As men with Asperger’s (high-functioning autism), we are often blamed for lacking empathy. Empathy, as you know, is the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand his or her emotions and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions.
Empathy is NOT agreement, commiseration, endorsement, pity or sympathy. Instead, it is getting into another person's world and connecting with him or her – both emotionally and compassionately. We don't have to agree with other people or fully understand them to be able to empathize, and we don't even need to be able to relate to what they are experiencing specifically (although sometimes that can help). We just need to be present, connect with others where they are, and acknowledge what they are experiencing.
Is it possible for anyone on the autism spectrum to become more empathic given that “lack of displayed empathy” is one of the major traits of Asperger’s? I believe the answer is “yes.” But we must make the effort to “learn” this skill since it does not come naturally or instinctively to us. The best way to learn to show more empathy is to look at – and copy – the traits of those individuals who are already doing a good job in this area. Below is a list of such traits.
People who empathize – spontaneously and consistently – exhibit many of the following traits:
- adopt the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him”
- ask others how they are feeling – and really listen to what they say
- ask themselves where empathy is missing, taking inventory of their life and relationships and noticing where empathy may be wanted, needed, or simply absent
- challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them
- develop an ambitious imagination
- develop the ability to be present to what’s really going on within—to the unique feelings and needs the other person is experiencing in that very moment
- embrace lifestyles and worldviews very different from their own
- empathize with people whose beliefs they don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way
- find other people more interesting than themselves, but do not interrogate them
- have an insatiable curiosity about strangers
- listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs
- make themselves vulnerable, removing their masks and revealing their true feelings
- master the art of radical listening
- realize that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too
- realize that they may have an apology to give, an acknowledgement to make, or simply an admission that they want to bring more compassion to a particular relationship
- talk to people outside their usual social circle
- tend to be an “interested inquirer”
- try to understand the world inside the head of the other person
- understand that all genuine education comes about through experience
- will talk to the person next to them on the bus or in the check-out line at the grocery, for example
Obviously, it would be an impossible task for you to dive-in and employ all 20 of the traits listed above. However, it would be within your reach to pick one or two of these traits, and make an agreement with yourself to implement them on a consistent basis. You can do it! I have faith in you!!! It just takes practice.