Observations on Empathy

A recent experience has me rethinking and challenging some commonly held beliefs regarding autism and empathy.

MJ received a phone message this week from a friend who was clearly distraught over the loss of something important to him. When MJ called him back, he quickly stepped into a role in which he was offering support and advice. At one point I heard MJ say “I know you’re upset and I don’t want to hang up until I know you’re feeling better.” Clearly MJ was expressing empathy.

I relayed the experience to my wife later and she responded that she’s seen MJ often express empathy, but almost only when the other person was in a worse situation than MJ. Once again, my wife had made a very perceptive observation on something I had overlooked.

This observation struck a chord with me and I realized that I, also tend to express more empathy when someone was in a more serious situation than I am. I do it at home and I do it at work. I took it a step further and realized that this is a fairly typical behavior. The examples are countless. We complain about our busy days, but if a neighbor or family member is ill, we find a way to help. I’ve seen colleagues overburdened at work, but if a another asks for assistance, most are likely to stop their own work to help out. We donate to charities because there are people who need money more than we do. In the days following the 9/11 attacks (in an area of the country not directly impacted), I noticed that almost everyone behind the wheel of a car began driving incredibly politely. The change in behavior was obvious and observed by many. The selfish acts of cutting people off and running red lights and stop signs disappeared. Instead people waved each other into the flow of traffic and patiently waited their turns at intersections. People knew that every other driver was carrying a similar and weighty burden and deserved to be treated as such. Prior to, and after that period, it would be easy to conclude that most drivers completely lacked empathy for each other.

So perhaps the autistic demonstration of empathy is not all that different from the neurotypical expression. Perhaps the perceived lack of empathy does not reflect the capacity for empathy but rather reflects the ability to understand another’s situation. If one cannot understand another’s situation, empathy is unlikely to be displayed. If the situation is understood, perhaps empathy is present more than we expect.

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7 Responses to Observations on Empathy

  1. Angela says:

    Good point of view… when I see my child bitting and hurting other children and laughing her head off I wonder if she will ever know what empathy is… but I got to a stage with her now where she’s starting to understand other people feelings…

  2. DiAnne says:

    I found your site very interesting and thought you might be interested in the art of this little autistic boy from the Philipines. He was inspired by the events of 9/11.


  3. VAB says:

    By George, I think you’ve got it. Really. That is a very pertinent observation. I hope some psychologists read your blog.

  4. Elissa says:

    My son has days where we are amazed at the empathy he shows, and other days where he is oblivious to whatever is happening around him – showing no sign of empathy at all and yes I’m sure it relates totally to his understanding of each situation. Thanks for sharing!

  5. marie-helene says:

    my son’s head teacher comments to me daily that he has a total lack of empathy for other children. this has distressed me greatly because i know he DOES HAVE a huge capacity for empathy. yet i could not explain the discrepancy in our perceptions of his behaviour until i read your post. thank you for putting my thoughts in to something i can fire back!

  6. Being new here, I can only assume that MJ is toward the Asperger’s or otherwise high-functioning side of the spectrum. This and the fact that the conversation that you overheard represents only a single aspect from the many that are presently labeled “empathy” brings to mind a couple of points.

    From my personal experience, I’ve learned to empathize in the fashion described above but am aware that it doesn’t have the same emotional value for me as it does for neurotypicals. I highly value my hard won ability for the greater normalcy it allows me in personal relationships and for the degree of participation it gives me in the emotional world of others.

    I even ask spontaneously about emotional trials revealed to me in past conversations on rare occasion but I am still not good at it and doubt I ever will be. Tell me your pain and I will genuinely feel bad about it, but hope for me to bring it up the next time we meet and you are likely to be disappointed, to feel hurt. It’s not that I don’t remember it, it’s just that it’s not in one of the categories that habitually uploads into consciousness when my brain does its “approaching another human being” checklist. There are many such categories of “empathy,” each of which tends to need to be dealt with individually.

    But I can never help but ask (or at least think), during these conversations “Why is the Autistic person necessarily ‘wrong’ on all counts?” Didn’t neurotypicals’ deep and abiding empathy with the cries of the victims of the Twin Towers, on 9/11, make them easily manipulated by the neocons who wanted to attack Iraq? Even some of those who I was quite close to at the time bared their teeth more than once when I suggested that their weaknesses were being played upon in order to empower a political faction’s convenient grab for power. This is only the most obvious example.

    One of the types of empathy that I certainly appreciate not having is the tendency to get caught up in group frenzy. Nor have I ever felt the desire to participate in ostracizing anyone. I’m an absolutely hopeless case.

    These are all examples of empathy. Those who are sufficiently functional, on the autism spectrum, might represent certain talents vis-a-vis empathy that trigger neurotypical biases.

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