Not Enough Empathy? or Too Much Empathy?

At a time when we later realized would be timely, my sister-in-law posted an article on my Facebook wall about Aspergers and empathy. We’ve all heard that people with Aspergers lack empathy, but this article claims that people with Aspergers actually feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.

“What if what looks like coldness to the outside world is in fact a response to being overwhelmed by emotion—an excess of empathy, not a lack of it?”
“A Radical New Autism Theory” by Maia Szalavitz

My friends commented on the post by saying, “Yes, I see this in myself” and “My son is like that.” Those could’ve been my comments. I do see this in myself. I do see this in my son.

Watching the News is Too Intense

I can’t watch the news any more. I rely on the New York Times headlines that are emailed to me every day and on my husband to keep me updated on current events. Why? Because once I know about something tragic, I just can’t get it out of my mind.

For example, the ISIS beheadings of Christians. I obsess over the fear the victims felt. I imagine that I was one of the victims and wonder if I would die bravely in Christ’s name or if I’d beg for my life. I obsess over how the families feel–anger, intense sorrow. I can put myself in their shoes too easily.

Then I’m in a bad mood and get nothing done all day.

When I told a relative that I don’t watch the news any more, another relative in the conversation said that it’s the same for her.

How I Responded to 9/11/01

I remember that in the afternoon of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I had a conference call. I was working in Minneapolis at the time, so I wasn’t geographically near the plane crashes, and neither were the people on the call. I put on my business voice and greeted everyone cheerily.

Everyone else on the call was somber.

I’m sure that I came off as callous. By the afternoon, I had already put my feelings about the morning’s events aside so that I could get down to business. I wasn’t uncaring. I just couldn’t let myself “go there” because then I wouldn’t be able to work.

What About Trio Man?

So now that I’ve read the article that my sister-in-law posted on my Facebook wall, I’m rethinking scenarios when Trio Man has appeared callous.

Another Boy Got Hurt

For example, when he was in 2nd grade, I was homeschooling him. We had met up with other homeschoolers at a park, and he was playing basketball (more or less) with three other boys. One of the other boys got hurt.

It wasn’t Trio Man’s fault at all. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt–it wasn’t like we were calling for an ambulance–but he did need his mom’s attention and a first aid kit.

Once the boy’s mom was at his side, Trio Man tried to get one of the other boys to play ball with him again.

It wasn’t appropriate. I remember taking Trio Man aside and coaching him, explaining that when someone gets hurt, we stay by that person’s side until they feel better. I knew at the time that Trio Man just didn’t know how he was supposed to respond, so I taught him (and did so without judgment).

At the time, I figured Trio Man lacked empathy. That it was an Aspergers Thing. Now, after reading the article, I wonder if he set aside his deep feelings of empathy and “moved on” in order to avoid those feelings. It’s hard to say.

“Intense World” Theory

According to this “new” intense world theory (“new” in quotes because Ms. Szalavitz’s article was published in 2009), empathy is thought to have at least two critical parts:

  1. The ability to see the world from another’s perspective, also known as Theory of Mind.
  2. The ability to imagine what the other is feeling and to care about their pain.

Kids on the Autism Spectrum develop the first part, Theory of Mind, later than neurotypical children (NTs). As Ms. Szalavitz points out, “It takes autistic children far longer than others to realize that other people have different experiences and perspectives.”

But once people on the Spectrum are able to empathize with others, they may have a better sense of what others are feeling. That is, the second part of empathy may actually be more intense for people on the Spectrum. Here’s an example from my life.

Interpreting Facial Expressions

Growing up, I didn’t know how to interpret facial expressions, so I paid close attention to the situations around me.

This is what Girl Aspies do. They study social situations.
Boys? not so much.

I was the awkward girl because I didn’t “get” situations. But as an adult, that changed.

For example, after Spider-Man was born, my husband and I volunteered in the church nursery. Part of our responsibility was checking in the babies and toddlers, which meant I got to chat with the parents.

I was friendly with one of those parents because Spider-Man and one of my friend’s boys were born a couple of days apart. She and I weren’t close, but we had had some nice conversations.

One Sunday, she checked her son into the nursery, and I could tell that something was wrong. I asked her quietly if everything was okay, and she said, “Yes.”

I didn’t believe her.

After the service, I looked for her and asked her again. I told her that something seemed to be bothering her and that she didn’t have to tell me what was wrong but that I would be praying for her nonetheless. It wasn’t like we were close friends, so I didn’t expect her to suddenly trust me and tell me everything.

She was taken aback.

Later, my friend told me that there was something amiss in her marriage, and she confided in me. She also told me that she was surprised that I noticed that something was wrong.

No one else had noticed.
Not anyone in her church small group.
Not anyone who knew her better than I did.

I thought it was obvious.

Back to Trio Man

I mentioned at the top of this blog post that my sister-in-law posted the article about the “intense world” theory at a time that we later realized was timely. Why was it timely? Because a couple of weeks later, her dad died–my father-in-law, Trio Man’s grandpa.

When it became clear that my father-in-law might not live through the week, I went back and found the post, and added a comment: “Let’s remember this throughout the week.”

Trio Man’s feelings were intense, but most of the time they were hidden from the outside world.

He didn’t want to be a pallbearer. Spider-Man was okay with being a pallbearer, but it was too intense for Trio Man.

And that’s okay.

After all, we all deal with grief differently. And, clearly, Trio Man felt his emotions very deeply–even if they weren’t always apparent to others.

But I noticed.

Trio Man’s stories are shared with his permission.

Stay tuned for another Trio Man story about empathy–coming to you Saturday evening.

Articles on Aspergers and Empathy

“A Radical New Autism Theory” by Maia Szalavitz posted May 11, 2009

You can read about the more traditional view of Aspergers and empathy at “Neuroscience Sheds Light on Why People with Asperger’s Syndrome Lack Empathy” by Kathy J. Marshack, PH.D., publication date unknown but probably 2014.