Thursday, March 8, 2007


Do people with Asperger syndrome have empathy? What about these five?

Scenario 1:
Arriving at the meeting, I look around for a chair next to someone who won't by crying today. I don't know what to do when people cry, and it makes me nervous. I am good with the instrumental stuff, like getting the tissue box passed in the right direction. The problem is mostly I don't know what to do with my face. A concerned look is called for, but how do you make that face?

Eye contact is out of the question, as the person's face may ask me to do something, and I won't understand. For me, looking at someones face when they are upset is as silly as pretending to speak another language when you don't. You can sit there and nod as if you understand, but when the speaker asks a question and you can't answer it, the jig is up. So what happens is I end up staring into space, hoping the rest of the room doesn't notice I'm not doing anything.

Scenario 2:
I heard a song on the radio about a teenager whose girlfriend had died. He talked about looking at the desk where he had carved their initials, knowing that she wasn't coming back. It was early morning when I heard the song, I was around eight years old, it was summer. My father tried to comfort me; then he left for work. When he came back that evening and found me still crying, he was exasperated. Did I not know it was just a made up story? What on earth was wrong with this kid, crying all day long over nothing?

Scenario 3:
I am in the community room at work with Bob and Marge. Sally walks in, says hello, talks to Bob for a couple of minutes, then goes on. I say to Bob, what was wrong with Sally. Nothing he says. Marge says what do you mean. The next day I find out that Sally had just come from the hospital where her mother was very ill. She hadn't mentioned it to anyone.

Scenario 4:
I am ten or eleven years old. My mother and I have an unexpected visitor. Mom has already fixed dinner, and asks the guest to stay and eat. My response, given out loud, is to ask, "Do we have enough?" My mother calls me aside and scolds me for being so rude. I spend the rest of the evening in my room.

Scenario 5:
I am at lunch with Kate and Joann. Joann mentions that her father had died from Lupus.
I start laughing and can't stop. They don't understand how I can be so cold.

Possible responses from mental health professionals: Number one is not autistic, because she cares what people think of her. She most likely has narcissistic personality disorder. Number 2 is a case of clinical depression. Three is overly empathic if anything, not autistic. Four and Five are classic presentations of AS, people who blurt out whatever comes to mind appropriate or not.

So what's really going on? All of these are true stories taken from my life. Here's how they looked from the inside:

(1 and 2)
People crying is scary. It's hard to understand what it's about, they never tell you everything. Songs are different, and movies and tv shows. You get the whole story, beginning to end, it makes sense. I can feel the sadness of it then. I kept seeing the desk and the initials in my head.
I need a visual link with the emotion to make it real. The song was descriptive and the image iconic enough that it represented everything sad in the world. There was a lot to cry about.

Sally had a smudge of dirt on her shoe. Her shirt was not tucked in. These things are out of the ordinary, she tends to be perfectly neat in her presentation. Marge and Bob did not notice these things; they were focused on Sally's eyes. Apparently, she is good at hiding her feelings.

The reason I asked that question was so I could offer not to eat, in deference to the guest. I never got to tell my mother that because I was so upset by her perception of me as rude. Not that I was being entirely altruistic; I wanted to be seen as valiant. My failure to acheive that goal was harshly ironic.
For several years, I couldn't hear the word "lupus" without laughing. This had absolutely nothing to do with the word's meaning, just the sound of it triggered that response. I still don't know why, and there have been other words which had strange effects on me. As a child, I could not stand the word "cold, among others; hearing them upset me terribly. The word induced laughing fits always made me think I was bordering on madness.

Autistic empathy is different from what the typical person experiences. It is no less real, no less deep or emotional. And I would argue that it's no less useful to society. Some people give hugs; others get the tissue. Otherwise you end up with people blowing their noses on their sleeves, which is unbecoming and very untidy.


  1. Re, your response to certain words such as "Lupus" -- I wonder if that could perhaps be some permutation of synthesia, where instead of seeing letters in certain colors or whatever, certain words trigger certain emotional responses?

    (I imagine you've seen Amanda's video on "Stupid Brain Tricks"?

  2. In fact, with the part of where you asked if there was enough, I thought it was to make sure that enough was prepared for the visitor. I don't even know how it could be interpreted as rude.

  3. I was thinking you were headed in a different direction re: Lupus -- something more along the lines of Amanda's "dead hamster laugh".

  4. When I was younger, something about people being angry at me when I hadn't done anything wrong (in my opinion) struck me as really funny on some level. So I often laughed when the teachers were telling me off for breaking some pointless rule. It's not so much that I meant to be defiant, but I thought it was kind of funny how much my perception of the situation differed from theirs.

  5. I'm sorry but the word Lupus triggers a similar response from me despite knowing that it is a very serious ailment, which is nothing to be jocular about. It also doesn't help that lupus means wolf in Latin. So when someone says that someone has lupus my my mind sees that person's face morph into that of a wolf and I have a difficult time at that moment expressing sympathy. I can muster it after a few minutes, but by then it might be too late. And believe me, I do feel bad about people suffering from serious diseases such as that one, which I have a hard time saying or hearing or reading. 🐺


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