The importance of being empathetic

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, 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. It’s 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.


Fresher’s week for the autistic student

When I was new at De Montfort, I had an idea to write an article for the Demon newspaper about Asperger’s and starting university. When I was in my second year, I actually wrote said article for the Demon website. Come third year, and it has just occurred to me to adapt it for my blog. As follows.

As a new student, you may have been given all sorts of university related advice. Make the most of it, have fun, work hard, play hard…sound familiar? But being on the autistic spectrum can make a new and busy environment feel more bewildering than exciting. So if you’re unsure what to make of it all, here are just a few things to bear in mind.

Don’t rush into joining social groups.

Joining societies is an easy way to make time for what you enjoy doing the most, as well as an opportunity to get to know people. Remember, though, that the university lifestyle is a busy one, so you may want to get accustomed to your routine first. Societies are always worth a try, but make sure you know you have time before you make any definite decisions.

Be open and matter-of-fact about your condition.

That doesn’t mean it should be the first thing you tell people, but when the opportunity arises it will help them understand any difficulties you have. If you are talking with someone about your uni experience so far, explain that you are autistic and struggle with change or being around lots of people. Similarly if anyone is confusing you, explain that you are autistic and ask them to repeat what they just said. They will understand you better, and you never know if they are having similar experiences.

Look for opportunities

May sound simple, but as an Aspie, retaining information that hasn’t been told to me directly is something I’ve always found hard. Listening out for events that your lecturers might mention or noticing posters or Facebook announcements is a good start. However, if you’re like me, it might be easier if you think about what sort of opportunities you are interested in (social events, work experience, voluntary work, etc.) and research them.

Don’t take on more than you can manage

You may feel like there is a lot of pressure to join societies and be as sociable as possible. Do go a little way out of your comfort zone if it means finding activities you enjoy, but don’t push yourself so hard that you are too exhausted to enjoy yourself – or, more importantly, study. Most students’ goals for uni are to learn as best as they can and have fun, so don’t be too busy to manage either!

Chat to people

It might feel difficult, but if you look around you during a lecture, these are the people you will be working with for the next three or four years. Don’t worry if you take a while to make friends – this is surprisingly common. When you sit next to someone, introduce yourself. Ask them where they’re from, what they think of any work that’s been set, how they’re finding uni, and be prepared for them to ask you the same. Remember to listen as well, when it’s their turn to talk, and try to show an interest in what they are saying!

Hope that was helpful. Now go on and make the most of it!

Dear early-teenage self


Dear early-teenage self,

I thought I’d write this for several reasons. One: I was getting all nostalgic while reading your diaries, even if it was mainly you moaning about your life. Two: it might make good blogging material. You’ll never be great with computers, but you will start a blog. Which apparently turned two years old yesterday! Three: Kirstie from Pentatonix did something similar on YouTube that was quite inspiring. This, by the way, is proof we do find a favourite band. Eventually. Four: it’s nearly our birthday.

I recently figured out something crucial: you spend most of your time longing for emotional intimacy that you don’t have, because of the invisible social barrier called Asperger’s. As far as your diaries are concerned, you may be sensitive, emotional and a bit whiny, but now I think I understand why.

I’ll be honest, you’ve still got many hurdles ahead, but plenty of good stuff too. Remember when we moved to Loughborough aged 8, and we hoped with all our heart we would find at least one close friend? Just be patient and over the years, you’ll meet some great people. Including Hannah. She might seem eccentric, but she’s going to be your uni housemate and your closest friend. And she will introduce us to Pentatonix – Evolution of Music. Her best friend, meanwhile, will pal up with yours. Ironic, eh?

Rest assured, you’ll become more self-aware, outgoing and assertive, and (marginally) more socially skilled. We still hate conflict, but hey, some things never change. Look on the bright side, you have a great family, no matter how weird and annoying (you think) they are. The cats are still alive and well, and we even acquire a few more along the way. And don’t take Grannie and Grandad for granted either. Grannie might be short-fused sometimes, but when you lose her – which you will – you’ll cry every day for at least a week.

It is ok to have Asperger’s, you know. It might be a while until you realise this, but when you do, embrace the acceptance you receive. There will always be trials and tribulations, but you can deal with them. We do still get anxiety stomach aches, though. And we start getting migraines occasionally. Sorry about that.

Over the years, we do learn more about God and Christianity. In fact, we form our closest friendships at Christian related activities. Just keep an open mind and an open heart.

I should probably be signing off now, as I’m behind on a certain uni assignment. That’s another thing: we get into De Montfort University! I would tell you about all the writing we get published, but at this stage in your life, you probably won’t believe me.

In the meantime, just keep honing your self awareness, and don’t let your social struggles get you down. And keep your musical skills fresh – you might ditch the steel pans, but you will go many places with your violin and voice.

All the best,

Your nearly-22 year old self.


Asperger’s and friendships: the ins and outs

Over these past few months, one particular issue that has been heavy on my mind is friendship. Can Asperger people manage it? Why does it look so easy for neurotypical (non-autistic) people? Above all, how does it work?

Previously I spent years watching other people at school or college, wondering how people had such close-knit friendship groups, while I just didn’t feel close to anyone. Even now, I will spend the best part of a social situation staying with someone I know, or on my own like a hermit. Sound familiar?

To complicate things further, true friendship is more than just making small talk. It may start off that way if you see someone a lot, but it requires more than simply being with them regularly. Keep finding things to talk about with them. If you are in a society, you probably have an interest in common, so ask them about it. How long have they been playing that instrument or that sport? Is this just a hobby or an ambition? Give your opinions too, but don’t forget to take in in turns to talk. Just remember: make them feel interesting and assess how many things you have in common.

This, by the way, is how I made friends with Katy. On her first orchestra rehearsal, she was given the honour of sitting next to the shy person at the back who barely knew anyone (me). Tired as I was of awkward silences with other members, I actually talked to her. Several times. Seems like all it took was a similar sense of humour, a few mutual complaints about the music and our shared (we discovered), insane violin teacher, and we never looked back.

Anyway. Maintaining existing friendships is a whole different kettle of fish. I think it is important for neurotypicals to understand how much mental effort it can take for autistic people to achieve this. You might get from the sharing-interests stage to the sharing-feelings stage, but for those who struggle to read people, it takes a lot of careful thought to work out how to initiate, and respond to, openness. There is also a balance – particularly when you live together – between not spending so much time together you get sick of each other, but not neglecting bonding time either.

Then there is empathy. It is a widely accepted myth that Asperger people lack empathy. I have gone through my whole life having to deal with the exact opposite. I feel other people’s emotions so acutely they can make me cry. The problem is, I don’t always know how to deal with them. Sometimes you just have to keep calm and ask: “what would be helpful to you right now?” Make it clear that they don’t have to talk to you, but if they want to, you will listen. Often listening can go further than any advice or cheering up.

So in summary: the better an AS person is at being a friend and “fitting in”, the more effort they may have put into learning how. And, neurotypical friends, if they do something wrong – just ask yourself: is this a crucial mistake that needs correcting? If so, be gentle and clear. If not, live and let live. AS people: if you have at least one friend who completely accepts you, autism and all, be grateful for them. Put that mental effort into your friendship. Tell them they are a good friend. Above all, be there when they need you, and show them the same acceptance they show you. Ignore stereotypes: you can manage friendships.

Want to see the original article? Just click here:

Students can’t be choosers

Brief recap: in January, I mentioned that the accommodation my housemate and I found was clean, secure and functional. Frequent visits to said accommodation, followed by the long-awaited moving day, have challenged my original opinion, leading me to just accept how we will be living for the next academic year. But, despite all the horror stories I’ve heard, not least regarding living with your best friend, things are getting off to a pretty good start, with partially amended plumbing, teddy bear fights and a balanced diet of apples, baked potatoes and church refreshments. More about the flat in a bit, but until then, my much-loved best friend and housemate…

Hannah and I first met at a Christian youth group, aged 14 and 15 respectively, when she spotted me being the recluse that I was and gave me a hug because I looked “depressed”. On seeing each other in the school corridors after that, my reaction to her gradually went from “who is this strange person?” to “Somebody actually notices me!” Realising that we were both “special” was one of the things we bonded over – I have Asperger’s, she is severely dyslexic. Our mutual school/Christian activities were another, and before long we ended up in the same tent at Soul Survivor, annual teenage Christian camp extraordinaire. Since then, Hannah has never had any faith in my sense of direction. So looking for the facilities in the middle of the first night was a bad idea. How did I know I was going to need a search party? Despite that, she has put up with me with unending patience, hugs, and renditions of “Amazing Grace” to this day, supporting me through my grandmother’s death and my exam disaster. And I couldn’t appreciate her more.

Back to the flat. More recent visits to it revealed that all was not quite as it should be. One thing that bothers me is that we are not allowed to use blu-tack. Which I think would be a small price to pay for fatty deposits all over the kitchen, a broken entrance light and dysfunctional bathroom plumbing. The issue that made the biggest impression on me, as a notorious hygiene freak, was the fridge. Many of you whom I have spoken to recently may have picked up on this by now. Hannah and I came over last Tuesday for some last minute cleaning and tidying. I had just started anti-bacterialising the stale smelling fridge when I inadvertently opened a well concealed compartment full of stinking, decaying food. Curry sauce, garlic, mayonnaise, chocolate and goodness knows what else.

After staring in shocked silence, I called Hannah over and we attempted to remove the worst of it, with me having a heart attack when some of it fell on my hand. Hannah suddenly announced she was going to be sick; not wanting to ruin the recently cleaned floor, I unceremoniously bundled her out of the room. Though I myself was fighting the gagging reflex for the rest of the day, we managed not to throw up and, perhaps more surprisingly in my case, didn’t develop a phobia of fridges.

Moving out has been a blur of stress, excitement and exhaustion. On Saturday morning, I was a bundle of nerves and emotions, not helped by certain cats desperately trying to follow as I left the house. Arriving at the flat somehow calmed me down no end, and our parents soon left us to it with a cheery farewell. We tried out Leicester City Vineyard Church yesterday, and found ourselves up to our ears in food, old friends and more new people in a day than I normally speak to in a month. A bit demanding of social energy, but a sure sign we had landed on our feet. Our second day ended with us snuggling up in bed with Hannah’s laptop in front of us, watching a film, chatting and having a laugh just as we always do. I sincerely hope that we always will. Two days down, eight months to go!

Cell group

I have spent the past couple of weeks not having anything interesting, dramatic or even vaguely entertaining happen to me. Which I suppose is all very well, but it does mean I have been in a state of internal conflict. This has meant wondering whether my next post should be about exploring faith, knowing who your friends are or how conversation can go from ethical issues to cake in just one sentence. It is an internal conflict which is currently being resolved, by me realising that the perfect compromise would be to write about one topic for which recognition is long overdue: cell group.

When I was first invited last year I don’t think I really knew what to expect. Now, looking back, I realise that there have been few other social settings in which I have landed on my feet so easily. I’m really not one of life’s socialites, and until recent years, had spent any people based settings keeping a low profile and not knowing the first thing about fitting in. Since meeting friends from Thorpe Acre church I have learnt a lot: how to give and accept hugs without shrinking back; that passing the time by singing your own interpretations of worship songs is perfectly acceptable; that not everybody judges you by your social skills or sense of fashion.

Now that I’ve joined the church’s cell group I’ve also come to realise that the occasional touch of insanity is a natural part of conversations, in-jokes and life in general. I honestly still don’t know how we managed to talk about food, wearing glasses and whether a computer in the bathroom is really necessary throughout the last meal we had together. So it’s probably best not to ask.

Our most recent joke was mostly on me. As many of cell group’s comedy gold moments have been; there have been far too many for me to remember them all. The past few Sunday evenings have been spent studying Corinthians 1, the book that explores how relationships are supposed to work. As you may know, the topic of sex before/outside marriage can be tricky territory to have to explore, and so “sex” somehow ended up being replaced by “physical activity”. Had I not spoken up, the territory may have remained tricky; however, I’m not sure whether my input provided a bit of comic relief or only made it all the more awkward.

“I tend to think of physical activity as just keeping fit and active. Like going to the gym, or something.”

Not my most intellectual contribution to a group discussion. Fortunately, after a brief awkward pause, everyone present saw the funny side of it, myself included (eventually). Suffice it to say, we at cell group are now firm believers in waiting until after marriage before you go running, or work out on the treadmill to your hearts’ content.

Joking aside, I think one of the best things for me is the time we take to analyse the meaning behind much of what we read in the bible. I’ve found that regular church services, great though they can be, can get a little bit routine at times: turn up, play violin in Music Team, listen to reading, have someone comment on violin playing/ask after parents, go home and continue with day.

It’s sharing personal beliefs at a deeper level with friends and question anything that doesn’t make sense that helps me to understand the concept of faith. Being an overly analytical autistic introvert means that just thinking and believing what I’m expected to without reflecting on it doesn’t come naturally. This may be a strength, it may be a weakness, or, as is often the case, it may be me and my “special” brain, unable to understand things like a “normal” person. But hey, as our favourite cliché goes, “there is no such thing as normal”. How true.