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Problems with Empathy: Tips for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

As people with ASD (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 ASD?  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:
  1. adopt the Native American proverb, “Walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticize him”
  2. ask others how they are feeling – and really listen to what they say
  3. ask themselves where empathy is missing, taking inventory of their life and relationships and noticing where empathy may be wanted, needed, or simply absent
  4. challenge their own preconceptions and prejudices by searching for what they share with people rather than what divides them
  5. develop an ambitious imagination
  6. 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
  7. embrace lifestyles and worldviews very different from their own
  8. empathize with people whose beliefs they don’t share or who may be “enemies” in some way
  9. find other people more interesting than themselves, but do not interrogate them
  10. have an insatiable curiosity about strangers
  11. listen hard to others and do all they can to grasp their emotional state and needs
  12. make themselves vulnerable, removing their masks and revealing their true feelings
  13. master the art of radical listening
  14. realize that empathy doesn’t just make you good—it’s good for you, too
  15. 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
  16. talk to people outside their usual social circle
  17. tend to be an “interested inquirer”
  18. try to understand the world inside the head of the other person
  19. understand that all genuine education comes about through experience
  20. 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.

Resources for couples affected by ASD: 

==> Living With Aspergers: Help for Couples

==> One-on-One Counseling for Struggling Individuals & Couples Affected by Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


•    I do believe we learn how to communicate better ND understand others better but I don't see the above list of 20 being helpful. I don't think the fake until you make it will really be the road to better understand in this case especially since many of the trait listed involve a different method of internal hard wiring. The secret is to get to the same end result using your internal hard wiring. Case in point I have gone through a lot of assertiveness training, business related, collage courses and with private therapy. On the conscious level I understand what was being taught. I can see the difference in the behavior response discussed. But internally it just doesn't make sense to me. I can really wrap my mind around it enough to effectively us it. I end up feeling like I am being dishonest and manipultive. This results in be giving off the wrong body lqnguage nd tone. So what was to be an assertive action end up coming off as sarcatic or passive aggressive or other wrong message. Why because in the end i am still speaking a different language. It ike talking louder and putting on a heavy accent and assuming the other person will now understand you.

•    I'm kind of half way between your sentiment and the article. For me, I over-empathize. I find people overwhelming. But I can't seem to use that understanding of a person to effectively communicate and connect with them. I often see something in them they don't want to acknowledge. Combine that with being overly logical and blunt and knowing but not understanding social norms, and I can just come across as being very hurtful, when my goal is to help. I have a hard time navigating that. The biggest challenge for me, though, is turning all this into a solid connection with a person. It's like reading a book you just can't get into, not because you don't understand what's going on, it just doesn't grab you. That's how I feel with other people. Although I do have a strong desire to help people when concrete (usually physical) acion can be taken.

•    This question is for NT partners married to an Aspie spouse - what are the reason(s) to stay with them? Here is a bit about my wife and I and why I am asking. I ask this because I seem to "have" Aspergers, and I see the pain my wife goes through. As I continue to gain a deeper understanding (albeit a conceptual understanding) of what it means to be in a relationship as an NT, the sadder it seems. It appears to me that if the goal of the relationship is partnership it cannot be found with someone with Aspergers. We do not have children, we have no deeply functional reason to be together other than love and partnership. I very much like and appreciate this about our relationship, but she appears to be a better partner and seems like she is getting short changed in a sense. To an outside observer, I imagine that I appear like a good partner. I support her goals, I respect her in multiple ways, I encourage her to do things that make her happy, I don't care about social norms, I happen to make a substantial income relative to most people and therefore pay for everything so she doesn't have to work, happy to help out and do the chores and whatever else is helpful, I am loving towards out cats, people see us and consistently tell her "he loves you so much". Etc. Etc. But I don't know how to respond to her emotions (on multiple occasions, I have walked away from her while she was crying), I seem to really only understand what she is saying when it is laid out in an argumentative/logical format (and even then I rarely seem to feel what she is saying), I don't communicate well, I don't listen well, I am often swirling around in my own head (sometimes during serious conversations I will trace geometrical shapes in my head when we talk - and the more I try to stop it the stronger it goes). I love my wife - I care for her and I want her to be happy. However, after several years of trying to change, I see that she is now looking for happiness in changing her expectations of a partner. Perhaps this is the "appropriate" thing to do, but logically I cannot understand why. It seems the proposition is to spend a life with someone that cannot deliver emotional understanding and comfort and in exchange one receives...? I want her to be happy, and I would like for that to be with me, but I worry that I am holding her back from finding a person who can make her happy (or be alone, but not with someone who consistently disappoints her). Thank you for any insights you may be willing to share.

•    This is empathy. Empathy is the understanding of what another is going through. Expression of empathy is what I think a better term would be. I most certainly have empathy and can understand what others are going through. My problem is how to express it in a way that can convey that I understand rather than overtaking and making their emotions my own towards them. But this can also be an issue for our own emotions and how to appropriately express them in a NT world. As far as empathy within the relationship, as an aspie in a very good relationship with my partner and with kids, I have found communication even what either of us think is redundant to be key.

1 comment:

  1. To the person who asked above what the point for an NT to stay is, the point is because she loves you, (and, also,if she has similar beliefs to me because it is wrong to leave someone because of surface differences which arent related to morals like cheating)To love someone truly makes you happy even if they can't do everything you hoped for, maybe she can't be exactly how you would like either. Leaving wouldn't
    necessarily make her happy.. You seem like a good person, I think if she knows you love her she is very lucky even if you can't help her when she's sad. I think it's like not speaking the same language. Is it better to stay with someone who you love and who loves you and accept you might never speak the same language, or to leave and find someone else who maybe doesn't love you or isn't a good person but speaks the same language?. It would probably be helpful to communicate as much as possible though so she understands why you do what you do, otherwise she may assume you leave her crying because you don't care that she's sad. Just my opinion... if it seemed like you didn't love her and cheated my opinion would be totally different. (I am an NT, though poss.have ADHD slightly).


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