Peter felt like you did not like him and ignored how sad he was and decided you MUST be a mean kid.

When you weren’t looking, another little girl picked up on Peter’s nonverbal expressions and welcomed him to join the play group.  Now Peter (being an innocent little kid) decided that this little girl is kind and a good kid (someone to be friends with) and you are a big jerk (someone to avoid).  Peter tells the other kids in the group that you are mean.  Before you know it, the whole group thinks you are mean and you end up isolated the rest of the year.  

Not a good or fair start for a kind young boy who just wanted the same thing every other child does… to have friends.

 

Example #2:  You are two years old and you go to touch a hot burner on the stovetop and your mom snatches your hand away, makes a really odd face and says, “John! NO! NO! HOT!”  You heard her words and you now know not to touch the burner again because it might be hot… makes sense, ok, got it!

You are now four years old and you go to touch an expensive vase on a shelf and your mom makes another odd face at you and says, “John!”  Only this time she doesn’t say, “Don’t touch that or it will break!”  She doesn’t say it because by the age of four parents naturally stop using words the way they did when you were little and they express nonverbal communication with their facial/body language and tone of voice to send the SAME messages they did with words when you were younger.

Parents (and NT’s in general) do not even realize they naturally begin deleting clear dialog when conveying their thoughts as children grow up.  

When you hear your mother say your name, you turn in her direction assuming she wants your attention for something.  She assumes you received the message not to touch the vase again despite only calling out your name and making a stern face at you. Uncertain why your mother said your name and then turned away to talk to guests in the adjoining room, you go back to touching the vase… which falls and breaks.

Your mom is pissed and spanks your butt and sends you to your room.  All you can think is, “It was an accident, I didn’t mean to break it.” Your mom, and the guests are now all wondering to themselves why you were being purposely defiant.  The thing is… you were not defying anything, you were never told NOT to touch the vase.  You missed the nonverbal message and now those guests are all thinking you are a brat.

These scenarios go on and on and on from your youth (although obviously I made up those specific stories) and it was all of those missed nonverbal messages (clearly no fault of your own) that made people misunderstand your personality and intentions.  They thought you were a trouble maker, defiant, a brat, didn’t listen, rude, uncaring, etc.  You had no idea what the hell you ever did to upset anyone and you felt very isolated and singled out and treated unfairly (and you were).  If anyone knew you couldn’t read nonverbal messages like the other kids, you would never have suffered all of the snowball effects that came from it the rest of your life.  If you had known that, perhaps you would not have developed all of these defensive behaviors that served to protect you from pain (isolating yourself, being ready to defend yourself at the drop of a dime, being verbally aggressive to make people leave you alone, etc.).

YOU DO HAVE EMOTIONAL EMPATHY

You have the ability to care deeply about how someone feels and want to help and make them feel better when they are upset… you just could never do that unless someone told you how they were feeling. 

Back to Example #1.  If Peter or the teacher told you, “Hey John, Peter is sad and thinks no one wants to be his friend and play with him, you should ask him to play.” You would have instantly felt badly for Peter and gone over to ask him to play (affective empathy).  If they had used words toward you in such scenarios, then the resulting response from you would have been to utilize affective empathy and you would have been treated differently (like the other kids) and your affective empathy would have gotten better and better and compensated a lot for the cognitive empathy that was lacking.

The problem is that you never had the chance to develop your affective empathy the way others do because 75-93% of the messages being sent by everyone around you were nonverbal. 

Having this cognitive empathy deficit also made you unable to readily know how your own facial expressions, body language, and nonverbal communication was being depicted to the outside world.

Without realizing it, you may have had problems regulating your tone and pitch when you spoke (that made you seem meek or overwhelming), you may have made facial expressions that gave the opinion you were feeling a certain emotion that you were not (or at least didn’t want people to know), and your body language may have been extremely telling of how you really felt about something (like being annoyed when someone was talking, or bored, or disinterested). 

Since you unknowingly gave these inner feelings away through expressions to those in your presence, the ability to develop the social etiquette behaviors (like pretending to be interested when you are not so that you do not upset someone and can develop friendships) were impossible for you to achieve (even if you thought you were doing it right).

This is part of the reason that aspies have difficulties with eye contact and physical manifestations of stress or discomfort… they wouldn’t have these if not for the lacking cognitive empathy.  This is also why aspies make terrible liars. 

Most male aspies learn at a young age to never lie because #1. They suck at it and always get caught and #2. They do not pick up on the nonverbal communication that someone is offended or upset when the truth is spoken to them, so they never learn how to rephrase their opinions in a way that is not offensive.  An example of this would be the child Aspie who tells another child, “Your eyeglasses make you look like a bug.”  A neurotypical child may say the same thing, but immediately identifies the other child’s nonverbal expressions of being offended or hurt and therefore learns to not verbalize observations like this in the future. The Aspie child (lacking cognitive empathy to identify the reaction to being compared to a bug) does not see the negative response to his honesty, and also never connects the dots to why the “bug-eyed kid” never wants to talk to them again, or is mean to them in the future.  They do not learn to “lie” or withhold their immediate thoughts to protect the ego and feelings of other people, and therefore, they become “brutally honest” adults.

A simple search of aspie characteristics will yield you, “Honest, sometimes to a fault” 99% of the time.

For some reason (that I am beginning to understand) a select few aspies (who likely encompass the majority of those lending to the psychopath stereotype) took the whole, “Sometimes it is ok to lie or not be honest all the time” a little too far.  Rather than always being honest, these aspie adults always seem deceptive (even when they are only withholding something silly). 

I believe for these particular Aspies, they likely had a neurotypical adult that was close to them and frequently scolded them when they DID vocalize honest observations and opinions that might offend someone.  In the example of the “bug-eyed kid” the Aspie with an acutely aware neurotypical parent (perhaps an NT-e) would have been rapidly admonished for their words and told, “That was NOT nice! You don’t say mean things like that to other children! Go apologize!”  Since this scenario is still going to include an NT parent or adult who is unaware of why the Aspie child made such an overt remark, they missed the opportunity to explain to the child that they were able to observe facial expressions of being sad in little “bug-eyes” that the Aspie missed, and how that did hurt the “bug-eyes'” feelings unintentionally.  They also missed the opportunity to then teach the young Aspie the appropriate way to apologize or make light of their unintentional and innocent error; something that would have enhanced the use of emotional empathy and also taught invaluable lessons about social etiquette that may have prevented a lifetime of alienation from their peers. 

For the Aspie children that had an NT stepping in to always criticize their words, yet ZERO knowledge about “what” words were ok to say out loud, and what words were not… they developed an unusually high frequency of intentional and focused internalizing of their thoughts so they would not accidentally get spoken aloud.  

If they did not say what they were thinking or feeling, then no one could get angry at them for saying the wrong thing, right?  

These are the Aspie children that grow into Aspie adults who withhold their thoughts and feelings and, more frequent than not, appear deceptive.  

The NT spouse (who has keen cognitive empathy skills), is able to pick up on the fact that their Aspie mate is withholding their thoughts and incorrectly assumes that the thoughts MUST be negative ones.  They incorrectly assume that there is a purposeful withholding of information that must be “self-preserving” in nature.  

In other words, us butthead and often paranoid NT’s tend to associate this misunderstood silence with lying.

In general, male aspies are incapable of lying without giving it away to the NT’s in their life through their facial expressions and body language (although only someone who knows them closely can pick up on this once they reach adulthood).  This sets the stage for “little white lies” during the courtship days in a relationship (when there existed no reason for the NT to question her Aspie beau’s honesty).  Once the day to day existence together sets in, many of what the Aspie may have said (due to insecurities or trying to say the “right thing”) begin to raise questions for the NT partner.  Once a few white lies are uncovered, everything from the initial dating stage begins to become questionable and the perfect beginning turns to shit rapidly.  

Lacking the ability to modulate your own nonverbal communication or interpret other people’s is also why Aspies are considered gullible or they misunderstand that something is a joke, or a person is being sarcastic.  When all you really have to interpret messages are the literal words spoken to you, those missed facial expressions and “hidden messages” that say “I am totally being sarcastic” or “this is a metaphor and didn’t really happen” get taken at face value instead.  

When a five year old NT proclaims to a lunch table full of kids, “I am so hungry I am going to eat this whole table!” The five year old Aspie may respond, “You can’t eat a table!”  The other kids may also be acutely aware by this age that no human is going to ingest a lunchroom table, nor do they really intend to, but the Aspie child is likely to believe that this NT is not very smart and thinks they could really achieve this.  By five, it wouldn’t be uncommon for that Aspie child to also launch into an informative dialog (ad nauseum) about why it is physically impossible for a human to eat a table. 

It is this very use of figurative speech that neurotypical children learn how to decipher early on through the utilization of cognitive empathy.  They read body language and facial expressions to decipher that while someone is speaking literally, they are contradicting their belief in the literal meaning with their nonverbal expressions. Since the Aspie child does not learn how to do this, they find themselves in a position to correct the naive words of their classmates very frequently.  This makes them appear gullible or stupid, all the while, they are thinking the same of their NT classmates who keep saying ludicrous things.  The Aspie child almost always learns by young adulthood that neurotypicals say stupid things they know are impossible or ridiculous a lot.  While they may still have no clue why they insist on doing this, they learn not to always “point out the obvious” when it happens.  

Unfortunately, this does not translate to an adult Aspie married to an NT-e.

For instance, when their wife is crying or angry and says, “I hate you, you never listen to me and don’t love me!”  All they are hearing is that they are being blamed for “never” doing something (listening), which they know is not true because they obviously DO listen. The Aspie husband hears that they are “hated” by the person who is supposed to love them the most and that erodes their sense of security.  They are being told they also don’t “love” their wife, which they know damned-well is NOT true, so they feel an intense urge to vocally combat something so hurtful.  They are completely inundated with a sentence that attacks them, threatens them, and calls them a liar and they have NO IDEA why.  The Aspie husband LOVES his wife so it emotionally harms them to hear such things.  They cannot always just blow off the insanity of their wife’s words the way they learned to with other stupid NT comments throughout their life. Something so cruel, hurtful, and untrue warrants an equally cruel response, or an incredible amount of passion to disprove, right?

What is missed is that while their wife said, “I hate you, you never listen to me and you don’t love me!” what she actually meant was, “I feel like you are not understanding me and because you are not acknowledging what I am saying and I love you so much, it is causing me a lot of pain and anger… this anger feels like hatred sometimes because I can’t believe the man who is supposed to love and respect me the most, does not seem interested or concerned with how upset I am right now.”  

If you do not have cognitive empathy, there is ZERO chance you are going to decipher that woman’s non-threatening plea for attention and the words she used to articulate them as one in the same!  You are not going to ever understand her “hidden meanings” and she doesn’t even know they come across as hidden.  She has learned to communicate her whole life with predominant NON-VERBAL means and verbal words that convey thoughts in a very obscure way to someone who does not share her language.  

Unfortunately, the majority of society DOES easily (and without any effort) process this ambiguous dialog.  Your wife is unconsciously processing and delivering information that you cannot make sense of setting you up for failure in almost all communication attempts to resolve conflict.  All you have to work with are the literal words she is speaking (she “hates” you), while she blindly assumes you are getting the message that she loves you and is just upset.  

 

THIS IS NOT FAIR

THIS IS ALSO NOT HER FAULT

 

Neither of you understands how debilitating an absence of cognitive empathy is in one partner, when the other one has it.

 

Going back to your childhood…

As a child, all of these cognitive empathy misunderstandings made you seem difficult, mean, uncaring, aloof, naive, etc. to those around you at a very young age.  Quite often they made you seem like you just did not care what someone was saying, or feeling…which was NEVER TRUE.

The ONLY deficit you have, the ONLY thing that makes your brain different from the average person is that you do not have connectivity in the lobes that process cognitive empathy.  THAT IS IT.  You were always just as kind, compassionate, and wonderful as everyone else; you were never broken.

Unfortunately, with the way you were treated and the desperation of your parents to figure out what was “wrong” and make your life better, they unintentionally (and by NO fault of theirs) made you feel like you were broken each time you were scolded or taken to another specialist or doctor for therapy or medication, etc.

So what happens to a kid who grows up like this?

They become isolated, depressed, self-conscious, anxious.  They do not trust people because they are constantly being told they did something wrong or they are a bad person when they know they are not.  Kids like this act out or they hide (or do both).  Kids like this want nothing more than to develop close interpersonal relationships and be loved, and to love (like everyone else) but they just can’t seem to get it right.

As these kids get older, they have solidified all of these defenses that are so extreme they further hinder their growth and ability to function the way other teenagers and young adults do.  Being so used to personal attacks on their character for no reason (and never knowing when they are going to come) they become ready to defend themselves at all times.  The slightest clue that someone is about to blame them for something or say something bad about them and the defensive guns are out (over-the-top nastiness) or the wall goes up (isolating and tuning out).

These are the common responses for most male Aspies out there (defensive guns or wall) well into adulthood if they never received a diagnosis as a child; and they had every right and reason to respond that way.  It must have been hell to always have to defend yourself or avoid communication so you don’t have to.  It had to be awful to rarely have a clue why someone was upset (you didn’t listen to me, you don’t care about me, you’re being an asshole, etc.) because 75-93% of what the person said, wanted, asked for, questioned, directed, etc. came in the form of nonverbal communication and the message was missed.

It is important to bear in mind that in all of those miscommunications along the way, the person (NT) who was angry or frustrated or upset was NOT wrong for feeling that way.  If they did not know about Asperger’s syndrome (and they didn’t), then they could only assume that the behavior was purposeful and therefore their accusations, valid. 

But they were never valid because they just didn’t understand, and neither did you.

 

 

The Catastrophic Consequences

I cannot begin to imagine the pain a child (like my husband) must have endured feeling like the whole world was out to get him or prove he was a bad person.  I am only beginning to really comprehend the pain I inflicted on him despite years of feeling like he was the torturer.  I am sorry for what he had to go through.  When I separate myself from our relationship and reflect on why he is the way he is today… my heart breaks for him beyond any words I could articulate.  

 

Into the teen and young adult years….

Fast forward now to being an Aspie teenager who has notoriously been hurt when he attempted to make social connections as a child.  Remember that as a child, he did not recognize the person who was making facial expressions that said, “Stop talking please” or “I am sad can you please make me feel better” or “Stop playing like this I am getting mad” or “Can you please share your snack with me?” or “You are interrupting me and I don’t want to talk to you anymore” or “Seriously, lower your voice it is so loud” or “Your shirt is on backwards and you look ridiculous” or “Stop talking about what you like, it’s my turn” or ANY OTHER facial expression that went without words that led to embarrassment, harsh admonishment, being teased, being isolated, etc.

This teenager now has little to NO self-confidence in their own social intelligence and is probably pretty depressed or angry that he is always treated so poorly even though he tried so hard his whole life to be good.  This teenager is going to enter adult life soon and is going to be afraid, because they have no idea what anyone is thinking… ever… and they have gotten it wrong so many times it is easier for them to just stop trying in general.

By young adulthood this same Aspie is living in a world where their peers are utilizing non-verbal communication at a 90/10 ratio over verbal communication and they are now completely and royally screwed. 

They feel like a disappointment to their family (and rightfully so at times), they feel disliked and compared against their siblings (who are the “perfect” ones and usually take the brunt of the Aspie’s frustration and anger growing up). All of the feelings of safety and security that an NT child and young adult gleems from a loving family… they just don’t exist the same for an Aspie teenager.  Even if they know their family loves them and will not abandon them… they still feel like a failure and disappointment more often than not.

When you do something good as you age, a child in a healthy environment receives positive reinforcement.  When you do something bad, you receive negative.  Both of these responses determine how you proceed in your daily actions as an adult.  The aging Aspie receives negative reinforcement (for being insensitive, uncaring, disruptive, rude, etc.) each and every day.  They are absolutely unable to ever connect the dots that it is because they are failing to acknowledge a nonverbal cue to behave a certain way (something they CANNOT SEE) so even innocent and/or non-actions receive negative reinforcement.

There is no learning from this level of relentless negative reinforcement to better tailor their behavior to meet the demands expected of them in society or their family.

There exists only a world where they are damned if they do… and damned if they don’t

Affective/emotional empathy is disintegrating as each day passes because the feelings of living in a just and fair world are non-existent for the Aspie teenager.  They are so prepped for everyone to perceive them wrong or they’ve learned to assume someone is sad, unhappy, or angry because of something they unknowingly did, that they lose the ability to separate themselves from why someone is feeling a particular emotion even when it is directly stated.

Conditioned to believe they will be blamed for every negative emotion those close to them display, they truly begin to lose their ability to feel empathetic for other’s feelings (and this is where the Aspie vs. NT internet arguing begins).  

Imagine always being fearful that a person’s emotions or feelings will inevitably be blamed on you.  Wouldn’t you stop trying to alleviate their hurt as well?  Wouldn’t you respond to most emotional displays with defensive hostility or choose to run away instead?  

This is not actually what the adult Aspie is doing despite the NT’s seeing it as such…

 

On to adulthood…

After a terribly cruel and unfair childhood filled with unacknowledged efforts, the Aspie teen gets further beat down by the harshness of their peers.  Now there exists a young adult who still has no clue about having Asperger’s syndrome who is just worn down by people and has established his own way of handling situations to protect himself (that work for him). 

This adult frequently avoids getting jobs, pursuing school, looking into a career… because they are afraid of how people will treat them and they do not want to fail.  They are so convinced everyone will call them a failure no matter what they do (even if they do not realize this feeling is the underlying reason for stagnation and being unable to initiate things) that they don’t even try.  In fact, most Aspie adults are unemployed and will do almost anything to avoid initiating or taking chances where social communication is involved.  For those who have found their niche in a solid career, there is a good chance they aren’t budging from the spot they have comfortably cemented themselves in (this includes daily activities and ritualistic behaviors that rarely venture out into the unknown).

Most misunderstandings from youth were in regard to nonverbal communication.  Because of this, the Aspie has (consciously or not) identified keywords and trigger points in interpersonal communication with people that signal danger to them and an internal dialog to defend or run; fight or flight takes hold. 

While someone with Aspergers still possess every single emotion and desire for communication that everyone else does… it does not appear that way to those who love them because the moment someone verbalizes anything that sounds like feelings or emotions, subconscious alarm bells begin to sound in their brain that tell them to start aggressively fighting or hauling ass immediately or else they are going to be attacked.  

Once this defense is triggered, all constructive communication is effectively shut down.

 

On to marriage…

Despite all of his best sense telling him that the world he lived in was not going to get any better… some men with Asperger’s syndrome put themselves on the line for ultimate rejection when they fall in love with a neurotypical woman. They take a chance that someone is going to truly love them for who they are and see what no one else seemed to their entire life.  

What a feeling that must have been.

 

Despite a love that began with such pure intention…

Without the knowledge and comprehension of how cognitive empathy existed (or did not) in their marriage…

They were doomed to beat one another and themselves down physically and emotionally.  

Why there was NO WAY around this…

When someone has perfectly functioning emotional empathy, but lacks cognitive empathy, their emotional empathy can sometimes become heightened in a way they cannot make sense of.  This is one of the reasons that parents of Aspies and Aspies themselves scream about the fact that they do not “lack” empathy, they have TOO MUCH OF IT!  

Without the ability to use emotional empathy in a functioning manner (because the cognitive deficit disables the ability to accurately identify someone’s feelings without being told of them), a person with Asperger’s syndrome develops misplaced emotional empathy or they are forced to internalize all of the incredible feelings that it carries.

Someone else with the same functioning level of emotional empathy who also has cognitive empathy (neurotypical) has the gift of an outlet for their intense emotions.  They can verbalize them or act out their compassion with others appropriately AND receive it from others in return.  

Since the Aspie notoriously fails at this throughout their youth, all of those emotions become bottled up.  While they find their way out via manifestations of “meltdowns” or other misplaced emotions of anger and frustration in childhood, the young adult Aspie usually learns that these manifestations only bring more alienation or negative responses from their peers and family members.  

In order to prevent the psychological exhaustion that causes inevitable burnout from all of these emotions brewing within, the majority of adult Aspies learn to purposely detach themselves from other people’s emotions in general.  This is not merely a defensive mechanism, it is a survival skill.

When the Aspie-NT union that began so beautifully begins to derail and emotions pile up… the married Aspie begins to utilize the same survival skill that protected him before his marriage.  

HE DETACHES

This detachment becomes the indifference that destroys an Aspie-NT marriage.  

I have long believed that the opposite of love is not hate; you need to first love to be emotionally invested enough to develop hate.  

The opposite of love is INDIFFERENCE.

Since one of the only protective mechanisms an adult with Asperger’s syndrome instinctively has to protect themselves from their overwhelming emotions is to become indifferent to other people’s… the NT wife becomes grief-stricken when this happens to her.  She may know that her husband does not “hate” her, but placing what he is doing to make her cry out, “You don’t love me!” does not come easily.  

She is sensing his indifference to her emotions and that feels like THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE to her.    

The husband DOES love his wife, but since he lacks the cognitive empathy to identify her feelings without her speaking them… and she is NOT doing this in a way that makes ANY SENSE AT ALL TO HIM… he has no other option but to become indifferent to her chronic display of emotional turmoil.  

If he continued to absorb all of the feelings she is hurling at him day after day, he will inevitably be faced with emotional collapse himself.  

She has no clue that the horrific agony of his indifference is actually the only way he knows how to not lose her.  

If only both of them could see how they were agonizing over the same thing.  Love.

Tracking?

 

IS ANY OF THIS SOUNDING FAMILIAR?

 

Asperger’s syndrome vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder

I originally began this post by discussing the misinformation out there that those with Asperger’s syndrome were akin to sociopaths (or psychopaths). 

Now that you have a better understanding of cognitive empathy (Good GOD I hope you do, I wrote a frickin book about it!) let’s talk about why the two are entirely different.

 

Asperger’s Syndrome

Someone with Asperger’s syndrome may behave in an abusive manner toward their spouse.  They have no intention at all of doing this (if they do, get out because they are almost certainly NOT an Aspie).  

They appear apathetic to your pain because they do not comprehend it in any way.

They are unapologetic and lack accountability because the last thing they would ever do is knowingly or purposely inflict harm on you.

The more you cry over something, the more they may think you are looney.  

I always wondered if this was comforting in a way to my husband… like, if I am bat-shit-crazy, then maybe I will not leave him for someone more “normal?”

Your husband CANNOT change his ability to cognitively empathize with you, but HE CAN CHANGE the negative defensive mechanisms he built along the way once he understands fully why he built them. 

Your husband CAN CHANGE the level of affective empathy he has for you and treat you with more compassion once he lets his defenses down and you learn to effectively communicate using words that actually convey what you are thinking or feeling.  

 

Antisocial Personality Disorder

For someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder, i.e., psychopaths, narcissists, and sociopaths (which it bears mention that in diagnostic testing APD is usually the differential diagnosis for Asperger’s syndrome), they are as opposite from your aspie husband as could be (neurologically speaking).

Someone with APD has behaviors that can never be corrected and will never get better.

They have very good cognitive empathy skills, but they possess ZERO affective empathy, the EXACT opposite of your husband.  

THEY ARE BAD PEOPLE  

I know that no Aspie out there wants to hear this, but it is true and something that needs to be understood:  The reason loved ones have strongly considered that they are living with a psychopath or sociopath is because they outwardly manifest the same way.

 

The Aspie husband is avoiding his crying wife because he truly does not understand why she is crying or what he should or could do to make it stop.  The psychopath husband is avoiding his crying wife because he just doesn’t give a shit about her.  

HUGE DIFFERENCE  

Understand that the NT wife… she is STILL being abandoned/ignored by her husband when she is crying and in emotional pain.  Since neither the Aspie nor the psychopath husband is going to ever address why she was crying once she stops, or stop it from happening again… SHE CANNOT TELL THE DIFFERENCE.

Tracking?

 

People with Asperger’s syndrome are GOOD PEOPLE, it is the defensive behaviors they develop that present themselves the same way as those with APD (as well as the resulting impact on behalf of those close to them) that make living with an Aspie in defense mode and a sociopath disturbingly similar.  

Sadly, the majority of people out there have this misunderstanding about Aspies & sociopaths. They lack the knowledge that the two could not have more different brain deficits that profoundly oppose one another; despite having similar initial appearances because they both deal with a form of empathy.  

Sociopaths have the empathy to interpret nonverbal messages (in fact, they are so good at it they are disturbingly skilled manipulators) … but they absolutely DO NOT give one damn about what any of the messages mean for the people in their lives (because they do not have the empathy that controls that).  

Aspies do not have the empathy that enables them to receive the nonverbal messages, but in no way does that inhibit their ability to experience the empathy that gives them a profound compassion for people.  

This misunderstanding causes unfathomable torture to Aspies every single day and causes NT women who love their husbands to consider leaving them.  If there is ONE THING I can beg of you to do from this day forward it is this:

Every time you come across a blog post, article, or other media source where someone is proclaiming there is NO DIFFERENCE between those with Asperger’s syndrome and psychopaths… 

BE THE ONE WILLING TO EXPLAIN THE DIFFERENCE!

 

So what’s my immediate advice?

So where do you go from here now that you have a better understanding of what empathy actually means and how this word has impacted your life?  

Well first, know that demanding your husband read more online (which doesn’t work, TRUST ME) may have an adverse outcome to what you want. Unfortunately, the horrific misunderstanding that Aspies are all sociopaths or psychopaths that plagues the internet will likely (if it has not already) turn your husband off to independent research into his diagnosis the moment he attempts to read his first few articles.

YOU have to keep reading… mostly about cognitive empathy.  

Keep searching with the knowledge you now have so you can begin to recognize the misunderstandings taking place in your marriage.  You have to learn to communicate in a whole new way if you want to help him break down some of those defenses (SEE: HOW TO TEACH EMPATHY TO SOMEONE WITH ASPERGER’S SYNDROME).

Work on yourself.  Love your husband.  Forgive your husband.  Ask him to forgive you.  See if you can agree to place the pain on the sideline in an attempt to begin again with the knowledge you now have.  

None of this is going to be easy… but it hasn’t been thus far and you have chosen to stick it out, right?  Compared to the hellacious journey you were struggling to navigate before (alone); this will be a walk in the park… maybe with some exhausting hills to climb… but at least you will be climbing them together.  

 

You deserve an award for making it through this post!!!!

 

 

 

MY ASPIE HUSBAND IS NOT A PSYCHOPATH & NEITHER IS YOURS

 


66 Responses to WHAT ABOUT ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND EMPATHY: Aspie vs. Antisocial Personality Disorder

  1. Avatar Krisie
    Krisie says:

    Kara- Your post is amazing and has really saved my relationship of 23 years. With multiple therapist directing me to think of the reasons why I am in a relationship with someone who will never change, & never be good enough for me, this article has given me the encouragement to ignore them and go with what I feel in my heart. We CAN make this work with the correct understanding and tools. Leaving does not have to be the only answer. Staying with a man that is difficult, frustrating, lost, confused, anxious, and often requires 80/20 effort on my part, is not as crazy as it once seemed! Reading your words, Kara, has helped me find what I have been looking for…the encouragement to accept what I can not change in this marriage and the wisdom to understand what can change and what is possible. Of course I have felt frustrated carrying the weight of the relationship since I was 19 years old and of course I am concerned about what our current relationship is conveying to our son. But your post has hit on the answers that countless therapist have not been able to see….that my husband is willing to try (not always succeed) because he loves me and wants to connect with me no matter how differently our brains work. I have spoken to friends and neighbors (on the rare occasions when I do socialize and speak of my marriage), and they really do not understand WHY I would stay in a relationship so bizzarre with a man that they clearly can never understand (he can be very quiet and anxious around most people). Thank you for helping me remember that I married this man because he was different. Because he is intelligent. Because he does not play (nor even understand) the drama filled games that most men play when attempting to “catch” a mate. Because he does state the truth and is able to see things that are clearly unjust and is not afraid to say so. Anyway, I believe I can stop debating about if the “right” thing to do is to stay or go. For me, what I want is to find more people in a similar situation to empathize with, strategize with, and to continue to journey on this wild life of mine as a wife of someone with Aspergers.

  2. Avatar HopingForInsight
    HopingForInsight says:

    So glad I found your site. My marriage sounds so similar with a few exceptions. I still hold out hope for my undiagnosed Aspie husband but I get continually worn down and slower to get back up. I worry about how it impacts our 9 year old daughter who has ODD behaviors as well but shows much more cognitive empathy, gets support in school, and is learning control with me.

  3. Avatar Lucas
    Lucas says:

    I found your site yesterday. I’m an aspie husband living with an NT spouse, and I’m actually kind of annoyed that I found this. I had already made the decision to leave, because the relationship simply isn’t working (and works less and less well as time goes on), but now it seems I might have a different option available.

    That’s irritating. I don’t like solving the same problem more than once.

    • Lucas,

      As one of the first people I am responding to in months… holy crap you just made me laugh and I thank you! Your sentiments are so very appropriate for so many of us. Once we are “resolved” to leave we give one last ditch effort in web-surfing and alas… maybe… just maybe there is a reason we are with the person who is making our lives so miserable!?!?

      There is a reason you found yourself sleeping beside an NT… don’t quit just yet. We are a bizarrely amazing pair once we learn to sweep away all the crap-communication that has made us think otherwise.