Query on the Social Cognition Aspect of Asperger's Syndrome

Hi All,

Cognitive empathy is KNOWING how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Emotional empathy is FEELING physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious. Aspies are said to have more than normal levels of emotional empathy and less than normal levels of cognitive empathy. But if we can FEEL other people's feelings, doesn't this mean that we also KNOW how they are feeling? That's true for me, at least. What others are thinking is often a mystery to me. So maybe thoughts and emotions should not be clubbed under "cognitive empathy"?

Theory of mind is the ability to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intenions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that causes action, or the ability to reflect on the contents of one's own and others' minds. Aspies are said to be lacking in this ability, or suffering from mindblindness. We are believed to think that if we feel/ perceive something, probably others do too and if we don't feel/ perceive something, probably others don't either. Eg. When playing hide and seek, thinking that if I can't see them, they can't see me. It has been speculated that mindblindness could simply be attributed to the differences between autistic and non-autistic thought processes, i.e. aspies could be less mind-blind with others like themselves.

I think the term "theory of mind" is problematic. I think it is too broad and encompass too many separate ideas. Aspies are said to have a reduced ability to read other people's social cues such as facial expressions or body language. I personally am highly perceptive about this. So either I was misdiagnosed as an aspie or at least some aspies are great at perceiving other people's body language/expressions, which may reflect on their emotions and intentions. But I still often do not know how to respond to them even if I understand what they're feeling. Are there other aspies here who can't relate to the idea that we can't perceive body language/expressions? What I fail to pick up on to be precise, are the ways other people think or process their emotions and the beliefs that they may hold.

Is it just me or does anyone else feel that there are contradictions and inaccuracies in these ideas about us currently held by the mainstream scientific community on us? Please correct me if I'm wrong. Your thoughts are much appreciated. Thank you all.

Much love,


  • As with most aspects of autism there is not one accepted ‘Theory of Mind’ concept. It has been reported by some researchers that HFA and AS individuals believe themselves to have a higher level of emotional and behavioural perspicacity, than those who observe them - parents, teachers etc., who report them as having a lower ability. ASD people in the higher IQ bracket also compensate for a theory of mind deficit by memorising social and behavioural rules.

    Some researchers posit that individuals with ASD have a limited awareness of self and others, whilst others posit the impairments are limited not global. I suspect both are true and it depends on the individual. I think that these problems are likely accounted for by a difficulty in self-conceptualisation of agency.

  • ASD people in the higher IQ bracket also compensate for a theory of mind deficit by memorising social and behavioural rules.

    I suppose this is about where I would fall.  I have learned, through many years of trial, error and grief, to understand certain things.  I can infer things from gestures and expressions - but usually only when they're at extremes.  Anger, fear, etc.  In other senses, I'm not good with either emotional or cognitive empathy.  I know that I can feel sadness, grief, anger, boredom, excitement... but I struggle to both detect it and feel it in others.  I misjudge things a lot, too.  I still don't really understand flirtation signals, or when someone is bored with me or annoyed with me.  I recently upset a colleague at work, and I'm still struggling to understand what it was all about.  To me, it was all a joke.  A trivial thing.  Clearly not to her.

    When I was at uni, I was friendly with a couple of other mature students who were married to one another.  The man ended up having an affair with another mutual friend.  It led to an acrimonious split, and the two having the affair both dropped out of their degrees and left.  The wronged woman remained, and we kept friendly.  One day, I saw - at a distance - another student who looked remarkably like the ex-husband.  I casually mentioned it to my friend when I saw her later.  I never gave it a thought.  I couldn't understand that she was grieving over what had happened, and was hugely angry about it all.  'Why are you telling me this?' she growled.  'What on earth makes you think I would want to know?'  I was shocked by the reaction.  It took me a while, and mentioning it to others, for me to understand it.  Even though such a thing has happened to me in life since, it still doesn't help me to empathise with it in others.  I come out with the usual platitudes... which is basically me saying what I feel I ought to say rather than what I want to say.

    I'm not sure if it's relevant... but it's one of the things I struggle with in writing fiction - and reading or watching fiction, come to that.  I can't always grasp character motivations, though they might be obvious to other people.  I'll watch, in a film, someone react in a certain way to something that another character has said or done, and I'm stymied.  I need to have it explained to me.  My ex used to find it infuriating - why I couldn't see why something I'd said or done would annoy her so much.  When it finally came to an end, she told me I was incapable of a loving relationship because I was emotionally retarded.

    I work in care.  I care very much for the plight of vulnerable people - refugees, minorities, the sick and disabled, the homeless.  I know fear, insecurity, persecution, bullying.  Maybe it's just knowing those things, though, that provokes an 'empathetic' response.  But maybe it isn't true empathy.  Maybe it's just like a conditioned reflex.  Something I've learned, but which doesn't come naturally at all.

    In other respects, I'm highly sensitive emotionally.  I can be distressed by seeing a dead bird or other animal in the road.  I get acutely upset by the carelessness and thoughtlessness of others.  Seeing a bed of flowers trampled cuts me to the quick.  I couldn't even kill an insect.  I can watch a fiction like The Snowman and be in floods of tears - even now.  Some music can do the same for me, too.  I can barely listen to Samuel Barber's Adagio because it is so exquisite and so heart-rending.  And it doesn't have any other association for me.  It just seems to encapsulate, for me, both joy and beauty, and grief.  Everything that affects me to the point of tears.

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