Empathy is a controversial subject in the field of Asperger Syndrome/neurotypical relationships. The theory of mind postulates that people with Asperger Syndrome have some degree of mind blindness, or an inability to fathom the motivations and feelings of others. Aspies don’t seem to read the social clues that tell NTs (neurotypicals) what is going on.
For example, Aspies are notoriously poor at recognizing complex emotions in others. They struggle to understand that someone may be stretching the truth for emphasis or as the punch line to a joke. They are confused by irony, pretense, metaphor, deception, faux pas, white lies and so forth. This is why NTs find Aspies to be clueless in social situations and why there are all types of curricula on the subject of teaching Aspies how to navigate the social world.
There is more to empathy than meets the eye. It’s a complex system of emotional empathy and cognitive empathy and multiple transitions between the two.
Most NTs make the transition between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy very easily, and thereby strike a balance between the two. Aspies, on the other hand, find it very difficult to accomplish this. The resulting disconnect between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy really defines Asperger Syndrome and is what Adam Smith, a researcher from Scotland, calls “the empathy imbalance hypothesis.”
To understand this issue better, let’s define the difference between the two types of empathy.
Emotional empathy (EE) is the feeling without thought. It’s the punch to the gut that we feel when we are horrified. It’s also the exuberance that we feel when we witness an uncommonly beautiful sight, such as a full rainbow. It’s the ability to feel the feelings of another regardless of whether we understand those feelings.
The emotions are there. The tears flow. The blood rushes to our face. Our heart beats faster. It’s an experience that fills the entire moment to the brim of our being. For Aspies, this moment spills over into everything and onto everyone around them.
Cognitive empathy (CE) is the analytical side of empathy. It’s being able to see someone’s emotional response and understand what’s causing it.
NTs have a good balance or interplay between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, whereas Aspies do not. They struggle to recognize where someone’s distress is coming from (CE) and they struggle with knowing how awful someone is feeling (EE). And they can’t easily move between the two, whereas most people can combine EE and CE so as to be able to put personal needs aside for the moment and reach out to comfort another.
True empathy is more multidimensional than empathizing with feelings (emotional empathy) or empathizing with facts (cognitive empathy). It also requires the ability to talk about this integration.
Emotions without empathy are just feelings. Those with Asperger Syndrome can be deeply moved by life experiences yet are unable to relate well with others. They have few ways to regulate or speak to those responses through their own mental reasoning. And because those feelings can become so intensely felt without any way to release them through expression, those with Asperger Syndrome shut down to protect themselves.
They avoid eye contact because it adds to the emotional overload. It’s hard for them to hear your words and change their focus when their feelings are so overwhelming them. They can’t accept soothing because they don’t understand the intent of soothing. It’s like they’re locked into either a mental state without an emotional connect or vice versa. Because those with Asperger Syndrome can’t bridge that gap, family members must make a bridge between the two for them with comforting, supportive and loving words.
Aspies tend to get stuck in one form of empathy or another and need help making the transition to a more productive emotional outcome. The neurotypical’s mastery of cognitive empathy and emotional empathy and being able to match those feelings to the appropriate words will enable friends and family to help Aspies create true empathy. NT family members must be relied on to look for potential roadblocks and help their Aspie loved ones make these transitions.
However, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you cannot anticipate every possible roadblock for the Aspie. And those with Asperger Syndrome can and should learn to appreciate their NT partners for the exceptional work they do to keep the communication going.
One way to reduce the emotional overload for Aspies and NTs alike is to have a calming and knowledgeable professional to help sort things out. If you anticipate an emotionally trying time approaching, such as the death of a loved one, a psychologist could help your Aspie reason through what’s happening to himself and to the dying loved one. An objective professional can put words to the emotions that well up. With practice in therapy, the family may be able to talk about the events to come and plan a course of action, thereby averting the need for, and the resulting trauma of, any unprepared sudden emotional transition.