One of the more notorious stereotypes I’ve seen regularly attributed to Autism Spectrum Disorder, including Asperger’s, is a supposed inability to empathize with other individuals. While I personally find this generalization to be highly inaccurate, I would be lying if I said it doesn’t make sense. People who are on the autism spectrum, myself included, often experience various difficulties when it comes to interpersonal communication. This includes failing to facial expressions and other non-verbal cues tied to one’s emotional state, like the tone of their voice or certain hand gestures. In addition, people with ASD can sometimes have trouble expressing their own feelings, such as when reacting to someone else’s misfortune. As a result, Aspies may appear to be apathetic to or unfazed by other people’s problems. What’s likely happening in many cases is that they are missing non-verbal indications of how other’s feels which most neurotypicals can detect easily, or simply not doing a very good job of expressing their own sympathies. Moreover, it can be very confusing to many Aspies when people tell them that they are “feeling fine,” when they are clearly not.
However, does this mean that people with autism or Asperger’s have zero issues with empathy whatsoever? I did some research to try to answer that question, and I came across a couple of scientific theories on the matter that seemed somewhat credible. Well-known clinical psychologist and autism researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, has claimed that people with ASD tend to struggle with “cognitive empathy”, meaning that they have difficulty “imagining other’s state of mind”.  According to Baron-Cohen, this is primarily caused by a higher level of fetal testosterone, leading to what he calls the “extreme male brain” – based on his theory that men’s higher testosterone levels cause them to have more systematic and less empathic brains compared to women.  Additionally, Baron-Cohen performed a study in which he reported that a certain gene linked to people’s empathy patterns are more prevalent in people with Asperger’s Syndrome. In the academic journal, Molecular Autism, he concluded based on his study that specific kinds of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) in GABRB3 (don’t ask, I’m not a biologist) are more common among Aspie subjects, which apparently correlated with their overall lower scores on empathy tests.  These theories of Baron-Cohen’s are definitely intriguing, in my opinion, though I wouldn’t say that they accurately describe my relationship with empathy. I shall explain why later.
A study from Scientific American speculates that there is an indirect connection between autism and a condition known as alexithymia, which is defined as a “difficulty understanding and identifying one’s own emotions”.  Rebecca Brewer and Jennifer Murphy emphasize that although there are higher rates of alexithymia among people with autism than the general population, ASD does not directly lead to alexithymia and only about half of individuals with ASD have the condition. “We found that individuals with autism but not alexithymia show typical levels of empathy, whereas people with alexithymia (regardless of whether they have autism) are less empathic. So autism is not associated with a lack of empathy, but alexithymia is.”  Interestingly, their findings contradict a previous report from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, which stated that, in a study of 111 adult participants, approximately 85% of those with ASD suffered from alexithymia or had “impaired emotional processing”.  In any case, this connection between autism and alexithymia may also be plausible as a general concept, but just like Baron-Cohen’s thesis, I don’t think it’s very relevant to me as an Aspie.
There is a theory I’ve discovered, fortunately, that does seem to be very applicable to me. It’s a thesis forwarded by Swiss researchers Henry and Kamila Markham, dubbed the “Intense World Theory”. The main idea behind this thesis is that instead of being insensitive to other people’s emotions and experiences, people with ASD are actually hypersensitive to them, just as they are with any other kind of stimuli. “The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain. Autistics see, hear, feel, think, and remember too much, too deep, and process information too completely.”  In other words, when someone with ASD observes another person’s feelings or hears about their experiences, they think about it and empathize with it too much, to the point where it severely overwhelms and disturbs them. They can’t handle all of the input they receive from trying to emotionally connect with other people, often leading to mental breakdowns and needing to retreat “into a controllable and predictable bubble to protect themselves from the intensity and pain.”  This explains why Aspies may appear to be completely uninterested in other people’s issues and sorrows; their method of escaping the overflow of emotional input often comes across as aloofness or an inability to relate with others. The reality, according to this theory, is that they aren’t aloof and they can relate with other people. Instead, Aspies are actually so sensitive to what other people are feeling or going through that it can quickly overpowers them and causes them extreme levels of mental tension. 
You’ve probably already guessed why I like the Markrams’ theory more than the others I’ve presented: because I think it best describes my issues with empathy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Intense World Theory is factually correct and the other two theories are completely wrong, and I’m totally willing to acknowledge if Baron-Cohen or Brewer/Murphy’s thesis has been scientifically verified. I simply know that my relationship with empathy is almost identical to what the Intense World Theory states: I’m highly sensitive to and in touch with other people’s emotions and experiences. Unlike how many people like to stereotype Aspies and ASD individuals, I genuinely feel for another person when they are going through a rough time and easily become distressed while hearing about their bad circumstances. Much of the time I put myself in their shoes and imagine how I might feel if I had to go through the same hardships, making me want to help them out in any way that I can. Moreover, this intense sympathy will sometimes, though not always, come to a point where it’s just too much for me and I need to leave the situation and distract myself so that I don’t become too anxious or depressed. As a result, some people may accuse me of not caring about their feelings in plights, when in actuality, I do care. I care too much.
My sympathies towards others, as a general rule, doesn’t have many boundaries or strict limits. Whenever I learn about one or more individuals enduring some sort of adversity, injury, or just severe inconvenience, I usually can’t help but feel sorry for them no matter who they are, where they’re from, or whether their specific hardship is common among other people. This applies to a wide range of situations, from young children who are horrifically starving in third-world regions of the world, to an overweight person in America who is constantly harassed and bullied by his peers. Of course, I fully acknowledge that some instances of suffering are substantially worse than others and that there are countless numbers of people going through difficult times. Nonetheless, I am unable to not sympathize with any individual who is experiencing some form of injury, no matter how severe or minor, and I always hope with all of my heart that things improve for them, even when it seems unlikely that this will happen. As I indicated earlier, I tend to imagine myself physically experiencing the same calamities they’re going through, feeling their hurt and unhappiness, and desperately wanting someone to come over to let me know that I’m not alone and that things will be ok. While not everyone likes to accept sympathy from other people, I’m not ashamed to admit that I like receiving support and compassion when I’m experiencing rough moments in my life.
A plus side to my “excessive” empathy is that it can motivate me to try being helpful and generous to others who seem to be in need. Aside from the occasional charity donation and helping people out who are struggling with tasks, I often like to offer a kind, sympathetic ear to people who are experiencing troublesome times, hearing them out and occasionally giving them some advice. However, I would strongly hesitate to call myself the most supportive or humanitarian person that I know. Due in part to my social anxieties and time management difficulties, I honesty don’t spend as much time as I would like talking to others about their personal struggles or volunteering for local charity causes. Moreover, as I indicated earlier, it can sometimes be mentally overwhelming to hear about other people’s hardships and misery; causing me so much anxiety that I end up either walking away from the discussions or trying to change the subject so that I don’t have to think about it. This can apply to both direct conversations with other people as well as hearing about a great tragedy or sad story from the news. I know that this isn’t the most considerate or appropriate way of dealing with empathy, but I personally find it necessary at times to calm myself down so that I don’t end up having any emotional outbursts or meltdowns.
Outbursts and meltdowns from being too sympathetic were pretty frequent when I was younger. I cannot count the number of times where I had a huge shouting fit or anxious tantrum as a result of hearing about or witnessing someone else’s misery or injustice. A good example would be when I read a non-fiction book called Chinese Cinderella for a high school English class. The book recaps the memories of a woman named Adeline Yen Mah who grew up in China during the 1940s to 50s and had to endure constant emotional and psychological abuse from her family (particularly her step mother). To say that I felt incredibly sorry for the woman while reading the book would be a vast overstatement: I would constantly shout angry, hate-filled things about the people who horrendously mistreated her and then spend several minutes feeling depressed about how horrendously unfair life can be to certain people. There was also the time where I tried standing up for a math teacher in middle school because I felt like she was being wrongly harassed and bullied by the students. It made me extremely upset to see how she was being treated by the students, so I angrily yelled at the other kids to shut up and leave her alone, which naturally didn’t work in the slightest. After school I would often rant to my family about how mean the other students were to the teacher and how stressful her job must be with such “loud, disorderly punks”. Looking back, I probably should’ve known not to sympathize with that teacher so much because anyone could tell that she was being far too laid back and idle when it came to stopping disorderly conduct.
While my ability to cope with my intense sympathies and not let them get to me has greatly improved, my tendency to feel sorry for people who may or may not actually deserve it hasn’t all that much. For some reason I still can’t help but have small amounts of compassion for people who probably don’t deserve it, such as powerful politicians who’re going through corruption scandals, high school students who constantly bully smaller, weaker kids, people who repeatedly cheat on their spouse, or people who nearly hit me by cutting me off as I’m driving. I will absolutely be upset with them and view their actions as wholly inexcusable, but at the same time I will think about what this individual person is possibly going through, why they did what they did, and whether I would have acted differently in their shoes. In fact, I may ponder if what’s happening to them isn’t 100% their fault or if there are somewhat valid, understandable reasons for why they commit these horrendous misdeeds. Moreover, I might consider the fact that they hate themselves deep down and feel completely alone, like no one truly understands them or is willing to give them a chance. I won’t go as far as to say that these people are necessarily good or even redeemable, but I’m also unwilling to disregard them as just “scum” or “monsters who don’t deserve any sympathy”. I’m not sure if this is something I should be proud of or attempt to change, but I do know that it means I don’t have trouble empathizing with people as some may assume I do.
Once again, I can’t speak for every Aspie, and it’s very possible that this “Intense World Theory” that I’ve been using to describe my relationship with empathy is applicable only to a small number of cases like mine. In fact, I am interested in hearing from other people with Asperger Syndrome or ASD about their relationship with empathy – whether they have any trouble feeling for other people and how they usually deal with sympathy whenever they experience it. So I highly encourage readers with the disorder to share how they experience empathy in the comments below so that I can learn whether I’m alone in being hypersensitive to other people’s troubles.
- Baron-Cohen, S. (@sbaroncohen). “Myth 9: autistic people lack empathy: untrue, most struggle with ‘cognitive empathy’ (imagining other’s state of mind) but not ‘affective empathy’ (feeling an appropriate emotion triggered by another’s state of mind) (if they hear someone is upset, it upsets them).” Jan. 23, 2018, 11:11 PM. Tweet.
- Baron-Cohen, S. (2004). The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism. London: Basic Books.
- Warrier, V., Baron-Cohen, S., & Chakrabarti, B. (2013). Genetic variation in GABRB3 is associated with Asperger syndrome and multiple endophenotypes relevant to autism. Molecular Autism, 4(1), 48.
- Brewer, Rebecca, and Jennifer Murphy. “People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy.” Scientific American, Spectrum, 13 July 2016, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-with-autism-can-read-emotions-feel-empathy1/.
- Hill, E., Berthoz, S. & Frith, U. J Autism Dev Disord (2004) 34: 229. https://doi.org/10.1023/B:JADD.0000022613.41399.14
- Henry, M. and Kamila, M. (2012). Interview: Henry and Kamila Markram about The Intense World Theory for Autism. Online interview. https://wrongplanet.net/interview-henry-and-kamila-markram-about-the-intense-world-theory-for-autism/.