Asperger’s and the Empathy Debate


I still remember the conversation with one of my son’s preschool teachers like it was yesterday.  “We’re concerned that your son doesn’t show empathy in his interactions with other kids.”  This was three years before his Asperger’s diagnosis, and it was just one of many concerns voiced by his teachers during that difficult first year of preschool.

The research and literature on autism and Asperger’s Syndrome is rife with references to empathy.  The traditional view has been that individuals on the spectrum lack empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  However, in the past few years, this view has been increasingly challenged.  In 2009, a study conducted by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested that not only do individuals on the autism spectrum have empathy, but they actually feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope. Kamila Markram states, ”There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: they feel too much.”

The Markrams are also the co-originators of the Intense World theory of autism, which proposes that the autistic brain is characterized by hyper-reactivity and hyper-plasticity of neurons. This is thought to lead to greatly enhanced perception, attention, and memory, which may lie at the heart of most autistic symptoms. Their theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism spectrum disorders is not a social and empathetic deficiency, but rather a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.

What does this mean to parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome?

It can mean a major shift in how you support your child.  Your focus to date may have been on helping your child develop empathy – teaching him or her how to better understand and respond to the feelings of others.  If the Intense World theory is correct, attempting to teach your child empathy may only bring limited success – your child is already an empathetic individual, and what he really needs is support coping with his intense emotions so he can express empathy more appropriately.

How can this new understanding be applied to help kids with Asperger’s?

If the Intense World theory resonates with you, and you think it accurately describes your child’s reality, consider the following approaches:

  • comfort or calm your child the next time he is in a situation where empathy is the appropriate response (e.g. another child has been hurt) - if necessary, prompt him for the “right” response after he is calm
  • focus on addressing your child’s underlying emotions or fears that interfere with the appropriate expression of empathy
  • do not punish your child for inappropriate responses or failure to show empathy, as this may increase the stress or fear your child associates with these types of situations
  • manage the amount of stimulation in your child’s environment (both from other people and various sensory input) so that he has sufficient down-time where his brain is not in “hyper-reactive” mode

The gist of the Intense World theory is that the autistic brain must be calmed down, learning must be slowed, and cognitive functions must be diminished in order for the autistic individual to deal effectively with life and other people – including the expression of empathy. In other words, autistics are too high-functioning in some respects and this is what causes their challenges.  It’s definitely a paradigm shift!

I asked my son, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, why he sometimes reacts the way he does when someone else gets hurt.  His answer seems to support the Intense World theory - he said “Sometimes the pain in my heart is so strong, that it comes out as anger against the person who got hurt.”  He has made a lot of progress in expressing empathy appropriately, but a stronger emphasis on helping him deal with the intensity of his emotions may just be the key to helping him master this important skill.

Does your child struggle with empathy?  What have you found helpful?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

About the Author: Julie Fischer is the mother of two children, the elder of whom has Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspergersphere: Solutions for Parents of Kids with Asperger Syndrome, and is reprinted by permission.

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4 Responses to “Asperger’s and the Empathy Debate”

  1. flow says:

    thanks.
    this page made a lot more sense to me than the nonsense coming from baron-cohen, and fits my experience better.

    as an adult with AS, it is hard to learn how to drop my sophisticated defenses to allow me to feel empathy. I need to know the person well, and trust them to not throw emotional energy at me (it physically hurts). It has only happened once this year, with a dear friend who was needing connection. i felt her pain.

    for other friends, i’m not sure that i could. Too many people have too many twisted emotions. blame, anger, disappointment, envy, regret, etc etc. To allow myself to feel any of that would disrupt the delicate balance that i maintain.

    • Gertrud says:

      That is what is so hard for me to understand:, shouldn’t an Asperger more than anyone else be able to distinguish between kind people (i.e. who have a general benevolence and tenderness towards him), and those who don’t, and then be able to stand more from the first kind of people than from the second?

      Goethe, who suffers from Asperger syndrome, writes that the letters from his sister are tearing his heart apart — and passes them on to his best friend Charlotte von Stein saying that he can’t help her, and asking her to take care of his sister instead. Charlotte had consulted the same “psychiatric” Johann Georg Zimmermann who treated Cornelia, but they don’t even know each other. Goethe asks still another person to help his sister whom he does not even know himself personally. I mean would Cornelia who knew him so well really have expected him to do something he was unable to do? They had over years such a close relationship and now, that she is suffering from a severe depression, he does not even answer her letters.

      4 years later – his sister has already died, probably a suicide — Goethe wrote his famous poem “Wanderers Nightsong II”:

      Over the hill-tops
      Is rest
      In all tree-tops
      Hearest thou
      Hardly a breath;
      The birds are silent in the woods
      Just wait; soon
      Thou shall rest, too.

      I believe when writing it, he just wanted to conjure the peace of his mind. He only realized 50 years later when rereading the poem what it actually is: it is a deadly rest that he is pleading for, and even a threat towards the other.

  2. AB says:

    Thank you so much for this. It is beautifully written, and I think that on the whole it’s very accurate as well.

  3. Gertrud says:

    Goethe, whose hypersensitivity is legendary, is a marvelous example for how much empathy an Asperger has, and how one struggles to cope with the difficulties linked to Asperger.

    See http://www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/bettina-goethe.html for anecdotes about his early childhood: how his parents took care to wake the little baby out of his very troubled dreams that had often ended in “shrieking so violently, that he lost his breath, and his parents feared for his life”. How “his father once had him on his arm and let him look at the moon, when he shrunk back as if inwardly shaken, and became so convulsed that his father was obliged to blow into his nostrils, lest he should suffocate.”

    “He did not like playing with little children – unless they were very pretty.” Once “he could not console himself for [a] child’s ugliness.”

    “It seemed strange to his mother, that at the death of his younger brother Jacob, who was his playmate, he did not shed a tear; he rather seemed to feel a sort of irritation at the complaints of his parents, brothers and sisters; when his mother sometime after, asked him, if he did not love his brother, he ran into his bed-room, brought out a quantity of papers from under the bed, which were filled with exercises and little stores; he told her that he had written all that to teach his brother.”

    Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship” is a novel in which the protagonist is trying to cope with Asperger. While many of the original versions of “his” most famous works and poems were written not by Goethe, but by his sister (with whom he had a very peculiar relationship), his philosophic ideas about the conflictous complementarity of the different “natures” or “individualities” of people are so gorgeous, his and his NT sister’s deep insights into the emotions under the surface so deep that they could be an even richer source of inspiration, once we finally understand him to be what he was: a person suffering from Asperger.

    I am working on it.