WHY IS IT UNFAIR TO SAY ASPIES HAVE ZERO EMPATHY?

BECAUSE IT’S NOT TRUE

 

I received a comment recently that I wanted to share as I think it will be a common source of confusion for others:  

Please read my definition of cognitive and affective empathy HERE first (if you haven’t already)

 

David wrote:  

“I’m confused. You say aspies have zero empathy, but elsewhere you say they have affective empathy, just not cognitive empathy. From how you explain it, what you call “affective empathy” is what I have always thought was “empathy”. What you call “cognitive empathy” sounds like reading someone’s thoughts, which sounds impossible, but doesn’t sound like what I think of when I think of empathy. Isn’t it a little unfair to say someone has zero empathy when they do have affective empathy?”

 

David,

Awesome comment because you are absolutely correct! While my posts will center around all-things good and amazing about my Aspie husband in the future, I chose to begin this blog with a lot of the mis-information out there. If you read my WHY AM I SO ANGRY? post, you might think my husband was evil and I was a horrifically abused wife too dumb to leave him. That is how I felt for a long time, and how a lot of spouses (like myself) feel because they do not grasp the big picture yet. I wanted my posts to grab the current feelings of many of the wives out there… so they could first empathize with ME and realize I get what they are going through; hopefully lending some belief in my current thoughts and their desire to implement my suggestions in their own marriage.  My intention of striking a chord with the desperate NT wives out there is also why some of my post titles are seemingly negative and unfair to those with Asperger’s syndrome.  

I can appreciate how the post you commented on WHAT DOES ALTRUISM HAVE TO DO WITH IT? seems very biased toward praising neurotypicals while blaming Aspie husbands for lacking empathy and damaging our relationships.  It was important to me to first acknowledge the incredible strength and mentality of those who fall in love with Aspie men because… I am going to be flipping it around in most of my future posts, beginning with this one.  

I intend on showing all of the reasons our Aspie husbands are of equal strength and good intention and these same NT women often unknowingly create much of the misery in their marriage.  Since I began this blog entirely for neurotypical women struggling in their marriage, posts like the one you commented on do give confusing messages. Understanding the difference in cognitive and affective empathy, and how the function of both processing mechanisms paralyze communication, is the first step to finding a happy NT-Aspie union.  

I never expected so many adult men and women with Asperger’s syndrome to take the time to read what I wrote and post their responses to it.  I am both delighted and humbled by this.  

 

Back to why my words are unfair:

It is incredibly unfair and cruel to suggest someone with Asperger’s syndrome does not have empathy in general. This belief is what destroys countless lives every day. This statement is what I want to change when people hear the term Asperger’s syndrome.

Just like you, affective empathy is what EVERYONE thinks of when they hear the word.  Affective empathy is the most important part of what it means to be a compassionately empathetic individual. Affective empathy is what humanizes us and the common bond we have for one another that creates all the best things in life.  Only sociopaths (aka, psychopaths) lack affective empathy.  

Obviously there exist other neurological anomalies and injuries that can debilitate empathy, but they also impair so many other neurological abilities that they are incredibly apparent… unlike Aspies and sociopaths who are elusive and have only empathy deficits to account for their cognitive differences with neurotypicals.  Again, sociopaths lack affective empathy but have cognitive empathy, Aspies lack cognitive empathy but have affective empathy (polar opposites).

There is confusion about this because no one realizes there is an entirely different version of empathy (the cognitive part) that symbiotically functions to enable and enhance the affective part for neurotypicals.

When someone cannot utilize their cognitive empathy the way the majority does, it stunts the affective part. It does not eliminate the fact that affective empathy exists and is fully functional for those with Asperger’s syndrome.  The absence of cognitive empathy disables the ability to show affective empathy appropriately based on the expectations of an NT (not their fault, this is because social norms that deviate from what NT’s comprehend as normal are viewed as negative and wrong).

I am going to assume you have Asperger’s syndrome? I may be wrong but I am making this assumption based off of your summation that cognitive empathy sounds like “reading someone’s thoughts” (which it kind of is), and that does not sound logical or possible to you. If I did not possess this ability (and understand that those deemed neurotypical also do) than I would agree that such a concept sounds ridiculous.

Of note: Not every neurotypical is good at utilizing their cognitive empathy effectively.

 

No, I do not think I am psychic

I do not think I can accurately look at a stranger (or anyone) and factually read their mind.  That would be CRAZY. What I do have (NT’s) is the ability to information-gather based off of someone’s facial expressions, body language, tone/pitch of voice, timing in delivering their words, taking in the same nonverbal language from those around this person, and the “hidden” meaning behind what someone says vice what they actually mean.  All of these things combined enable a person to come pretty close to accurately guessing what someone is thinking or feeling.  We learn to do this before grade school and it comes SO NATURALLY and rapidly we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

As I have said before… the closer we are to a person (knowing their past behaviors, feelings, desires, or how they responded emotionally to a similar situation) the more likely we will guess what they are thinking/feeling correctly.  If it helps to call it “guessing” in lieu of “mind reading” then that is totally understandable and more accurate.  We are only guessing and no one can read another person’s mind; it just so happens NT to NT guessing is often spot-on.

Since Aspies very rarely have “hidden meanings” in their words, and they cannot information-gather the same way we NT’s do… we (NTs) keep fudging everything up. We keep thinking there is hidden meaning in words, over-analyzing behaviors, and seeing the delay (or incorrect) response to our feelings as inappropriate, rude, aloof, condescending, mean, uncaring, insensitive, or cold.

Eventually I hope I will help other neurotypical women to STOP DOING THIS!  Maybe when the NT women finally make sense of their husband’s behavior they can help create an army of advocates who want the world to also understand their incredible husbands.  

Wishful thinking perhaps, but I believe it can be done.

Understanding cognitive vs. affective empathy and how they work to enhance one another has to be very confusing and suspicious to someone who does not utilize cognitive empathy. I also realize the suggestion that an Aspie has zero cognitive empathy makes people with Aspergers feel angry that they are being deemed defective or broken.

I think those highly empathetic neurotypicals (the wives of Aspie men usually are) and those with Asperger’s syndrome are both defective (SEE: WHY AM I SO STUPID?). With that being said, I do not for one second think that either of them are “broken”; just different.

color

If you don’t see the green number, you must not love me!

My good friend is color blind.  He does not see the same thing when he looks at colors that I do. He is not broken for this, he just sees the world different than many of those around him.  My friend cannot control this, nor can he ever see the colors others do… he just has to accept that they exist for others.  My friend has a genetic mutation (I hate that word because it sounds bad) that causes the wiring in his brain to process color different.

Someone with Asperger’s syndrome who cannot process cognitive empathy is not broken, they process information differently. Because it is the minority who has to navigate without that processing ability, Aspies end up being shunned and made to feel broken.

My friend got made fun of for a long time for screwing things up that required the color vision capabilities of those around him. It might have been something simple like picking up the wrong color legos or puzzle pieces as a child, to painting his home in unappealing colors as an adult.  Sometimes people made fun of him and he felt like he screwed things up (but he never knew why).  When my friend finally learned he was color blind to some of the shades others could see, he stopped thinking he was a screw-up. When he was able to articulate this to people, they stopped giving him a hard time when he showed up in a green shirt instead of a blue one (military) or other areas where color-selection comes into play.  The people who were close to him began to help him instead or teasing him, like his wife laying out the correct color undershirt for him to wear to work the night before, or helping him navigate through other color-conundrums. 

Lucky for my friend, something like color-processing is not often associated with personal feelings so when he had messed up in the past, his character was not attacked for being “uncaring and cold.”

Lacking cognitive empathy adversely effects how easily a person can show affective empathy and therefore… people take this difference in neurologically processing information as personal.  Aspies get screwed by a society who thinks they just lack empathy altogether.

They do not lack it, they simply cannot show it the same way we neurotypicals anticipate unless we directly state what we are thinking or feeling.  But alas, we don’t accept this different perspective because we don’t understand it… neither Aspie nor NT does.

If only I could think that way…

The honesty and simplicity in how those with Asperger’s syndrome communicate is something to appreciate and emulate. It is what we NT’s should be striving for in many ways.

It would be so much easier if we could stop basing our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors off of our assumed reality.  How many problems would be solved if neurotypicals just stopped reacting to what someone was “thinking” and chose to directly ASK THEM instead (and also believe their response as the truth)?  NTs are NOT always correct in their guess-work (obviously) and they are awful at it when they are guessing about their Aspie husband.

It can screw us NTs up from time to time and cause us to believe a reality that does not exist… like when we assume we read nonverbal messages correctly but are way off target and then react to those messages by being upset, angry, offended, etc.. Sometimes our cognitive empathy steers us in the wrong direction but if we utilized the direct language Aspies use, we could avoid the whole misunderstanding.  This is what occurs the majority of the time in Aspie-NT marriages because we cannot read a person with Aspergers the way we can read an NT.  The reason for this is that Aspies lack cognitive empathy and therefore they do not operate under its existence in their lives. They are equally unaware of how their nonverbal messages come across to the outside world as they are about the nonverbal messages coming from it.  Without the knowledge of how they send out nonverbal messages, they never learn (from social interaction in childhood development) how to regulate their facial expressions, body language, etc. This regulation begins to occur without thought for NT’s so 9/10 times, the nonverbal messages they are sending out directly match the inner thoughts and feelings they are having.  With an Aspie, there is a disconnect with that and the nonverbal messages they are sending out do not often accurately match the internal thoughts and feelings they are having.  Neurotypicals don’t know this though, so they are receiving incorrect messages frequently from the Aspie in their life and they are responding to them as truth.

Let me try to clarify.  Let’s say there is a neurotypical 5 year old child grocery shopping with their mother and their mom accidentally pushes the cart into their little leg. The child may feel a slight pain and make an automatic facial expression that reflects this pain.  The mom apologizes profusely to the child, who is in no way upset with their mom for the accident, and continues to make the same facial expression of pain because now their leg is hurting a little when they walk.  About ten minutes later, the mom notices that the child still has this look on their face but since time has elapsed and mom thinks it could no longer be a look of pain, she begins to associate the look with being angry at the mom for hurting them.  Mom again begins to apologize profusely and the child says, “I know you didn’t mean it, it’s ok mom.”  

If this look keeps up (because the leg is still sore) the mom may eventually say, “I said I was sorry, why are you so mad at me?”  The child, having never said they were mad (quite the opposite) will then become aware that they are giving a facial expression that makes mom think they are in fact, angry.  This triggers those synapses to connect the dots between the face they are making and it’s confusing message and they automatically adjust this facial expression in the future.  This happens without purposeful intention… it is just the way the brain naturally wires itself through experiences in childhood.  The next time someone does something by accident, this child will automatically avoid that facial expression of discomfort so they do not make the accidental offender feel guilty, unless of course… they want the person to feel bad, then the look will remain (something that also occurs without thought).

Hard to believe this happens, but it does.  

That is how a neurotypical brain adapts to its social environment… so that their nonverbal messages do not cause unwanted emotional responses in others.  This happens in thousands of situations growing up and become an unspoken language based off of sending/receiving messages nonverbally throughout their youth.  This is why a neurotypicals ability to identify someone’s feelings (another neurotypicals) without the use of direct language become fairly accurate the closer they are to them.

This is not the case with a person who has Asperger’s syndrome.  The Aspie child in the same situation will NOT understand that their facial expression is making their mother think they are angry.  They will know that they are in pain and their nonverbal messages will send out whatever response it wants to at that moment and there will exist no connection between the mother’s emotional response of guilt and their uncontrollable outward manifestation of whatever made her think this.  They will not even identify that their mother is feeling guilty when she says, “I said I was sorry, why are you still mad at me?”  They will take her words at face value; they may repeat the same sentence or say, “I know you didn’t mean it, I already said it was ok mom.”  They will not be aware that mom is giving them nonverbal messages in her question that show a face of guilt, or that her tone of voice is apologetic and she is really saying, “I am really sorry, I would never want to purposely hurt you.  I am concerned you think I did it on purpose because your facial expression is telling me that and that makes me feel badly that you would think that about me.  Please tell me you are not angry, and then please stop making a face that makes me think you are so I don’t feel guilty anymore.”  

Holy crap that is a LOT of information mom thinks she is sending out to her child.  She doesn’t know she is speaking to her child without the use of those words because she naturally sends out a long paragraph of thought while only using words that unclearly summarize all those feelings.  The child is only hearing what mom said and therefore they may mentally process that mom must really think they are mad, but maybe she just didn’t hear them when they said they knew it was an accident and it was ok.  So they repeat themselves and they unknowingly keep the same facial expression of discomfort when they begin walking again, causing mom to think the child is purposely trying to cause her to feel badly for what she did.  By the time they reach the check-out line, mom may scoff at the child and say, “It’s ridiculous you are so angry about this, it was just an accident and you have no reason to be angry, stop being a baby!”

Well, damn… that poor Aspie kid didn’t do a anything wrong and never “caused” his mom’s inevitably hurtful accusation.  Now the Aspie child is feeling angry… and they are absolutely justified in this!  Now the Aspie child WILL display a facial expression of anger or try to defend themselves, or get frustrated, feel hurt, and ultimately think they were treated unfairly (which is true).  What happens to Aspie children like this?  That’s when you see the good ol term, “temper tantrum” in full effect.  What happens to an adult like this? Well, that’s when you see a defensive and hostile response that makes the other person think the Aspie is an asshole.  It all makes perfect sense when you look at the big picture, but since no one grasps the cognitive empathy deficit, no one ever finds resolution in what actually caused the situation to unravel.

In a scenario that innocent, the Aspie ends up receiving a very confused message that their mom is accusing them of feeling something that they are not feeling and they do not have a clue why.  The mother is not conscious of her use of cognitive empathy and therefore… she has no clue what kind of message she is sending her child by using words that are not in synch with the information she intended to send. The mom feels guilty for accidentally hurting her child and then becomes frustrated the child is angry, she begins to assume the child thinks she pushed the cart into them on purpose and feels hurt and eventually, irritated that the child would think that.  

That is the speed and degree of emotional shifting a neurotypical does unknowingly when they are deciphering the nonverbal messages they receive. There is no direct articulation of words to ask questions or seek clarification for how the mom is receiving her child’s nonverbal message, so there will be no understanding of one another’s seemingly baffling behavior.  When the “baffling behavior” begins to pile up over time, both parties become further separated in their perception of one another and ability to understand the way the other thinks.

Make sense?  Explaining a concept as abstract as cognitive empathy is incredibly difficult because it is not something that can be taught and most people are completely unaware of its existence.  They either use it, or they don’t; few are aware of who is using it, and who is not.  Aspie’s assume no one has this ability to read nonverbal messages (because they don’t) and neurotypicals assume everyone does (because they do).

In the innocent grocery store example, you may now see HOW MANY different “feelings” can be in play for the neurotypical; guilt, frustration, confusion, irritation, etc. while the Aspie doesn’t really have any “emotional feelings” going on, they are just experiencing physical discomfort.  The aspie will eventually begin to emotionally feel anger though because they are being accused of feeling something that they are not.  

CAUSE AND EFFECT

The inevitable feelings of anger that the Aspie has after constant and unrelenting accusations about their inner thoughts and feelings (throughout their lifetime) become the recipe for an argumentative, withdrawn, and/or defensive adult.  They learn to associate social interaction with being accused of untrue things and they respond to this the same way any human would… they begin to assign “trigger” words that can alert them to respond appropriately before they are attacked.  Cause and effect.  If they are used to being called uncaring, naive, gullible, insensitive, malicious, cold, robotic, inappropriate, angry, sad, rude, condescending, thoughtless, stupid, selfish, or any other hurtful term hurled at them by an NT who inaccurately deciphered their innocent nonverbal messages as such… they are going to defend their own character the moment they think one of those labels is about to be launched at them.  Some become hostile and demonstratively defensive adults who argue before the words can even be said, others become withdrawn entirely to protect themselves from ever allowing those words to manifest by another person. Most adult Aspies end up doing both. 

This is what happens to a ridiculously heightened degree with interpersonal relationships between Aspies and NTs. They are both speaking two different languages and one way or another, the NTs rapid shifting and attempts to identify the Aspies thoughts and/or feelings will turn to some form of accusatory verbal language directed at the poor Aspie who “Didn’t even do or say anything!”  They do not see the world through the same eyes when it comes to social interaction and interpersonal communication.  

The only way to bridge this gap is for the NT to become aware of their use of cognitive empathy when communicating with the Aspie and make damn sure they are using plain language to send information and gather information in the future.  They cannot base any information off of the nonverbal messages they “think” they are receiving from their Aspie mate.  Even if some of those messages do end up accurately identifying the Aspie’s thoughts or feelings, they have to pull the plug on thinking they will the next time.  The person with Asperger’s syndrome will never respond the same way every time to a similar emotion or feeling because they do not have the neurological connections in place to repeat these things or become aware of them.  

The only way to prevent such disastrous misunderstandings from happening is if the NT learns to never associate their partner’s nonverbal messages with the words they are speaking out loud.  They absolutely have to stop trusting their history of being skilled in identifying what others think and feel based off of nonverbal language.  They have to disassociate the link between nonverbal and verbal information and BELIEVE their Aspie loved ones words over their often contradicting nonverbal behavior.

Neurotypical wives who want to find effective communication within their marriage to a man with Asperger’s syndrome will literally have to learn a new method of communication.  The Aspie cannot, I repeat, they CANNOT adapt to the neurotypicals way of sending and receiving messages.  They do not have this ability and they should not be expected to develop it, nor should they be held accountable for not using it.  The change MUST come from the neurotypical if they really want to have the intimate connection they claim to desperately want from their Aspie partner.  

This is the #1 most important thing that must be done to turn a failing Aspie-NT union into a successful and happy one.  It isn’t easy and it is going to take a lot of awareness on the neurotypicals behalf to do this… but it is worth every bit of effort.  

JUST TO BEAT A DEAD HORSE

The neurotypical will never be able to accurately understand how their Aspie partner really feels about something if they are creating the information based off inaccurate nonverbal messages.  The Aspie is never going to accurately understand how the NT partner thinks if the verbal messages they receive are only a tiny fraction of the whole, which was sent predominantly through nonverbal communication that they cannot receive.  

The cognitive empathy deficit disables the Aspie from ever responding appropriately to their NT loved one; in essence… it paralyzes their ability to utilize and show affective (emotional) empathy.  They have it… they have emotional empathy just the same as the neurotypical… but how can they show it when they have zero understanding of when, why, or how to use it at the right time?  The neurotypical is never going to utilize their emotional empathy appropriately toward their mate if they are trying to respond to feelings and thoughts that aren’t real.

Tell an Aspie you are sad and why… in plain language, and if they love you, you will see emotional empathy.  Assume they know you are sad and why, and you are going to get an inappropriate response.  

Now tell me, who’s fault is that really?

BUT… THERE IS A GOOD SIDE TOO

Not all cognitive empathy abilities for an NT are troublesome.  While neurotypicals obviously screw things up a whole lot with their Aspie loved ones, it is that use of cognitive empathy that enables amazing relationships with NT-NT individuals.  Having the instinctive ability to identify the thoughts and feelings of others without spoken words helps us offer our support, emotional empathy, love, assistance, and general regard for people rapidly without them ever having to ask for it.  Often times, adults do not want to directly ask people to fill the void of emotional needs.  For instance, if someone has just gone through a divorce, but is trying to put on a positive and optimistic face… an NT will usually become acutely aware of the facade based off of the other (unintentional) nonverbal messages being sent out.  They can respond with the emotional support the heartbroken person would benefit from without them having to ask.  The divorced individual does not have to feel weak, codependent, burdensome, or needy (which may further assault their fragile ego) because they did not have to reach out for help… help just arrived.

It is pretty amazing to be able to respond to people’s emotional needs without delay and with the appropriate response; this develops trust and feelings of love.  This develops intimacy in romantic relationships.  This is what the neurotypical is expecting from their Aspie partner, who honestly… wants to provide all of the same rapid support to the NT they love.  The sad truth is that they can’t.  They can’t until the NT learns to use direct, unambiguous verbalization of what they need out loud.  They cannot expect it the way they would in an NT-NT dynamic.  That is not fair and it is counterproductive to obtaining the emotional empathy they claim to be deprived of.  

NT’s keep thinking that if their Aspie partner cannot “identify” what it is they need, then they must be devoid of understanding human emotion… they must not have it themselves.  This is untrue and this is a thought-process that you are creating based off incorrect assumptions.  My husband used to say, “Your mind is your own worst enemy!” I despised him when he said this to me, as though he was calling me crazy, or telling me I was imagining all of the hurt feelings I had for feeling unloved by him.  The truth is… my mind WAS my own worst enemy.  I imagined things that weren’t true based off of my own understanding of neurologically processing emotions and correct behavior.  I knew I loved, I knew I felt empathy, and I knew I gave all of my effort in trying to provide those feelings to my husband.  I assumed he could do the exact same and when he did not, my mind created the reason for it.  He can do the exact same… love, feel empathy, and provide both of those things to me.  He just needs to get the right information from me in order to show me those things.  I allowed my lack of awareness to turn my husband into someone he was not and blame him for causing me harm that honestly… my own mind unknowingly created. Hard pill to swallow, but the survival of our marriage was dependent on it.

IT’S ALL ABOUT AWARENESS   

Just as a neurotypical has no idea how their communication abilities cause harm to their Aspie partner, the Aspie partner is equally blind to the damage they cause.

Trying to put myself in my husband’s shoes and imagine a world where cognitive empathy does not exist was damn-near impossible at first (why no one wants to listen to the simplicity and innocence of it all). It is just as hard for us to grasp a world without this ability as it must be for an Aspie to grasp a world with it.

Example: If you were holding up a red coffee mug and tried to convince me it was green, there is no way I would buy into your words… nor would I believe you were really seeing green. I would wonder why you were being snarky or screwing with my head and then over-analyze why you would want to do this.  You would also find yourself completely dumbfounded as to why I kept calling the mug red when it was clearly green; you might even think I was crazy and doubt my opinions in the future.  Neither of us would be wrong; it would just take a giant leap of faith for one to believe the other is TRULY seeing that color and not just messing with them.

To bridge the gap of the Aspie/NT processing of cognitive empathy, both people have to take a giant leap of faith and trust that they see the world different. It is only in that leap of faith and trust in the other person’s reality that they can both utilize their amazing affective empathy skills to make a relationship work. 

Let me try it this way…

150226_SLATEST_TheDress-proof590.jpg.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_jpeg

This dress is a big topic of discussion on the internet that makes people stop and think about the way they perceive the world in contrast to others.  When I look at this dress, I see white and gold.  In NO way am I capable of seeing blue and black (believe me, I tried).  Some people will look at it and say it is blue and black (it actually IS) and wonder how in the hell I am seeing white and gold.  My daughter (who I like to think is a mini-me) only sees blue and black and thought I was nuts for seeing white and gold. Since I wanted to believe my daughter and I looked at the world through similar eyes, I felt incredibly sad when I realized (based off of this image) that even she and I see the world different; even more disturbing was the concept that my own mind can perceive something ENTIRELY incorrect based off of the way the synapses that control color-processing function within my own brain.  Neither of us are “wrong” for what we see, as the dress is still pretty and exists, we just don’t see the same thing.  Yes, technically I am “wrong” but my perception is neither harmful nor purposefully argumentative in calling the dress color as I see it.

Considering the dress IS actually blue and black, it appears my brain is the one that deviates from the norm in color-processing under certain lighting.  This is what it is like for an Aspie vs. an NT.  The NT is processing the information for cognitive empathy like the majority that have that brain function while the Aspie (who lacks cognitive empathy) gets a different take on the same human behaviors.  

Now that I KNOW my eyes deceive me with the image above, I would be more inclined to trust my daughter’s perception if we had a debate on what color something was in the future.  No matter how hard I try, I am NOT going to see this dress as blue and black.  It cannot be done.  My brain is not capable of doing it.  If I had not been proven wrong by seeing an image of the dress on a storefront rack and having the owner of it validate that it is blue and black… I would have gone to my grave telling my child it is white and gold and she is WRONG.  As humans we are flawed, we want to convince others of our reality in lieu of accepting and appreciating the opposing viewpoint they have… we don’t want to be wrong and we don’t want to take these giant leaps of faith in what reality actually means.  

It is incredibly hard to trust someone else’s take on the world when you cannot see what they do.  It is incredibly difficult for an Aspie to trust in this ability we have: to rapidly put a myriad of nonverbal communication behaviors together to identify someone else’s thoughts and feelings (cognitive empathy).  It is incredibly challenging for an NT to believe their Aspie loved one is truly incapable of doing the same and realize that their inability to see the same thing is not bad or wrong.  Nothing changes the fact that both NTs and Aspies comprehend human emotion equally and want to compassionately respond to it with the same level of concern and attention.  We both want the same thing and understand the complexity of human emotion… we just identify it in a very different way.

Neurotypicals reluctance to accept this, or their ignorance about the Aspie’s perception is causing them to place unfair and impossible expectations on their Aspie partner.  We expect them to identify our feelings when we are using nonverbal means to communicate them.  They cannot behave empathetically toward us (affective empathy) if they cannot identify what we are thinking or feeling by using cognitive empathy.  They have the same desire to be empathetic toward our feelings as we do theirs, we are on the same page with this… we just drop the line of communication when we believe our perception of reality is the only one that exists.  

Both people have to stop and accept the other person’s capabilities and limitations so they can appreciate the contrasting world they frequently exist in.  Both parties have to begin trusting the other’s take on the world, even if they cannot see it themselves, just as I now have to trust my daughter may be right more times than not when we perceive colors differently.  I have no choice but to trust in her insight now that I finally understand my brain may not always perceive reality accurately.  It sucks to have to admit I am not always right in my processing of information, I am human and I have an ego.  

If the Aspie husband was willing to trust his wife and what she can see, he could have an incredible teacher and advocate in navigating social norms for the remainder of his days.  If the Aspie husband was willing to accept that something exists by which he cannot process and trusted his wife’s view… there is a damn good chance she would begin comprehending his take on life with greater ease and learn to use verbal language to directly communicate what she is thinking or feeling.  There is a high likelihood she will finally stop using her information-gathering cognitive empathy to guess her husband’s thoughts and begin to just ASK HIM instead.  If the Aspie husband could accept that his wife has an equally challenging time learning to communicate without her instinctive use of reading and delivering nonverbal messages, he would be more patient with her frustration when she vocalizes anger or sadness that he did not recognize or respond appropriately to her emotions.  

Both Aspie and NT have to stop their current defiance.  They need to openly admit to one another that the other person is NOT WRONG.  It is time to drop the damaging assumption that their version of reality is the correct one.  It is time to humbly admit defeat in the history of ego-driven and forceful attempts to make the other person exist in their version of reality.  There can be no “agreeing to disagree” there must be a mutual understanding that it is time to “”agree to agree” with one another’s truth.  There is a whole lot of fascinating experiences out there if an Aspie-NT can stop being so stubborn and appreciate one another’s differences and utilize them to benefit their own awareness in such a mind boggling world.  

It all begins with truly comprehending and accepting the difference in cognitive vs. affective empathy.

 

Oh no, what was I saying?

I forgot I was writing a reply to David when I originally began this post.  

My apologies.  I do that.

Ok, so getting back to the point; yes, it is unfortunate and unfair to say that someone with Asperger’s syndrome has zero empathy.  Like you, most people only associate empathy with the affective side (something that is not defective in either party).  

If people could comprehend early on that cognitive empathy does not exist for everyone (more people than anyone could fathom) then they would be able to change the way children are raised and how misunderstandings in social interactions occur early on (setting Aspies up for a life of being unfairly judged and labeled).

Just because someone is deemed a neurotypical does not mean they always utilize their cognitive empathy effectively.  There are TONS of people out there who have the ability to process cognitive empathy but are limited in its use due to the way they were raised or experiences in their past. Understanding this difference in early childhood would benefit more people than anyone realizes and help to prevent much of the childhood alienation and bullying we have seen in the past.  The only difference between a neurotypical and a person with Asperger’s syndrome is that a neurotypical CAN develop and strengthen their use of cognitive empathy.  An Aspie does not have the neurological tools to ever develop theirs (they are never going to change the colors identified in that damn dress).  Aspies will always need the neurotypicals in their life to minimize their nonverbal communication or at least assign words with it.  

I believe the married Aspies out there CAN begin to connect the dots of their spouses feelings and emotions (without the use of words) eventually, provided the NT wife continues to verbally articulate them while she is also using her nonverbal communication.  I do believe the repetition of words with facial expressions or actions, or explanations of thoughts that were initially expressed with indirect words, can be linked up after a while to help that couple meet closer to the middle as time progresses.  The jury is still out on this though as my marriage is not that old and it currently seems that repetition would need to occur for many years (using both verbal and nonverbal at the same time) before my nonverbal messages could become readily identified by my husband. 

I hope I did not confuse you further. If you have not read my novel-sized post about empathy, please do (See: WHAT ABOUT ASPERGER’S SYNDROME AND EMPATHY).  I give a lot more examples of what the cognitive vs. affective behaviors look like in action to show how they feed off one another negatively in Aspie-NT interpersonal relationships. 

Thank you for taking the time to read and consider my thoughts. I hope that others will express their confusion as you have and give us more insight or opportunities to clear up misunderstandings.  

 


7 Responses to WHY IS IT UNFAIR TO SAY ASPIES HAVE ZERO EMPATHY?

  1. Avatar David
    David says:

    Thanks again for your extended response. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take up your time. However after reading it I thought I’d share something. When I read about the mother and child in the supermarket I instantlý sided with the child. I thought it was very unfair for the mother to get angry with the child and accuse them child of being angry, especially after the child specifically said they weren’t. Then I realised why I felt that way.

    This happens occasionally, I’ve noticed it tends to be more when I answer a question. My partner asks a question, I answer it, and she tells me it’s not a bad question and she’s not wrong for asking it and that I’m being frustrated with her, which I’m not. I feel like I’ve answered as best I could, and can’t understand why she thinks I’m frustrated. Apparently it’s the way I say it. My first thought was that I must be talking too loudly, I think I do that sometimes when there’s background noise. But no, it has happened when I’m talking quietly too. Then I thought I worked it out, I was speaking too fast. But then it happened when I’m sure I was speaking slowly. So I’m not sure now. I think the worst part is no matter what I say she won’t believe me that I’m not frustrated. I think if I could remember to talk more slowly when asked a question it might happen less, but it’s hard to remember that when I’m concentrating on what to say. So I think I understand how the child at the supermarket feels. Just thought I’d share that.

    • David,

      No need to apologize, as you are not taking up my time at all, you are making it purposeful. Your comments are helping me break down a lot of useful information that I want to get out to those who experience similar challenges in their relationships, so I really want to thank you and hope you keep sharing your insights, questions, and experiences. This response is long, and perhaps I will use it as a separate post, but for now I am going to just place it here.

      You had mentioned in a previous response that you did not think you had Asperger’s syndrome because you don’t fit all of the characteristics but could identify with some. I wanted to touch on that because it sounded like my husband’s take after reading about it, and I do not doubt many others feel the same.

      First, it is important to mention that men and women often communicate in different ways as a whole. I think this is directly related to women having two X chromosomes considering the X chromosome has been identified as leading the pack in emotional processing. Although the genes responsible for this would all use only one X chromosome, all genes run the risk of having mutated alleles that cause them to function outside of the norm (or not at all) for their intended purpose. Since women have two possibilities for which X chromosome will win out during their development, they are at an advantage of developing their affective (emotional) empathy at a greater capacity than their male counterpart. There are many studies backing the fact that the X chromosome tends to make the good copy of X dominant, or active (either from their mom or dad); and the mutated copy recessive (deactivated). This adds to a woman’s likelihood overall of having appropriately functioning X chromosomes on the genes responsible for emotional processing and communication. With men only receiving one X (from their mother), if that X has something off about it (mutated), they do not have another copy to swoop in and take over. So while both sexes may genetically receive a mutated copy of X on the genes responsible for emotional empathy, only the female stands the chance of deactivating that mutated X in favor of the second copy they received.

      I hope that makes sense. I point this out because women are genetically predisposed to having a higher capacity for emotional intelligence when it comes to identifying, processing, and delivering emotional communication in general. Some of what you point out could very well be attributed to our male vs. female development in general and have nothing to do with Asperger’s syndrome.

      When a person does have Asperger’s syndrome, this male vs. female commonality often serves as a barrier to ever obtaining a diagnosis. It causes a huge confusion when both men and women suspect Aspergers in their relationship but go on to hear that the behaviors they are seeing are just men, “being typical men.” When a man or woman tries to explain Asperger behaviors to others, they get a response of, “All men are like that, that’s not Aspergers!” This sets the stage for doubt, disbelief, disregard, and sometimes… denial. This has caused countless therapists to also gear their therapy around male vs. female behaviors alone. Therapy notoriously fails for an Aspie-NT union because the therapist is going off of the assumption that the male still has the capacity for cognitive empathy (but is less in-tune with it) and therefore, attempts to implore this into cognitive-behavioral therapy to improve communication between the couple. If they never suspect Asperger’s syndrome, or at least consider it in their approach, they will never be able to open the line of communication between the two in a meaningful way.

      I am not saying you have Asperger’s syndrome at all based off of your examples, as they may just be male/female characteristics. I also am in no position to diagnosis this (personally or professionally) but I must warn you to be weary if you would like to seek professional opinions because there exist very few professionals who are truly in a position to diagnosis it (regardless of their claims). Asperger’s syndrome has historically been poorly understood by the mental health community; so much so that they threw their hands up in the air and lumped it into Autism (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I have a bunch of long posts to clarify that if you are interested in checking them out.

      Now, let’s say you do actually warrant an Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. If this were in fact the case, you should not be swayed in questioning it simply because you do not “fit” the cookie-cutter characteristics you will find it describing it. There are a ton of associated disorders out there that are linked to Aspergers (called comorbidities) to include, Attention-Deficit (Hyperactivity) Disorder (ADD/ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OC), Tourette’s Syndrome, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, etc. There are also other behavior characteristics linked up like sensitivities to lights, noise, and textures (both in touch and taste). You will also almost always find the “key” characteristics of repetitive behavior (hand flapping, rocking, clapping, etc.), and an extreme focus on isolated special interests like being near-obsessed with a hobby (sometimes at the exclusion of everything else) in a person’s life.

      All of these things are mentioned as being directly correlated to the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and often get confused as being necessary factors combined with the social communication deficits (cognitive empathy) in order to make a diagnosis. Too often, people read all of these associated characteristics, and while they can absolutely identify with the cognitive empathy deficit, they cannot put a check in the box for any of the other things and therefore, discount the fact that they warrant a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. This is a huge problem because it inadvertently causes mental health professionals to misdiagnosis Aspies, or not provide them with an alternate diagnosis at all. This also causes so many men (and their wives) to never seek a diagnosis in the first place and continue on in a life of confusion that does not have to exist. You do not have to check all of the boxes, you only have to check the one about social communication deficits (due to absent cognitive empathy).

      It is my strong belief that all of those other characteristics are accompanying traits, behaviors, and comorbidities that may or may not exist in everyone who has Asperger’s syndrome. I believe some of these things are just co-existing developmental defects that exist based off of a person’s genetic composition and are not actually caused by the same thing that causes Aspergers. Just as a person with dark pigmentation and blue eyes can attribute them to their inherited genes, but they have nothing to do with one another, a person can have Asperger’s syndrome with all or some of those other disorders but they also come from separately inherited genes. I will go into greater depth in explaining this genetic predisposition in another post to help clarify how this may happen, but for now, all of those other disorders stand the same potential in developing in a person with Aspergers as they do for the global population without it.

      Here is where it all makes more sense (to those who discount this opinion). A person with Asperger’s syndrome, i.e., absent cognitive empathy, who also has one of those other disorders, will undoubtedly display a much more severe presentation of them than the NT. This is because all of those mentioned disorders become more debilitating or obvious when a person is undergoing stress. If a person with Tourette’s syndrome (without AS) is put into a stressful social environment (like a child at school) and is fearful their disorder will cause them to be teased, their Tourette’s syndrome behaviors (tics) will become even more severe as a response to that stress. If a person has OCD and is put in a situation that causes them anxiety or stress, their OCD behaviors will become far more severe and debilitating. That is just the way these disorders respond to a stressful stimulus. This should easily explain why a person with Asperger’s syndrome… who is inundated with social stress from the moment they begin to interact with their peers and outsiders, will almost always display their other disorders in a more obvious and incapacitating way than a person without AS (NT).

      This is also why the behavior traits often associated with AS are commonly confused for being “necessary” characteristics that require a check in the box to confirm an Aspergers diagnosis. If a person has a genetic predisposition to environmental stimuli (noise, touch, texture) that causes them discomfort, they are going to be more upset by them in general when they are placed in a high stress environment that diminishes their normal tolerance level.

      Young children often manifest repetitive behaviors in response to stress. It is not abnormal for a child to rock themselves (a soothing response) back and forth when they are frustrated with the expectations or behaviors of the adults around them. Young children do not possess the communication capabilities yet to verbally articulate their wants, needs, or feelings to adults in a meaningful way (or understand other’s) so when they are upset or frustrated, they often default to a soothing physical behavior to bring them comfort and ease their stress. As these young children grow, they develop appropriate social communication abilities to verbally work out the frustration they feel and they cease the previously comforting physical behaviors they needed at a younger age. A person with Aspergers, who has a cognitive empathy deficit and cannot understand or communicate their feelings in a verbally appropriate way to the neurotypicals around them… will never learn to replace the physical behaviors they had as a young child via communication and will not discontinue them. For some Aspies, those behaviors may become more severe, or they may learn that showing them brings more teasing or torment to their life so they focus all of their efforts in withholding them in a social environment. This focused effort only leads to a decreased ability to focus on the communication they are receiving or able to deliver to those around them, further devastating that necessary function in their life.

      A child (or adult) who feels socially isolated is going to become self-involved and learn to bring emotionally positive feelings to themselves (to combat all of the awful ones they feel) by finding alternate pleasure-seeking interests or activities. This is why the “special” interests that are often defining factors to diagnosis Asperger’s syndrome occur. Every human being has particular interests or hobbies. These exist the same for all of us, but we don’t call a neurotypical who loves cars so much they build them, work in the auto-industry, have countless books and magazines on the subject, or spend their free time watching automobile programs or going to auto-shows… “obsessed.” If that person has Asperger’s syndrome though, their disconnect with social interaction and communication makes those neurotypicals view their special interest as a bad thing and something to deem “abnormal.”

      So, you see there are a million reasons why any “characteristic” or comorbidity in a person with Asperger’s syndrome is almost always going to display them in a more profound way than a person without. All of this is caused from the absence of cognitive empathy enhancing their daily anxiety and stress. None of those things, in and of themselves, have anything to do with their Asperger’s syndrome over the general population who may also have similar disorders or behaviors.

      You do not have to place a checkmark in every box to determine if you have Aspergers, there are tons of Aspies out there who can check many of those boxes, one of those boxes, or none of them at all… and they still have Asperger’s syndrome.

      Learning about cognitive empathy is the one thing that can help a person identify if they are an Aspie. If you can honestly say that the definition and examples of cognitive empathy do not make sense, or this concept of being able to readily recognize a person’s nonverbal communication seems like mind-reading and is impossible… you likely do warrant the diagnosis.

      If you come to the conclusion that you do have Asperger’s syndrome, it is imperative you share this with your partner. You are not going to be able to alter your capacity for cognitive empathy (neurologically there is no way around this with current scientific knowledge). The only thing that you can do is learn to accept and be patient with the fact that your partner uses her cognitive empathy almost at the exclusion of clear verbal words.

      Your significant other has to comprehend, accept, and be willing to work around your deficit. I know it seems like she is the one with a deficit to you, but you are awarded the term simply because you deviate from the “norm”. I often think my empathetic abilities are far less favorable than my husband’s, but alas… my NT group appears to be dominant so we get to call ourselves unflawed (not cool). Your partner would need to change the way she is communicating with you in order to improve your understanding of one another and ability to have positive, open, and effective communication within the relationship. This is not easy and requires an incredible amount of love and compassion for one another, combined with the desire to do whatever it takes to find a happy union.

      If my husband and I could do it, I promise… it can be done, and it is worth it!

      Hope this helps you understand things a little more.

  2. Avatar Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Hi David,
    thank you for pointing out that your speed or loudness may be making your wife think you are frustrated. When my husband speaks louder or faster I think he is angry with me and, yes, that he is frustrated. Perhaps though he is embarrassed, or worried what i might do with his disclosures, really.. Or maybe he’s just self-conscious speaking. OR perhaps it’s something else entirely. Maybe he thinks he’s wasting time speaking slower? I should not assume anything!

    Do you think there is an emotion involved at all, when you find you have had to actively slow down your answers? If there is, would you tell me what it is so I can think more positively about my husband, and reduce the tension between us so I can actually eventually ask him peacefully, what it is, if anything, that he is feeling?
    Thanks.
    And thanks for testing this out. I’m relieved to hear the difference between true empathy that we all have, and what’s called “cognitive empathy” but really is nothing to do with empathy, it’s just a way to guess more effectively, and to create a shared body language that communicates signals with some degree of accuracy, sometimes. (especially except when it doesn’t and meaning explodes with a bang)

    • Avatar David
      David says:

      Hi Rachel, sorry I only just discovered your message. I think if I’m talking fast I’m trying to get the words out before I forget them. I’m sorry I can’t really help you. Only your husband would know how he’s feeling.

  3. Avatar Misty
    Misty says:

    You’re a genius and a saint.
    Thank you so much for the incredible amount of work you’ve done.
    Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’ve helped me so much.
    Signed…
    The NT-e spouse of an aspie as bad as john.

    P.s.
    Any chance of finding a new link to the “table” you refer to a couple posts back?

  4. Avatar David
    David says:

    I’m wondering if you have seen a test called “reading the mind in the eyes”, and what you think of it? I found this online. It is a test where you are shown pictures of people’s eyes and given four words, and you have to guess which one describes how the person is feeling. I didn’t know if it was serious at first. There’s no way I could pick one word over another. Looking around, it seems that some people can get high scores (even aspies) and some get no better than chance (even normal people). Pretty much every comment I’ve seen says they wouldn’t get any correct if it wasn’t multiple choice. Then I found out the pictures were just taken from magazines, so even the people who made the test couldn’t have known what the people were feeling. I understand what you say about body language and facial expressions, but everyone has different body language and facial expressions. Anytime someone has tried to tell me what I’m feeling or finish my sentence, they almost always get it wrong. I don’t always tell them they’re wrong, and if I do they don’t believe me. I feel like people are fooling themselves about their ability to read minds.