I can not say it enough. Learning about Jake’s autism has been such an incredible key to knowing him. It is affecting our family more and more. As we learn more and filter what we are seeing day to day, we are becoming better parents, more understanding people.
I want to revisit the topic of empathy. My first post on about empathy is here. We have talked about it in rounds, my husband and I. We see Jake’s kindness, thoughtfulness, concern for others all the time. And then all of a sudden something seems off and I can see why people say that autistics struggle with empathy. Something as simple as, ‘I hurt myself, I need a minute, then a band-aid, and then I can come put the tv on for you.’ It makes me shake my head and wonder, “Kid! Where is your understanding?”
However, I believe that this seeming lack of understanding does not truly correlate with a lack of empathy. I think it is more social cluelessness, as explained in this definition and example.
– Social cluelessness
Not being sure how to act without making things worse if someone for example suffers a tragic loss; if they want to talk about the painful event or if they don’t want to be reminded. I think it must be hard for everyone to know, but even more so for a socially clueless Aspie.
When my only friend in 5th grade lost her father I had no clue what to say or do and was too shy to ask anyone for guidance (the information about her father’s death didn’t elicit any advice or instructions from my mother, who was very young and rather Aspie herself) so I just avoided my friend for a long time instead. A shameful thing that I felt bad over for years but I can now have compassion for myself for really not knowing how to handle it.
– Ing, site-author
What appears as a lack of empathy is probably just Jake trusting that I am mom and therefore I will always be fine and I am here to help with his needs, which according to him often include turning on the tv at the time of his choosing. I think it is more ego-centrism and cluelessness than genuine lack of empathy. Ego-centrism is just as common in people with autism as social cluelessness.
“Aspies find it easy to get called selfish just because it doesn’t occur to us to enunciate concerns for others or to ask unprompted casual questions about them. I can remember once getting called selfish for not asking after the health of as family friend who had been seriously ill (he recovered and is alive now). It simply never occurred to me to ask after it as I knew I would hear any news I needed to.”
– Maurice, Aspie from Scotland
In my previous post, I discussed the idea that autistics actually experience an overwhelming sense of empathy. This is not the only opinion, however. One writer I have really enjoyed reading is an adult on the spectrum who disagrees with the idea that autistics have an over-developed sense of empathy that is simply misunderstood. She also thinks there is nothing wrong with a genuine lack of empathy.
Generally, when I feel emotionally overwhelmed by another person’s emotions, it’s related to my alexithymia (emotional dysfunction). In short, I have trouble regulating my own emotions and I have trouble discriminating between emotions that are “aimed at” me and emotions that are “aimed at” someone else. If I encounter two people having a shouting argument, my emotional reaction is the same as if I were the target of their shouting, as if they were both angry at me.
I don’t think this is empathy. I’m not sharing their emotional state (anger) so much as feeling like the target of it. If I were sharing the emotional state of the people in the shouting match, wouldn’t I feel like shouting at someone, too? Instead, I feel frightened and intimidated. I feel an intense need to escape from a situation to which I’m nothing more than a bystander.
In fact, in this kind of situation, the only person I’m thinking about is myself and how uncomfortable I am. There I go again, taking my own perspective. My distress at the situation might outwardly appear to be empathic but my internal reaction is a great big “MAKE IT STOP, NOW.”
This idea is supported by other bloggers, explaining that our definitions of empathy are the problem, not the actual lack of empathy.
Now, let’s look at what society defines empathy to be. Empathy, as many of us imagine it, is the ability to feel bad for someone else. However, is that really what empathy is? Let’s examine the true definition of empathy, as reflected in the American Heritage Dictionary:
“Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.”
This suggests that yes, it is hard to identify with and understand another’s feelings and motives. In conversations with my husband, I would quickly say that we both struggle with this. Any one of our arguments can be traced to a misunderstanding of the other’s feelings and motives. Rather, we all need to work on empathy, and recognizing that it is a struggle for Jake and other autistics will give us more patience when we deal with them.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t really empathize well. Without realizing it, I would say things that hurt people’s feelings (I still do). The aspie doesn’t really “think on the fly” during conversations. There’s a delay and we often don’t pick up on non-verbal or non-obvious cues that we’re hurting someone.
However, this has little or nothing to do with the concern, care, and love that autistics feel towards others. It may not even be as important as it is often portrayed to be.
That’s not to say that I don’t experience concern toward other people. Simple concern for others, though, isn’t so much empathy as sympathy. Sympathy is a concern for the wellbeing of another person. It can exist in the absence of the empathic act of sharing an emotional state with that person. It often arises from empathy, but it doesn’t have to.
Empathy has nothing – NOTHING – to do with love or one’s ability to care. Think about it. Have you ever loved someone that you just didn’t always understand? Maybe your autistic child? Beyond that, did you ever have a “crush” on someone who seemed so outside of your type? Just because you look at your child and can’t identify how he or she is feeling doesn’t mean you love him or her any less. Have you ever loved someone unconditionally? The definition of unconditional love seems to imply that it is outside of one’s ability to understand or do or say anything. They simply love.
Yesterday we took Jake to Wal-Mart to look at the Lego. Just to look. It’s a reward for him, something special to do. While he was there memorizing all of the packaging, another couple and their kids came into the aisle as well. When it became clear that they were also there to look at the Lego and not just passing through, Jake quickly became uncomfortable. My husband, who like me is quickly learning, got down at his level and had a quick, quiet conversation. Jake explained that he ‘didn’t want to cause trouble when we [Jake and his dad] have to leave.’ As in, walking out of the aisle past these other people would disrupt their Lego looking and be uncomfortable. So they solved the dilemma by agreeing to leave out the far end of the aisle.
This to me screams of both the ability to care and the ability to put oneself in the position of another. However, it doesn’t actually relate to true empathy according to the definition. Jake and his dad treated the other people in the store the way that they would have wanted to be treated if they were in the same position. Treating others the way they want to be treated. A lovely way to treat people, but not actually understanding what the other people DID want. They may have been looking for a gift and wanting Jake’s suggestions. Because no conversation happened, no actual understanding of another’s motivations happened. No one had any idea of the others’ feelings or situation. In fact, my husband was the only one in this particular scenario to truly demonstrate empathy, and it was towards Jake.
I think that teaching our kids to be kind, to care, to listen and understand other people is what is important. Eventually this will translate to sympathy, and when it really matters, empathy. But all kids and even adults need to work on it. Knowing that the mental gymnastics required are quicker, more difficult for autistics is something that will help me to be more patient and sympathetic.