On Aspies and Empathy: Once More, With Feeling
Like some people with high functioning autism, I have an exceptional IQ, which corresponds to a potential for academic performance in the Western tradition. I attended MENSA meetings with my 5th grade gifted class teacher, who was a member, and felt at home. Everything but learning to tell time on an analog clock or doing math from trigonometry onward was easy for me. So very easy. But, like most people with high functioning autism, I have certain social deficits. Where my rigidity of mind in things social really shows, and it’s not atypical of our kind, is in the area of ethics. It took me almost 35 years to understand at an emotional level that good people sometimes make bad choices, and that mercy, forgiveness, and kindness are more than values – they are virtues. The ground for learning this occurred over many years, but the concept finally took hold of me in my 34th year, when I made a terrible mistake. Not a criminal one, or a public one, but a personal one. I hurt someone whom I should have protected, betrayed someone I should have honored, and was, ultimately, forgiven. It was that act of forgiveness, motivated by this other person’s unconditional love for me, that changed the way I am able to feel for others.
By nature, people with Asperger’s are followers of rules and tellers of truth. We operate within systems that we have adopted. Of this tendency, Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. writes on PsychCentral, “Because they have such a poor sense of intuition and spontaneity, people with AS rely on formal, rigid rules of behavior, making them appear inappropriately and overly formal in social situations. Some of these symptoms also appear in individuals with higher-functioning autism, though perhaps to a lesser extent.” Tony Atwood, the Asperger expert, might disagree with Tartakovsky on the point about intuition, especially with female Aspies, but we do have a tendency to conform to systems, especially those for social regulation, ethical, behavioral, and so on. These systems have two main attractions. First, they let us navigate the social world in a less thoughtful way, so that we can concentrate on our interests. Second, they are reassuring. When the social world is uncertain, because so much of it is unwritten and unsaid, certain social guides are expressed. Civic laws. Guides to manners. Operating procedures. Office policies. Dress codes. These are life rafts, and we cling to them. Except, we have a deep sense of fairness, too, the kind of instinctive, unreflective fairness that kids and dogs have. It’s unshakeable in us. I could offer some grand theory of why, but the truth is, I’m not sure why. It may be that our socialization toward gray out of the black and white of dualistic thought doesn’t quite take. We can learn about ethical relativism, we can even accept that different groups of people or different people understand and feel differently about a situation, but at bottom, we feel deeply that there is fair and not fair, which translates to right and not right. When we do intellectualize this, we argue based on reason and evidence. We don’t respect arguments based on emotion.
Of this tendency toward “systematized” “hyper-morality,” leading autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen provides what may be a better explanation, based on how Aspies form morality by learning explicit rules rather than feeling what others feel: “My own experience of people with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome,” he writes, “is that they are certainly not just capable of morality, but may even be hyper-moral, wanting all of us to follow the rules in a precise way and to the nth degree. Some become the whistle-blowers when they spot the rules being broken. While many ‘neurotypical’ people arrive at their morality via a very visceral empathic route, responding emotionally to another person’s distress, other people (and this includes many with Asperger’s syndrome) arrive at their moral code through a logical route based on rules (systemising)“ (The Lancet, Review of Deborah R. Barnbaum Does Autism Need a Cure?)
Aspies tend to hold people accountable, ourselves, our parents, our governments, our classmates, our bosses. We have a tendency to judge. We have a tendency to be certain and immovable in our judgments. I’ve left more than one highly regarded and well compensated professional position for ethics alone. I am a person who cannot, will not, compromise on integrity. At nearly 50 years of age now, despite my study of and adherence to Buddhist doctrines of compassion, I still can’t shake it. I’ve gotten to a place where my judgment of another person’s wrong doing doesn’t necessarily make me wish them to be punished or rejected – or every now and then, corrected, at least if the harm they do is slight. I have over time, despite myself, experienced a slow inward revolution in my feeling toward others’ failings. Sometimes I feel sad for them instead, for the choices they’ve made and for what those have cost the people who have loved them or believed in them.
Like most people with Asperger’s, I’m high minded, an idealist. I believe in altruism, that it can and does exist, in human rights, in social justice for everyone – especially the politically and socially disadvantaged, in animal rights, in the value of peace, in the nobility of duty, in disinterested kindness, in the rule of law. Expert on gifted education, Psychologist J. Webb, Ph.D., has associated these tendencies with the gifted in general.
“It has been my experience,” Dr. Webb writes, “that gifted and talented persons are more likely than those who are less gifted to experience spontaneous existential depression as an outgrowth of their mental and emotional abilities and interactions with others. People who are bright are usually more intense, sensitive, and idealistic, and they can see the inconsistencies and absurdities in the values and behaviors of others (Webb, Gore, Amend, & DeVries, 2007). This kind of sensitive awareness and idealism makes them more likely to ask themselves difficult questions about the nature and purpose of their lives and the lives of those around them.”
I’ve read articles in which people reflect on this seeming paradox among Aspies–wondering how we can hold to such ideals when we seem, according to certain definitions of high-functioning autism, to lack empathy (generally, understanding how another person feels and perhaps also sympathizing with them), and to have inadequately developed theories of mind (generally, seeing things from other peoples’ perspectives, understanding what they are thinking and why that might be).
Initially I believed that high functioning autistics, at least from what I understood from forums where we talk with one another about this, experienced a continuum of empathic ability that ranges from those of us who feel deeply what others feel, sometimes too deeply, and those to whom the feelings of others are more of a distant puzzlement. My ideas about this have changed, and I’m glad to see that my revised understanding has found some validation in research within the last five or six years.
Here’s why my thinking about high functioning autistics’ capacity for empathy changed. I have long been aware that theory of mind (aka cognitive empathy), upon which emotional empathy is probably largely based, can be enhanced through instruction, which for us Aspies must take a direct form. I’ve spent my entire life studying human nature intensively, including social interaction. It’s why I earned undergraduate degrees in psychology and literature. This study has given me greater insights into human thinking, feeling, and behavior, individually and in groups, within and across cultures, than I would otherwise have had, not just as an average person, but also as an Aspie. I would not have gained them through osmosis, or whatever its social equivalent might be. My mind would have been elsewhere. If human nature and social interaction had not become one of my earliest and most persistent obsessions as an Aspie, where would I be? Living among aliens, I’m certain.
I had a signature learning experience of how greater understanding of another’s thoughts, of being in the world, can open up a whole region of emotional empathy that I had previously been lacking. Not with people, but with dogs. I grew up with cats, rather than dogs. I did not understand the dog mind, or dog being, or dog feeling, until later in life when I adopted one myself as a adult, one I could live with and keep close over time. My dog Ozzie (a chow-black lab-pitbull mix named after the Land of Oz), I learned through observation, had a sense of ownership. He knew what belonged to me (my chair, my shoes) and what belonged to him (his toys). He was able to signal gratitude (coming to thank me after I had fed him). He felt protective not only of his territory, but also of me when others approached. He could feel and return affection, but there were limits to when and how he wanted to be touched (not on the belly, not when tired). When I came to understand this particular dog well enough to develop a dog theory of mind and to know a particular dog’s variation of that in his own personality, I became deeply sympathetic to all dogs. I understood when they loved and what they loved. I felt their capacity for connection, not intellectually, but in my bones. I had built thread by thread an elaborate model of neural connection that was dog understanding, and I could operationalize it when I met new dogs and saw new dogs encounters. I had always believed in kindness to animals and in their special qualities, as well as, later, in our animal nature as humans–why do we try so hard to differentiated ourselves from the rest? But now I understood dogs in a way that I understood other people, with a depth that surpassed simple, intellectual understanding.
This experience meant for me that for all high functioning autistics, even those who do not devote themselves to developing theories of mind, have this capacity for expanding cognitive empathy and so experiencing greater depth of emotional empathy. Like social skills, empathy can be taught. It can be encouraged. And it must and it should be. When a mind is too much engaged only with itself and with objects of external interest, however fascinating, it is too easily isolated, and isolation leads to many negative outcomes: depression, anxiety, and lack of contribution. The high functioning autistic’s gifts should be made accessible as gifts to the world. And every being, autistic or not, deserves to have a quality of connection with other living creatures, whether human or canine or other forms of animal. In that connection is the multiplication of our efforts as individuals, as well as the root of our ethical sensibilities.
There is more than one research study on empathy in high functioning autistics that seems to validate that the issue with us isn’t that we lack the capacity for empathy or the ability to develop empathy–it’s that our cognitive and affective (thinking and feeling) processes run on separate tracks (as I’ve suggested is true for me, elsewhere in this blog) and we have difficulty integrating the two. In “Empathy Deficits in Asperger Syndrome” (Neurocase 8.3 2002: 245-252), S.G. Shamay-Tsoory et. al. write
“Although lack of empathy has been considered a central characteristic of Asperger syndrome…Analysis of their [adolescent male subjects’] performance on tasks assessing cognitive and affective processing did not reveal significant impairment in executive functions, nor in their ability to recognize emotions or the ability to create a mental representation of another person’s knowledge. However, both patients were unable to integrate the emotional content with mental representations and deduce the other person’s emotional state. These results suggest that impaired empathy in individuals with Asperger syndrome may be due to impaired integration of the cognitive and affective facets of the other person’s mental state.”
What may be at stake here is the people with Asperger’s have been found to have lower cognitive empathy when compared to neurotypicals, but not lower emotional empathy. This according to a very interesting study authored by Isabel Dziobeck et. al., “Dissociation of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Adults with Asperger Syndrome Using the Multifaceted Empathy Test” (J Autism Dev Disorder 28 2008: 464-473, available online). What does that mean? According to the study, “Empathy is a multidimensional construct consisting of cognitive (inferring mental states) and emotional (empathic concern) components.” Aspies had difficulty figuring out what people were thinking (that is, seeing multiple perspectives) when no context was provided, but when they were shown contexts in which, for example, people were experiencing obvious distress (tense interpersonal or emergency circumstances), they actually registered a stronger emotional reaction than neurotypicals. That is, they sympathetically felt greater anxiety and distress. Equally reassuring is that when Aspies were compared with neurotypicals on a scale of social desirability using the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale (i.e.,”the tendency of individuals to think or act in ways that conform to societal norms and to distort self-reports in a favorable direction”), the study found no significant differences between the two groups.
I believe, then, that to state simply that high-functioning autistics lack empathy misses the mark through overgeneralizing what empathy is. Aspies are capable of feeling for others. We are not robots or cold-blooded killers. Often we feel too much. What we seem to have trouble doing, without additional learning and perhaps direct input from others in the moment, is understanding their perspective and how it might differ from our own. What is more, on a day to day basis, even if Aspies arrive at certain social norms of interpersonal behavior less intuitively than others, we are equally capable of behaving in ways that bring people together rather than driving them apart.