The empathy misconception
One of the most prevalent myths I’ve encountered about people with Asperger’s is that we have no empathy. That we just don’t feel for others.
In my experience, this is up there with video games turning kids into shroom-devouring, tortoise-murdering plumbers.
Okay, there may be some for whom it’s true, (as always, I can’t speak for everyone with Asperger’s) but many Aspies actually feel more empathy than their non-autistic counterparts. And not just towards people, either.
As a child, I remember being reduced to tears by finding a moth that had gotten wet and had its wings destroyed. I just couldn’t stop thinking about how it would suffer for the rest of its life, unable to fly, but also incapable of understanding this and working itself to death trying. In my first year of high school, the class bullies quickly recognized this vulnerability, and used to kill and maim insects to upset me.
I even felt excessive and irrational empathy for inanimate objects. For example, I used to have a fabric bag of wheat that I would heat up in the microwave then take to bed on cold nights, like a hot water bottle. Instead of using it to heat myself, however, I felt like it was a living thing, and that had to keep it warm to keep it “alive”. I would stuff it under my pillow to preserve its heat as long as possible, and I was always sad when I woke in the morning to find it cold.
But I digress; we can feel empathy towards our fellow homo sapiens as well. Again, sometimes excessively so, like feeling sadness for someone who merely missed dessert.
When it comes to expressing it, however, two distinct problems can come come into play.
The first is recognizing when someone is upset. Verbal and body language cues can be hard to pick up when you’re autistic. I mean, if someone’s crying, shouting, or throwing vases/coffee cups/ninja stars at my head, then I get the message, but if it’s the simmering kind, that’s a whole lot trickier. My first (and so far only) relationship broke down largely because she thought I didn’t care about her feelings, when in fact I just didn’t always notice when she was feeling down. It was a mutual misunderstanding; nobody’s fault.
The second is that when we do recognize it, figuring out an appropriate response can be like trying to do a three-point turn on the Bridge of Kazad-dum. If we say the wrong thing, or just overload, freeze up, and say nothing, then once again it can be mistakenly assumed that we don’t give a damn.
Long story short, we can be very mushy on the inside, but it doesn’t always show.
If you have a friend or partner who has Asperger’s, transparency is absolutely key. You may feel like you’re sending us open and clear signals, but to us it could be like wandering in halfway through one of the weirder episodes of Star Trek, when Scotty’s explaining that they have to use a triaxilating anti-graviton beam to disrupt the subspace coronawaffle. Or worse, it cruises over our heads like a stealth bomber.
Naturally, it works best when the transparency goes both ways. I’m now very open with my friends about the effects of my autism; better to explain myself before a potential misunderstanding than after it. Most people have only a vague idea of what autism is; helping them understand makes it easier for both parties.
The gulf between someone with autism and someone without it in how they see the world can be too wide to be bridged from just one side. But when both sides meet half way, that’s when the magic happens.