On Empathy

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I was just about to write a post about my views on empathy, and I came across an article that totally supports my view. Before I share it, I would like to talk about my own experiences, having Aspergers myself. I was thinking about whether my ability to feel empathy was due to a coping mechanism I had developed, but I doubted that this was the case and so I thought back upon my early life…

I distinctly remember a couple of occasions from my preschool days where I felt extreme empathy. One was when my Mum was reading me a book. It was about a rabbit that escaped from its hutch. It pushed past its owner who was a young boy, and knocked the dinner bowl out of the boy’s hand. The boy said to the rabbit “Oh no, you spilt your lovely tea”. I almost cried, I was so upset. This boy was obviously only a fictional character, but I identified so strongly with the emotions of the boy, I couldn’t take it and I still feel slightly upset when I think about it.

On another occasion, when I was three, my Mum and I were drawing and colouring pictures. My Mum had finished colouring her picture and showed it to me. I said “that’s lovely, Mum, but what the picture really needs is this…” and I proceeded to draw on her picture. She was a little upset and said “No, you’ve ruined it now”. I burst into tears, and again, I can still feel those emotions today. I think the fact that I can remember both these incidences with such strong feelings, shows that far from having any lack of empathy, it is so extreme for me that to cope, sometimes I have to withdraw from such emotionally charged situations. This makes a lot of sense, thinking back on my early relationships.

Some researchers think that Autistic children lack mirror-neuron activity (1), that is the the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain that create the ability to feel what others are feeling. I would have to totally disagree, based on my own experience. It seems that this issue hasn’t gone unnoticed by researchers and the following article supports my views:

http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2WUMwa/www.thestar.com/article/633688

The aricle asserts that the problem with Autism/Apsergers, is not the lack of empathy, but the “excess of empathy”. This to me is consistent with other symptoms of Aspergers and Autism, such as sensory overload. We’re just too hypersensitive to everything! There is a cautionary note here, to quote the article and Phil Schwarz, vice-president of the Asperger’s Association of New England “autism is not a unitary condition – “if you’ve seen one Aspie, you’ve seen one Aspie”. As with sensory overload, not every child may feel the same. But the research indicated in the article, carried out by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, seems to show that “the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency but, rather, a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response”. Which based on my own experience seems to be true. Markram herself is an aspie and talks of her own experiences:  “I can walk into a room and feel what everyone is feeling. The problem is that it all comes in faster than I can process it”. This issue is that it takes “autistic children far longer than children without autism to realize other people have different experiences and perspectives – and the timing of this development varies greatly. But that doesn’t mean, once people with autism spectrum disorder do become aware of other people’s experience, that they don’t care or want to connect”.

In my own experience I often replay situations in my head to try and make sense of them. This is not something I try and do, it happens automomatically and I often can’t move on to something else until I have made sense of the situation. This causes a slight paralysis while I do this, and could sometimes be interpreted as being preoccupied, distracted or withdrawn. Children with Aspergers have their own way of coping with this and may display various self-soothing behaviours.

The article continues : ” But, of course, this sort of withdrawal and self-soothing behaviour – repetitive movements; echoing words or actions; failing to make eye contact – interferes with social development. Without the experience other kids get through ordinary social interactions, children on the spectrum never learn to understand subtle signals.

“Studies have found that when people are overwhelmed by empathetic feelings, they tend to pull back. When someone else’s pain affects you deeply, it can be hard to reach out rather than turn away. For people with autism spectrum disorder, these empathetic feelings might be so intense that they withdraw in a way that appears cold or uncaring.

“These children are really not unemotional. They do want to interact – it’s just difficult for them,” Markram says. “It’s quite sad, because these are quite capable people. But the world is just too intense, so they have to withdraw.

“There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: They feel too much.”

(1) Brain Rules for Baby- John Medina

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2 Responses to On Empathy

  1. Sandy says:

    I do sooooo remember the day that our youngest daughter Jennifer had to have her last inoculations! Joey (our Aspie) went with us, and he was fine until the doctor brought out the needle! He got soooooooo upset that his sister had to have the inoculations that we had to remove him from the room! He was sobbing so loudly that he didn’t want the doctor to give his sister a needle because it would hurt her! He was so upset, that it took us longer to sooth him than his sister!

  2. Kidsplorers says:

    That sounds so familiar, and explains some of the intense emotions and meltdowns I have with my own son. He is a real worrier and worries about everyone and everything. This article resonated with me so much, and I think helps me to understand Aspergers and my own experiences that little bit better, which I hope in turn will help my son.

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