ASD and Empathy
It is a common misconception that those of us on the Autism spectrum lack empathy. This is both incorrect and unfortunate in that many medical “experts” unintentionally perpetuate this fallacy.
It is important to understand that there is not one kind of empathy. Most informed psychologists and psychiatrists agree that there are three basic types of empathy – Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.
Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators, because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches other people. It is correct that those of us on the spectrum often do not possess a high degree of cognitive empathy. In fact, this is a classic symptom of Asperger’s and manifests itself because we have significant difficulty interpreting body language and “reading” facial expressions.
Emotional or Affective empathy is the ability to share in the feelings of another person. Basically, it is an emotional connection with another person. An example of which is understanding or experiencing another’s pain or happiness. This type of empathy helps us build emotional connections with others. Many of us on the spectrum not only experience Emotional or Affective empathy - we are often exceptionally empathetic in this regard and can often legitimately be considered “empaths” – sometimes to our own detriment.
Personally, when someone close to me is in pain or crisis, it feels like I literally absorb their feelings and emotions – often to the point of physical pain or nausea. I am also frequently overjoyed with the success of my friends and family. I honestly do not understand how or why others become jealous of their peer’s accomplishments, and I feel nothing but pride and happiness when someone near me achieves success.
Compassionate empathy (also known as Empathic Concern) goes beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings: it moves us to take action and to help however we can. I can only speak for myself and my experiences, but for me and many of those I know with Asperger’s we not only experience this form of empathy – we are extremely empathetic in this regard.
It is understandable, albeit incorrect, to assume that those of us on the spectrum are not empathetic. It is unfortunate that we cannot fully understand and reciprocate cognitive empathy, but that has nothing to do with our ability or desire to care for others and their plights or successes. This is additionally compounded by the fact that our own facial expressions and body language often to not reflect our actual emotions which causes our own feelings and emotions to be misunderstood by others.