Asperger’s Syndrome And The Problem Of Empathy
Swiss researchers Henry and Kamila Markram argue that the fundamental problem in Asperger’s is a hypersensitivity to experience. Everything is overwhelming. Lights, sounds, smells, tastes, and emotional experiences are intensified. The person easily feels overpowered, anxious and fearful.
The Markrams believe that people with Asperger’s Syndrome, rather than not feeling enough, feel too much. What looks like coldness and aloofness to the outside world is actually a response to being overwhelmed by emotion. It is an excess of empathy, not a lack of it, that plagues those with Asperger’s.
Furthermore, feeling so much intensity leads to intense fear, according to the Markrams, along with withdrawal and self-soothing behavior, exactly the sort of repetitive movements and failure to make eye contact that is typical of those with Asperger’s. Behavior like this interferes with normal social behavior. Other people begin to withdraw, thereby limiting the social contact that could help the person with Asperger’s learn more effective social skills. The resulting cycle of mutual withdrawal leaves the person with Asperger’s appearing uninterested, and unempathetic.
Clearly, understanding what another person is thinking and feeling is difficult for someone with Asperger’s. But this is different from not having the capacity to care and be concerned about people’s feelings. Asperger’s does not rob someone of empathy, it just makes it more difficult to experience and to express.
Letter from Wife of an Asperger's Man to a Professional
After years of trying to implement every piece of advice, altering every behavior I could, adapting every way I attempted to communicate, and exhausting every single thing the “professionals” suggested would help or at least salvage the failing marriage I had with the man I loved… they ALL FAILED. The only thing that every worked, the only thing that ever enacted immediate change… and the only thing that saved my marriage was when I chose to apply the concept that my husband DID NOT have cognitive empathy.
When I finally educated and disciplined myself enough to communicate with this concept in the back of my mind… my marriage immediately began to transform into everything I always wanted.
Everything that I was told was impossible or non-existent was becoming my reality.
The moment the transformation began, I began to reflect on everything I had been doing wrong all those years to prevent us from having an intimate and happy marriage.
My husband and I are both unique individuals. Neither of us are perfect and neither of us have mastered this new method of communicating. He has over 35 years of standing firm in his view of reality, and I have the same. But we love one another, we always have. Despite our daily lives having had an emotionally volatile and hostile foundation… despite the gallons of tears I have cried and the inexcusable and horrific things we have said to and about one another… we loved each other. When every single bit of sense in our brain told us to stop fighting for something that was impossible, and every rational observation concluded we were incompatible with one another… we still loved one another. Neither could make sense of it, and neither wanted to keep suffering in an attempt to try to.
But we did. We had no good reason for doing this that would make sense to others outside of saying we were self-deprecating and insecure humans (which neither believed was true of themselves).
We fought hard, and we fought with all of the physical and emotional energy we could muster for a marriage that most would have thrown away long ago. We didn’t know why.
Finding the love, emotional reciprocity, humor, intimacy, shared interests, desire to motivate one another, internal self-motivation, and general sense of fulfillment that both of us now share… THAT WAS WHY. We both inherently knew it was there waiting to be uncovered, just as the desperate NT wives who have spent 30 years clinging to a marriage that causes them pain also know there is a reason not to give up.
I am not bound to marriage by religious conviction. I divorced my first husband who I loved very much because I felt he was an emotional threat to my daughter and self. I am not financially dependent on my spouse (I am the source of income), I do not have children with my husband, I am not insecure in believing no one else would want me (I know I am still desirable). I had no reason to stay in an unhappy marriage with a man the literature and web-world said “could never love me.”
I could have left, and by all reasonable accounts… I should have left.
I didn’t leave because I KNEW who my husband was despite the inept communication we had that kept telling me otherwise.
This is the main reason that highly empathetic neurotypical women do not leave their Aspie husband. It is not about all the other excuses they make to try to find rational sense that coincides with society’s expectation of a strong woman’s behavior. These women are NOT WEAK.
I did not have validation for this underlying belief until I applied the theory that my husband had no cognitive empathy into the way I communicated with him…
Everything changed from that day forward, little by little, until I knew for a fact that everything I believed in my gut about the man I married perfectly mirrored the man I was now sharing a bed with.
My husband and I are so very in love with one another. My husband… the cold, selfish, and non-empathetic man I once thought he was… is the kindest, gentlest, and most empathetic individual I have ever met.
My husband has emotional empathy; he does not have cognitive empathy. I don’t NEED cognitive empathy to be happy, and nor does he. We just had to figure out a way around it when I only knew how to communicate by using it.
So in conclusion Dr. Roberson, (and thank you with all of my might for allowing this novel to be posted), I may not have the answers. I may be wrong in the conclusions I have drawn about Asperger’s syndrome. All I KNOW is that the only thing that ever made a difference for my husband and I was the silly theory I invented that everything was directly related to cognitive empathy and my husband having no capacity to comprehend it. Everything else failed. I have never found success otherwise, and we ARE very “successful” now.
If you can make sense of why this has worked for us when nothing else did… if you can combat anything I have to say with scientifically proven evidence or clinically proven success… please, I want to hear it. Everyone wants to hear it. Maybe this is a deficit that only my husband has and it will not work for everyone. Maybe you could give information that will make us even closer and happier. This is a process and not easy because I am learning to communicate in a whole different language that was once instinctual to me.
Please, tell us what made you go into this field… what firsthand experience you have. Please be transparent. You have said you have over 30 years of experience directly dedicated to those with Asperger’s syndrome. You even point out that when you do diagnostic testing you differentiate between the two (AS and ASD). This is why I trust in what you have to say.
I read everything you wrote, I respect you and I am beyond trusting that you can help fill a lot of voids I have in understanding my husband. I also think you may have the ability to prove or disprove my simple explanation for what the true defining characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome is.
I realize a lot of internet bloggers who are disclosing advice are being vague in order to generate profit, business, and a larger clientele. I give you my word… disclosing what you know is NOT going to drive away profit, it is going to do the opposite. We neurotypical wives have spent an embarrassing amount of money on books and tools to save our marriages. We are not going to stop reading what you have to say if you are giving us beneficial information and tools. We are only going to seek you out further for individualized assistance with our own unique relationships. We are desperate for honesty.
Please be the one professional who does not fail us.