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Empathy 101: Tips for Husbands on the Autism Spectrum

Empathy is the ability to understand others to the point that you can experience their feelings and internal drives. Most men with ASD (high functioning autism) have difficulty in this area. So in your honor, below is a quick course in how to be more empathic (or less non-empathic).

Let’s first look at the things to avoid…

  • be contemptuous
  • correct the plot line
  • correct what you view to be a misperception
  • counter critique
  • explain why you did what you did 
  • get defensive
  • play the guessing game (in other words, don’t set your wife up to fail by requiring her to guess what you are feeling or what you need)
  • respond to your wife’s constructive criticism with your own criticisms
  • try to attach permanent negative labels on your wife
  • try to prove that your wife is inherently flawed
  • tune your wife out or put up a figurative wall
  • use justifications for what you said
  • use over-generalizations (they tend to not have solutions)
  • use your logic and reason to attempt to disprove the validity of your wife’s emotional reaction or narrative (it doesn’t matter if you believe your wife misperceived a particular event – her emotional reactions are related to her perceptions)

Now let’s look at the things you should be doing…

  • allow yourself to feel whatever it is that you feel (if you experience strong authentic feelings of your own – rather than feelings related to avoidance, denial or defensiveness – then simply let them flow as long as they are not disruptive, such as in the form of anger)
  • ask for what you want (if you want your wife to just listen and to not “fix” the issue in question – tell her that)
  • be curious and open-minded
  • be interested in your wife’s experience rather than being fixated on making her perception consistent with yours
  • be vulnerable and accepting of your body’s natural responses to conflict
  • free yourself from trying to create consistency between your perceptions and your wife’s perceptions
  • listen as if your only job is to understand
  • listen as though the narrative is not about you (when your wife makes a complaint about something you said or did – or something you were supposed to say or do, but didn’t – listen as if she was referring to a third party, which will help you control your defensiveness or guardedness)
  • listen without using your preconceptions
  • notice your bias and choose to not let it control your actions
  • stay emotionally available, tracking your wife’s narrative and the emotions being displayed
  • take a break when needed (if you are overwhelmed during an argument, ask for a break and take some time to cool down, but tell your wife what you are doing and when you will be able to return)

Practice these ideas, then practice some more. Eventually, you’ll get it. I have faith in you! We, as men on the spectrum, aren't stupid. We just need a little extra help in understanding other people's emotions.


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