Back when I was trying to figure out if Asperger’s syndrome could explain some of the things about how my brain works, I found that some of its traits, like focused interests and social anxiety, described me very well.  One thing that didn’t seem to fit at all, though, was the trait of “lacking empathy.”  My difficulty has tended to be hypersensitivity to others; if others are upset, I’m upset.

In online discussions between people with autism or Asperger’s, I’ve seen a lot of people express similar thoughts.  While a few claim that they do indeed struggle with the concept of empathy, many others say that they don’t think that the description of autistic people as “lacking empathy” is right.

I’m afraid I don’t have the answer to this apparent discrepancy, but I’ve thought about it a lot.  This post will be a rather loose collection of those thoughts:

1.  It matters a lot what you think the word “empathy” means.

One reason that I don’t like the “lacking empathy” description is that people can have very different definitions of the word.  I always thought of empathy in terms of caring about another person’s feelings.  If you empathize with someone, it means that you care about what they are going through enough to imagine yourself in their place and feel some of the same emotions as they do.  Paul writes in the book of Romans that followers of Christ should exhibit this trait:

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

When I read about Baron-Cohen’s theory that autistic traits are linked to difficulty developing a theory of mind, it bothers me because the concept of a person with no empathy is scary to me.  According to the theory, a person with an impaired theory of mind would have more difficulty putting themselves in another person’s place.

2.  What would a person with no empathy be like?

I imagine that a person with no concept of empathy would see other people as unreal or hollow, as cardboard cutouts with no feelings of their own.  Such a person could be very harmful to others, because there would be no reason for them to interact with others except to please or entertain themselves.  That sounds more like a sociopath than an autistic to me, and I think that linking the two would be a severe misunderstanding.

Based on what I’ve read from others who have experiences with sociopathic behavior, a sociopath will often come across as very charming and charismatic; they know the right “buttons” to press to get the responses they want from a person, but they don’t really care about them.  I think that’s pretty close to the opposite of an person with autism or Asperger’s.  They might be awkward, standoffish, or even rude because they have trouble with the social norms, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t care about others.

3.  Maybe psychologists are using a different definition of “empathy.”

Some of what I have read indicates that what I have been calling empathy is really sympathy.  Here’s how Wikipedia’s editors defined empathy, for example:

Empathy is the capability to share and understand another’s emotion and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes,” or in some way experience what the other person is feeling. Empathy does not necessarily imply compassion, sympathy, or empathic concern because this capacity can be present in context of compassionate or cruel behavior.”

This definition seems to indicate that empathy is purely the ability to sense or know what another person is feeling without them telling you, and that whether you care how they feel or not is a totally separate matter.

I have a little trouble understanding this concept, though– if I am “sharing” another person’s happiness or sadness, and if have put myself “into their shoes,” how is it even possible for me to simultaneously not care about how that person feels?  If I truly didn’t care that another person was sad, why would the fact that I know they are sad make me sad?

On a message board, I read the following attempt by an person with Asperger’s to explain what empathy means, and I thought it was interesting:

“I believe empathy is one of the biggest problems for aspies. Others’ feelings, motivations, hidden agendas, interests, plans, goals are a mystery to us, we lack the intuition to capture them, we lack the antennae to tune into them.

This is not to be confused with lacking compassion. Once I know what another may be going through, I am extremely compassionate.

Empathy is the ability to figure what the other is feeling. It’s what good salesmen are best at. They intuitively know how to catch your interest, what will hook you, what will make you feel at home with them. They’re not necessarily compassionate. The fact that they can figure you out easily doesn’t mean they care for your sufferings.”

This leads me to another question:

4.  Is empathy a “sixth sense” that I have never had?

Maybe the reason I have trouble understanding the definition of “empathy” above is that I actually don’t have that kind of empathy after all!  Maybe most people have an “emotion detector” in their brain that has never functioned properly for me.

One of the main characters on Star Trek: The Next Generation was Counselor Deanna Troi.  Her mother was a member of a race that could communicate telepathically, and her father was human.  So she had sort of a compromise between the two, empathy– the ability to sense emotions.  The captain always had her on hand to give an opinion on what an enemy on the viewscreen was feeling or whether they were trying to cover up a lie.


Left to right: Troi, Riker, Guinan, Dr. Crusher

In one episode (and many thanks to an anonymous commenter for reminding me of this), Deanna Troi loses her empathic ability, and it’s a traumatic experience for her.  She feels unable to do her job and asks to resign from her post.

She tells her friend Riker, “I look around me and all I see are surfaces without depth.  Colorless and hollow.  Nothing seems real.”

“I’m real,” Riker replies.

“No you’re not!” says Troi.  “You’re a projection, with no more substance to me than a character on the Holodeck.”

Later, in a really neat scene, the ship’s bartender Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) gets Troi’s mind off of herself by telling her that she plans to apply for the counselor job now that Troi’s quitting.  Troi tries to tell Guinan that it’s not as easy a job as it looks– people might talk to a bartender about things they want to share, but as a counselor, you have to get them to talk about things they don’t want to talk about too.  Guinan keeps responding “I think I can do that” with a straight face.

Until finally Troi realizes what Guinan is doing.  “You don’t really want to be ship’s counselor.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I just know you’re not serious.”

“Have I given you any reason to believe I’m not serious?”

“Well, not really, but–”

“Are your empathic abilities coming back?”

“No.  I suppose it’s just… instinctive.”


“Ah, I get it.  You’re trying to make me see that I have other abilities to draw on… human intuition, instincts… but those skills only develop with years of experience, Guinan.  It’s not so easy.”

“Who said anything about ‘easy’?  It’s even harder than you think.  Human intuition and instinct– they’re not always right.  Makes life very interesting.”

Troi later finds that her instincts were better than she thought when a patient thanks her for not backing down when she accused Troi of being wrong about what she was feeling.  “Deanna, you were right about me,” she says.

Is it possible that there’s a sort of human “emotion detector” that doesn’t function properly in me, so (like Troi) I had to rely on other abilities to fill in the gaps?  There’s not really any way I could know if that were the case.  I have a bit of trouble believing this, though, for the following reason.

5.  My sense of empathy works by “putting myself in another’s shoes,” which is exactly what the theory of mind idea says I should have trouble doing!

If I want to get an idea of what someone else is feeling, I think about what they are dealing with and imagine what it would be like to be in that situation myself.  Obviously I’ve never had the exact same experience as another person, but I can usually at least relate to what they are going through.  It’s a process that happens automatically a lot of the time (one thing that can keep it from happening is if I’m too wrapped up in my own thoughts and feelings).  I had always thought that was empathy.

Every once in a while, I come across a description of empathy that makes me wonder if it works differently for most people.  For example, I was watching a video by Uta Frith about cognitive theories of autism.  When she discussed the sort of empathy that comes along with a typical theory of mind, she defined it this way:

“Recognizing that what another person knows, thinks, or feels can be different from what you know, think or feel– and not coming to this by some deep, logical, philosophical insight, but just knowing it at the outset.”

Does that mean that empathy is something that is supposed to happen without logic or thinking?  I have a hard time understanding that, as it seems only logical to relate to how others feel by imagining yourself in their place.  So I’m still unsure about that.

6.  Some psychologists talk about two different kinds of empathy.

Cognitive empathy is the process of understanding someone else’s perspective, while affective empathy is an emotional response to the “affective state” of others.

This post from an autism activist blog talks about a 2007 study suggesting that while people with Asperger’s and autism struggled with tests of cognitive empathy, they scored just as high as non-autistics on a test of empathic concern– and higher than non-autistics on a test of personal distress.  Both of these are considered indicators of affective empathy, which the authors argue has been too often overlooked in recent research.

This seems to fit with the idea that autistics don’t have difficulty caring about others– what we have difficulty with is recognizing what others are feeling and expressing our feelings in a way that others will recognize.  It’s a problem of communication.  That’s a big reason why I think describing the problem as “lacking empathy” is inadequate– it leads people to the wrong conclusions.

7.  It is possible that this is merely a trait of the syndrome that doesn’t describe me.

I may be overthinking things somewhat, as it’s not a requirement for every trait of the syndrome to fit me.  Every person is different, whether they are autistic or not.  And as I mentioned, some Aspies have said that they have trouble relating to others’ feelings.  They see someone crying and feel nothing, so they don’t know what to do.

There is also a tendency among some Aspies to speak their mind in a way that is rude because they have trouble grasping the unwritten social rules about when it’s appropriate to talk about specific things.

And I’m sure it’s also true that some people with Asperger’s really don’t feel much empathy for others.  That can certainly happen if someone has been picked on or mistreated for being different, and all their efforts to join in have been pushed away.  Sometimes people just give up and resign themselves to the idea that they won’t get along with anyone no matter how hard they try, so why should they care what others think?

And everyone, autistic and non-autistic alike, has areas of weakness and strength, and empathy can be one of those areas.

Well, that concludes my rambling about empathy for today.  Any opinions about what empathy means and whether people with Asperger’s have trouble with it?

And all of this just leaves you more confused than you were when you started reading, believe me– I know how you feel.  😉