Hi, I am looking for information on what people may understand of empathy in people on the spectrum, from what I can gather it maybe more people with Asperger's (as it was), who experience high levels of empathy. What is known about this? What are people's experiences?
Unnecessary ramble you don't have to read haha
What I can gather so far: though the information I have found is sparse and I am unsure if it is reliable. The bit that makes the most sense to me seems to suggest that people with what was classically called autism can often ( though not all) struggle with emotional empathy but can still develop very high levels of cognitive empathy. They can understand emotions but not feel them, meaning, as I interpret it that it needs to be more of a conscious process to realise what someone is feeling whereas NT people may grasp this more easily and intuitively.
Whereas some things I have read seem to suggest that Asperger's can go the other way, sometimes excessively high levels of emotional empathy.
Alexithymia also seems to be a factor, (the inability to recognise one's own emotions) my reading seems to suggest that this can largely occur independently of autism but that this can be a large factor in seeming lack of empathy, also in causing more problems for people with high emotional empathy but low cognitive empathy. How I would interpret that being that when you can feel the distress, joy any other intense emotion of another but do not understand it it can easily become highly confusing and overwhelming which seems to tie into some of the intense world theories that people have for autism in general.
My personal experience ; I am undiagnosed, a non qualified (for autism diagnosis) councellor told me I had asperger's but at school I spent a long time in the special needs department (due to dislexia) and was never diagnosed I suspect she would have caught this then as she was qualified to diagnose it and should have been clearer as a child (though I maybe mistaken in that). I still do not know for sure, though I suspect that yes I show many of these traits, I am aware that this is a simplification but I suspect I am very close to Asperger's but not quite enough traits to count for a full diagnosis.
I had a chat a while ago now with someone with a recent autism diagnosis. When I was struggling with my own potential diagnosis who said that he experiences very high levels of empathy. What he describes sounds very much similar to what I experience. For personal reasons discussing this further with him is difficult. I am trying to understand.
I was until recently very unaware of my own feelings, though I suspect that is far more to do with upbringing. I think I have high levels of empathy, described by my councellor as I grew up in an environment where is was necessary to care for another in order to survice so I feel the emotions of others before my own, I find it far easier to tell what I am feeling with time away to process. I also have a dangerous tendency to excuse bad behaviour towards myself as I am able to understand their perspective why they act that way and so do not enforce boundaries as I should. The first councellor describing this as I would likely, as I was autistic, always be more vulnerable to abuse and being exploited than most people. A terrifying concept. Being a large part of why I changed could councellor, this one is much better for me, but has little to no understanding of autism, she does not think that I am. But I would like more knowledge on this is anyone has anything relevant to any of this.
I think empathy like anything varies massively from person to person. Many autistic people do have high levels of empathy. I wouldn't consider my empathy levels high or low. I think they are in the middle. My struggle with empathy is actually showing it. The feeling is there but to another person they would often think I'm not empathetic. I also find my empathy levels can massively vary from situation to situation.
True it's a very different er . . . Skillset (that doesn't seem like the right word. ) Your right of course that it varies, guess I am after if it is part of what makes up autism, or if there is a tendency towards certain difficulties.
What do you mean by differs from situation to situation? Could you possibly give an example?
I can't think of a good example but sometimes there are situations where other people are giving a lot of sympathy and I don't feel much empathy towards the situation (usually if I think the person landed themselves in the situation) but there are other times that I feel a lot of empathy/sympathy towards something. That's probably not a good explanation but it's hard to explain.
The thing with autism is there are so many traits and some people will have or feel these traits more and others less. One trait on its own can't determine whether it is autism. For autism it has to be traits from all the areas and they have to cause difficulties for that person. That's why it can sometimes be hard to get an adult diagnosis as the difficulties may not be obvious.
I was diagnosed with autism (Aspergers) in October 2019. I would say I have emotional empathy, but as I don’t recognise my emotions (Alexithymia), I’m not always aware of what I’m feeling and for me to feel empathy for another person, I would have to be in therapist mode, where I would be listening to them in order to feel anything although I can still feel emotions sometimes even if I can’t recognise what they are. I don’t think I have cognitive empathy as such, and this is what makes me good at my job (metaphysician, social worker and mental health practitioner), because I am able to see beyond the client’s perceived idea of what’s causing their pain (whereas some therapists get stuck on this). I can’t put myself in their shoes but I can see the root cause of the problem and I feel empathy for them for that, but it’s not a sad thing because I have the solution. And it’s not even so much that I have empathy for them, it’s more that they’re bringing a hidden problem in me, to light. So in truth, I’m healing myself but in doing so, they get healed as well. So I’m not sure that I have empathy for anyone at all really but I do see everyone as being ultimately connected to me, so I do have a deeper sense of what might be called empathy.
I also sometimes have to kind of tell myself a story in order for me to feel sad in situations where I feel nothing but think I should feel something. That was pre diagnosis mind, I won’t be doing that anymore. And now, with my new found awareness, I can see exactly why many people think I’m heartless because I barely seem to sway at some news. For example, if I wanted to go for a coffee with you and you told me your dad had just died. I would just say ‘are we going for a coffee then’, being oblivious to the fact you may have been upset and wanting to talk about it. And if I did click on, I would probably think ‘whoa that’s weird, what are they telling me that for’, and ignore it anyway.
Yet I am hurt deeply by other things. For example, when somebody says they’re a Christian ~ I want to curl up and cry. It’s like somebody just put a dagger in me. Or like today, I was walking down the street and I heard a guy on the phone saying to the person on the other end of the conversation ‘don’t call them again, it’s a waste of time’. And when I say Christian, it could be anything like that. Anything that causes separation. And the waste of time thing, that hurts because in truth, there is no waste of time. It’s only a waste of time if you say it is and that’s a sin, because it’s just not true.
I experience life on a whole different level to most people, so the way I experience empathy or how I connect to others or perceive the world, is vastly different to how most people do. I appear to have no empathy, for anybody, most of the time and like Binary said, even if I had it, I would be unable to communicate that, so I would still appear to not have it. But I feel deeply, on a very deep level, to the degree that it’s not just on an emotional feeling, it’s a physical experience. This is why I spend so much time alone and in silence. I like natural sounds of nature but I’m even sensitive to sounds of electricity. Sometimes I can’t even get close to a house where there is somebody in that house who is carrying very low energies. It’s like theres a force field surrounding the house in about a mile radius. I can understand people on a certain level and have empathy for them on a certain level but because most people are unaware of that level, they don’t understand what I’m talking about, even if I’m able to explain it in a way that they understand on a cognitive level. To most people, I speak a different language so it’s not easy to quantify whether I have empathy or not because I experience life very differently than most people.
And after all that, I’m not even sure what empathy is, if I’m honest lol!
Thanks, yeah that helps, makes sense.
Honestly, I was fixated with the autism thing for a bit when the counsellor first dumped it on me but I find psychological terms are largely unhelpful. People never fit in boxes, generally always seems to be an over simplification. But I suppose it's helpful to be able to offer a brief explanation for difficulties.
This is beautiful and sad in some ways. Thank you for sharing. It's the lack of understanding that makes me sad there for you and others, which is a similar thing I guess to your being sad at separation. I would guess that for you that rings particularly strongly because you feel your own sadness at separation because you don't express in the way that most do they think you don't care. It's a natural human need to feel understood and that lack would cause pain, that rings more strongly when you see it in other people. Sorry if that's patronising I don't mean it to be just how I interpret that.
It is also great that you can use this as you do to help other people. Different perspectives can be very helpful and your own way of looking at the world as you say may be different to "normal" but you can use that to help others and that's beautiful. Difference may hurt but it is necessary for any species it's what makes us evolve, adds to our skill set. Difference is beautiful even if it's hard for the person who has to be different. My own perspective coming in there again (biologist).
Reminds me of a woman in my work. The others I work with are horrendous to her because she's different, even the supervisors. They call her "skirting board" (she walks quickly past people with her head down, keeping to the sides) make fun of her all the time, it's bullying and I hate it. She doesn't like small talk, she's told them that. But they just don't see it. They take it personally. She is an excellent worker, really helpful, one of my favourite people to work with honestly but she doesn't discuss anything personal just work and not when unnecessary. To them it's rude, to me it's not because that's who she is (also I can definitely see the allure in it, I used to do a similar if not so pronounced thing, and in this place I would largely prefer to do it again because of the degrees of politics going on makes my head spin)It's not personal she's not doing it to one person and not others it's not about them. They keep trying to offer her invitations to lunch etc. Keep trying in there way to include her, but just don't see that it's just not her way. They have decided that she is autustic, which is possible but they just don't know enough and definitely aren't qualified to diagnose people. But they do seem a bit more accepting of her if they keep reminding themselves of that, but to me I don't see why they just can't accept her as she is. It's really sad and for her must be awful, I worked with her years ago, with a lovely woman who also enjoyed difference and she was quiet then but not as afraid, not as quiet, I have heard the stories of how she has been treated at other places, she has to work in a horrificly hostile environment for so long its no wonder she's getting quieter. Makes me happy that I think I am helping a little there, I talk to her normally about work things and she responds normally, in front of people now too, brief but kind and polite, respect her boundaries and she seems to me anyway to be becoming more confident again, just a little but it's lovely to see.
Sorry getting rambly there.
I was obsessed about autism for a long time before I got diagnosed. That was one of the biggest reasons I did it.
The way my assessor explained it to me is you need to have difficulties with social interaction, communication, sensory and flexibility of thought. The traits within these areas can differ enormously. But if you only have difficulties in one or two of the areas then it's not autism, it's something else.
Interesting Former Member a lot of what you say resonates with me. I have no idea what I'm feeling most of the time and miss cues to ask people what they're feeling all the time - the penny will drop later as I try to work out why they were subsequently tetchy with me and I'll feel bad. I respond with buckets of empathy to clearly expressed emotion (someone crying or showing intense anxiety etc) but won't know what to actually say or do. Sometimes I can see that someone needs comfort but I don't know how to give it.
I'm dignosed btw, I was formally diagnosed recently but I accidentally took the Cambridge test 20 years ago which placed me squarely at the autistic end of the spectrum and it hit me like a sandbag back then. I did a lot of reading around it - at the time I was studying psycho-linguistics and semiotic systems so the literature was relatively accessible to me. I found much of the theorising in neurology and psychology around AS really off-beam but hugely enlightening - I was kind of able to figure out what the NT mind was from 'reverse-engineering' the way the NT scientists and psychologists articulate the AS phenotype. This was radically helpful to me, I was able to develop a whole new coping toolkit. It was also a huge relief to understand why I struggled so much - and however hard I tried to 'get' what was going on around me I was always 'on the wrong foot'. It felt like everyone was always annoyed with me and I was powerless to change it because I just couldn't understand what I was doing wrong.
I went for formal diagnosis recently partly because I was really struggling at work and partly because I just wanted it confirmed and to be able to tell people when necessary. I expected the formal diagnosis to be just a confirmation but it hit me like a sandbag all over again! It took me a couple of months to recover from the process itself and from the realisation that it was 'clinical' - it was 'out there' and not just in my head.
So what's empathy? I was really puzzled by this for a while because I really do burst into tears at the slightest indication of suffering in other people. From the AS literature, I finally worked out that they were talking about something different - prior to the Cambridge test I hadn't realised that NT people are 'modelling mind' all the time - and therefore hadn't realised that my failure to be concerned about what might be going on in other people's heads was an important deficit. AS literature seems to be labelling this mind-modelling as 'empathy' - which, actually, I'm not sure it is. I think this process is probably somewhere between cognitive and emotive - and however much I learn it remains a 'black box' to me.
I can understand cognitively states of mind which people articulate to me - and if I'm in something like a 'therapist mode' I can also see their thinking. This isn't the same as empathy I don't think, it's cognitive and analytic and draws heavily on pre-existing knowlege of theoretical constructs of mind and language. If people don't tell me what they're thinking I can intuit it. I can observe their strategic machinations in work settings but I can't map emotional currents, I can't intuit group identities (or any kind of shared identity), or group dynamics. I can often see that someone is upset/angry/insecure etc but have no idea why and no idea what I should do about it. I'm baffled by romance, group bonding, family dynamics. I'm OK one-on-one if we're actually *talking* about states of mind - but if we're talking about something else I'll miss all the cues intended to open out developing intimacy. I don't understand when people are trying to develop a friendship with me - still less if they make a pass.
I have really rubbish boundaries, I'm either over-friendly and totally open or ignore people entirely depending on whether I like them or not. Everything seems to wash right through me and I often can't distinguish my own states from those of other people - I hear what you say about being affected by other people's emotional and mental states. I have no way of 'boundary-ing people out' and I suspect this is a lot of the reason I need to withdraw, recharge, and interpret for long periods.
So, my current understanding of it is that AS people probably have stronger empathy (ie you stub your toe and I wince) than NT people but NT people actually mean mind-modelling when they say 'empathy' - and we suck at mind modelling. I think this semantic issue causes a lot of unnecessary confusion - but NT people are usually seriously rubbish at semantics :D
I suppose it depends on equally on what you mean by empathy & also how you experience your own emotions.
I was only diagnosed early last year at age 55 & during my diagnosis was initially told I was hard to classify because I was quite good at camoflage. As a teenager I endured many years of severe bullying which gave me a keen sense of other people's negative emotions as well as a very strong sense of justice towards anyone being scapegoated or otherwise unfairly treated by society. Predictably, this also made my political views quite strongly left wing.
I tend to react quite strongly to other people's potential negativity towards me, which in many ways operates like an early warning system, but am not quite so good at reading whether people are responding positively as opposed to being indifferent, i.e. I find it hard to tell if people like me, but can easily tell if they actively dislike me.
Similarly, I have a strong empathic reaction when I see other people being treated badly & feel considerable discomfort if I don't attempt to intervene. Oddly though, I find it much easier to be able to tell if other people like each other, so the fact that I can't apply the same logic to myself seem to be a definite blindspot.
Since my view of the world was shaped by negative childhood experiences, that perception seems to colour everything. The way that I read other people's body language & other more subtle social cues is quite possibly an artificially learned defense mechanism, so it is impossible for me to know if my version of empathy is in any way similar to other people's or is mainly an intellectual construct.
The same is true of my emotions, just as I can never see the colour blue through someone else's eyes, I can never know how their emotions differ from mine. All I can do is observe them externally & extrapolate based on my own personal experience.
I have had the 'Digital vs Analogue' conversation many times with mental health professionals. According to the popular view, people on the Autistic Spectrum are supposed to have problems with empathy & body language, but quite often I am better at picking up signals than NTs.
In my head it feels like pattern matching, but I don't know if that is how it feels for NTs. Potentially, most of my social skills are 'Digital' & consciously constructed from first principles at some point in my past, whereas for NTs they are 'Analogue' & some sort of innate subconscious reflex.
The problem is that I can't remember ever being any different & it just feels completely natural to me. It wasn't until I started describing to a mental health nurse how I always break down other people's behaviour into separate components in my head that it really struck me, because he said that really isn't how most people think at all.
I think I do that - break down other people’s behaviour into seperate components in my head. When I read that, my instant thought was, doesn’t everybody? Could you give me an example of what you mean? I’m intrigued, I’d never really thought about it before.