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 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.
Sorry for the delay in replying, as I said earlier, it's like some form of pattern matching.
It's hard to give specific examples, because I don't consciously remember or look for the components until I recognise them, some sort of associative background monitoring process just points them out as being odd.
An example I have used several times before is that in my last job, my boss was someone I had known for a very long time (since university), & I could always tell when he was starting to get irritated because he would start to 'clip' the syllables on the end of words in a very distinctive manner.
The signals don't have to be learned specifically for each person though, most things seem to be fairly universal & often without the people concerned being aware they are broadcasting information, although I am much better at spotting negative things than positive, for reasons previously discussed.
I have learned to be very sensitive to negative body language signals & usage of ' Passive Aggressive' language. For example, on entering a social grouping, someone might subconsciously move or back away slightly in a manner that makes it obvious that they would rather avoid you, even when they might be trying to pretend the opposite. Attempts to engage such people in conversation, will usually result in 'Closed Answers' that don't naturally lead on to anything else.
As I said, it's really hard to describe because I can't list all the individual signals, I just know them when I see them. I suppose it's quite similar to what people often describe about playing Poker & learning to recognise other people's 'Tells'.
On a possibly unrelated note, I somehow do the same thing with the way people walk. Everyone walks in a slightly different manner & after a while I seem to subconsciously memorise it such that I can often recognise it from a long distance away, even when they have their back to me. My head just seems to like pattern matching .
OMG in a weird way, you’ve just put into words (what I couldn’t) what I do.
I write as a way of processing my thoughts. I never really know what I’m going to write. And last night I wrote this big thing on a huge pattern I spotted, which funnily enough is related to language.
Like you, it’s like I hardly notice it’s hapoening, although one or two things will *** my attention and sometimes something tells me I’m on to something. so keep going. And then it all comes together.
It might take me years to learn something, but I clearly never forget because sometimes, something happens, a pattern fits together and solves that puzzle from years ago. Or I even get a joke months or years later!
And yes, me too, with the way people walk. It’s significant. I tried learning body language but it just made me suspicious of everyone and like I was on an under cover mission and what was the point? But I do read a person from the way they walk. I get a lot of information from that. And people actually speak their troubles, what we call their script (in metaphysics) and they have no idea they’re doing it. I’m starting to give more importance to the way I experience the world and much less to even thinking about trying to fit it, in any way whatsoever and it’s like I can see, that all I really needed was time and space, away from the world, to process stuff in my way.
Anyway, thanks for that. You’ve helped me to understand myself much better. I always thought I must be communicating energetically or something, I couldn’t work it out, and I still think I am to some degree but you’ve helped me to see that I’m actually getting a lot of information in other ways, such as how they walk etc ~ I need to trust more in that.