Neuroscience Sheds Light on Why People with Asperger’s Syndrome Lack Empathy
Families of those with Asperger’s want to know why their Aspies act the way they do. In my psychology practice I have Neuro-typical (NT) clients repeatedly ask me regarding their Asperger spouse, “Why can’t she see what I am saying?” Or they ask, “Why can’t he connect with my feelings?”
Aspies have a huge disconnect between thinking and feeling, or cognitive empathy (CE) and emotional empathy (EE). But what is the cause of this disconnect? That’s the real “why” question.
According to the latest neuroscience research discussed in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Evil, the cause is poorly working empathy circuits in the brain . The Aspie brain has limited neurological mechanisms in place to understand or empathize with the NT. A way to understand the Aspie’s lack of empathy from a neurological perspective is “out of brain – out of mind.”
No matter how much we explain or teach or train the Aspie mind, certain neurological circuits don’t work as they do in the NT brain. The brain has a number of circuits that are all connected like Christmas lights. If one part doesn’t work right, then the rest of the circuits malfunction, too. These brain circuits are so tightly integrated that multiple circuits depend upon multiple other circuits to carry out sophisticated human behaviors and to comprehend complex thoughts and feelings. Our brains are truly amazing.
True empathy is the ability to be aware of one’s own feelings and thoughts at the same time you are aware of another person’s feelings and thoughts (or several other persons’). It means having the wherewithal to speak about this awareness. It also means creating mutual understanding and a sense of caring for one another. That is a lot of brain circuits to connect!
Let’s look at a sampling of brain parts in the empathy circuits to learn what they actually do for us. Realize that each part is not so functional by itself but needs the other circuits to carry out the complex empathy task of really stepping into the shoes of another person.
- The medial prefrontal cortex compares your perspective to another person’s perspective.
- The dorsal medial prefrontal cortex helps you understand your own thoughts and feelings.
- The ventral medial prefrontal cortex stores information about how strongly you feel about a course of action.
- The inferior frontal gyrus helps with emotion recognition.
- The caudal anterior cingulate cortex is activated with pain, both when you feel yours and observe it in others.
- The anterior insula is involved in bodily self-awareness, something that is tied to empathy.
- The right temporoparietal junction helps you judge another person’s intentions and beliefs.
- The amygdala plays a central role in empathy because of its connection to fear, thereby cueing you to look at someone’s eyes to help you gather information about that person’s emotions and intentions. People with Asperger’s Syndrome avoid eye contact unless they are specifically instructed to look someone in the eye. Think of all the information that is lost by not looking into someone’s eyes.
- The mirror neuron system connects several parts of the brain. It responds when you engage in an action and when you observe others engage in an action. For example, these neurons fire when you gaze in a certain direction or observe another person gazing in the same direction (hence, “mirroring”). The interplay of these multiple and interacting empathy circuits is complicated. Your mirror neurons make you look in the same direction as the speaker, but you also need other empathy circuits to make meaning of why you are looking.
These are just a few regions of the brain’s empathy circuits. You can see that it’s a very complex system. If a single one of them doesn’t work, the whole network suffers, and so do our relationships.
For example, your mirror neurons may signal you to mirror a speaker and look in the same direction he or she is looking, but they don’t tell you why to look in the same direction. Your caudal anterior cingulated cortex may signal that another person is experiencing pain, but it doesn’t signal you to speak about it—or give you a clue as to what to say. The brain’s empathy circuits must work together in a complex system, sending signals back and forth, to create an integrated and highly sophisticated “lights on” response. Remember, it is not empathy unless you respond appropriately to the other person.
“Will Aspies always be like this?” Researchers and clinicians aren’t sure. There are some promising therapies. So far we really have as little information on successful clinical interventions as we do on the genetic and neurological structure of the brain. For now the bottom line is that NTs need to turn on the lights for their Aspie mates and children. Helping Aspies through the mysterious world of nonverbal and verbal empathy is not so stressful if NTs don’t take it personally. It is equally true that Aspie family members must accept coaching by their NT spouse as well as by the family psychologist. That requires a great deal of love and acceptance on the Aspie’s part.
Both the NT and the Aspie need to look to the good intentions behind the clumsy behaviors and bad manners. Each partner needs to be respectful of, kind to, and patient with each other. The Aspie needs to recognize that he or she does indeed have zero degrees of empathy. And, the Aspie needs to stop expecting that his or her grasp of the facts should rule.
The NT needs to recognize that zero degrees of empathy can co-exist with feelings of caring. If an AS/NT couple is going to be successful, both parties need to work with the other’s systems. That provides you with a place to start creating a pattern of working together for the sake of the family, as long as you both have loving intentions.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. (2011). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Evil. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Baron-Cohen suggests the cause of an Asperger’s sufferer’s lack of good social skills is poorly working empathy circuits in the brain.
Marshack, K. (2018). Neuroscience Sheds Light on Why People with Asperger’s Syndrome Lack Empathy. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 31, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/neuroscience-sheds-light-on-why-people-with-aspergers-syndrome-lack-empathy/