Recently, there’s been a rash of writing out there about a ‘lack of empathy’ in AS people.
Sure, it’s difficult for someone who cannot read facial expressions to tell whether another is sad, happy, or upset. It’s also hard to tell, if you can’t understand body language, when someone is growing agitated or angry. Or tone of voice, or all of those other little signs that scream emotion.
However, the plain, direct spoken distress can be heard. My son, for instance, will burst into tears if he hears my feelings are hurt or that he’s done something to upset his family. He feels emotion, and can express it.
Interpreting it is another matter.
I remember a guidance counselor telling me once that the first time she became concerned for my son was during a classroom visit. The teacher had endured a bad headache – or some such – all day, and had grabbed my son’s chin and was speaking to him in a very stern voice.
The smile never left his face.
Unable to read tone of voice or facial expression – he was very young at the time – he had no clue something was wrong.
Today, however, he’d be in tears.
That’s how far we’ve come with facial expression and tone of voice. We’ve worked hard on those skills for years and years.
A good analogy I’ve read involves the piano. One can read about how to play a piano all day long… but to actually play? Well, one needs to practice. And that’s how it is for our kids and social skills.
They need a lot of practice. No amount of being told or reading will do the job.
But can they learn to interpret at all? Absolutely. I’ve seen my son do it, as I just mentioned. I’ve seen my husband, over the course of the years, learn my habits and be able to tell ahead of time whether I’m worked up and stressed about something or whether I’m fine.
An AS friend of mine told me that reading novels helped him. Just being able to imagine how others felt – and being put in their shoes via the writing – helped him understand what signs to look for that indicated strong emotion. And then he’d go out and look for those clues in his classmates.
It’s not a robotic lack-of-feeling Asperger world. It’s a world filled with wonderful people who have difficulty – through no fault of their own – interpreting all of those little things that mean Angry! Sad! Happy! Irritated!
How do we help them?
First, we need to get off our high horses and realize that we’ve not yet told them how we feel. Sure, slamming cupboards and stomping around the house screams angry, but have we actually said, ‘I’m angry at the moment?’
I’ve found that to be very effective. Plain, direct, and to the point.
For my son, I walk him through it. Listen to Daddy’s tone of voice. Look at his face. See him tapping his foot. How does he feel?
Or: I’m smiling, and have my arms outstretched to hug you. How am I feeling? And vice versa. I certainly don’t have the monopoly on love and happiness, and he isn’t the only one who loses his temper.
So to all of those out there who claim lack of empathy, I would ask, “have you told them how you feel? Really expressed in words which emotions are involved?”
Nuance is not their thing.
And thank goodness for people being different. I don’t think I could survive in a world full of nuance, hunkered down next to a fire, because nobody’s yet invented anything better. I’ll take my different thinkers, their brainpower, and their way of viewing the world, thank you very much. 🙂