When trying to summarise Asperger’s Syndrome to people, I tell them I lack three basic things. 1) Empathy. 2) Emotions. 3)…sarcasm. You get it? Come on, I was sarcastically saying I lack sarcasm…oh never mind, I thought it was funny.
A few years ago, I found an article about a groundbreaking new theory: that AS people do not lack empathy but instead are overwhelmed by it. I mean, I could have told them that, but I’m just glad that somebody did.
True, some people with more severe autism may genuinely struggle to empathise. And you could argue that AS people who seem to show it are just demonstrating learned behaviour without any feeling behind it at all. Which would be dictating how a person on the spectrum is feeling, without actually knowing. And they say autistic people lack empathy!
For me, the theory in the aforementioned article is very much true. I have been able to pick up on others’ emotions very acutely since before I can remember. When someone I care about is crying, I genuinely struggle not to cry with them. Also, I hate conflict. Even when it doesn’t involve me, I can see where both parties are wrong, feel the heated emotion, and am powerless to do anything.
What I find harder is knowing how to react to people’s emotions. As a teenager, I would have been completely at a loss for what to do when someone was upset, then hated myself for not helping. Now, I’ve honed my natural empathy so that I know what a person needs from me, as well as how they feel. It gets easier once I’m in tune with how they think – having a similar personality, or knowing them a long time, helps.
A while ago, my stepsister-in-law asked me (not unreasonably): what are my thoughts on AS people typically being Thinkers, and how does being a Feeler* with Asperger’s work? I can answer now. Speaking logically when it’s best not to isn’t the same as being unemotional. Its just that an AS person may not realise they’re being inappropriate. It doesn’t mean they won’t be upset if they offend someone. Trust me; my whole life, especially at secondary school, would have been a whole lot easier if this didn’t bother me. Or maybe I would have been even less popular? I don’t know.
Sharing my struggles – and having friends open up to me – has taught me a lot about the importance of empathy. It’s not just sympathetic words and and forced optimism. It’s feeling someone’s emotional burden and working out whether they’re seeking advice, practical help, cheering up or – most likely – someone who listens and understands.
*Basic Myers-Briggs terminology, you can look it up anywhere.