Living With Autism Part 3: What Is Empathy?




According to our best frenemy Google, empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’.  Despite this very clear and straightforward definition, I can’t say that I really grasp this concept fully.

Why do I say this?  Because empathy never comes to me naturally when it’s supposed to.  If someone has something on his mind and is going through something difficult, I’m pretty much all ears (at least about 80% of the time, but it’s not because I don’t care).  I may not be able to understand or share the person’s feelings, but I’m willing to listen.  The funny thing too is, I analyze a person’s feelings but I don’t actually feel them.  Also, if the problem that the person is facing doesn’t directly affect me at all, I don’t really feel much.  At least not at the moment.  It’s normally a moment of realization while I’m analyzing a person’s feelings, and even that takes a long time to come to.

The Art Of Forgetting – I’ve been told by people before that talking to me or trying to reason with me is like trying to negotiate with a brick wall.  There would be no emotion or any hint on my face that indicated I was listening when someone like my Dad or a family friend I lived with for a while tried to tell me what I was doing wrong.  I heard what they were saying and was able to process a lot of what they were telling me, but I would just beat myself up most of the time for my own failure to understand the weight of my actions or sometimes my lack of taking action when I needed to or when it would be considerate.  Most of the time the people I lived with would tell me how to do things a certain way such as how to get the dishwasher started up, what was supposed to be recycled and what was supposed to be thrown away, and collecting my laundry from the dryer (I still suck at staying on top of that), but I would almost never remember the instructions or I thought I did and I still screwed up in some way.

I know what you’re thinking.  Why not write the instructions down?  Yeah, that was talked about.  I even did it at one point when it became brutally obvious that it had to be done or tensions would rise.  Even after I wrote the instructions down in a little notepad I bought, I neglected the notepad but the instructions became ingrained in my head because I was able to remember instructions better once they were written down.  After the diagnosis, I thought about the fact that one of my greatest strengths was remembering things that were written.  Considering that and the fact that I have such a deep passion for writing, it made me tear up at the thought that the written word has such a powerful impact on my life.  It seems like the written word is here for me to have the ability to remember, and when I read it, it’s hard for me to forget.

Lack Of Motivation And Understanding – When I forget something like simply taking my laundry out of the dryer and I’m confronted for it, my mind doesn’t try and think up any solutions to possibly prevent something like that from happening again.  When I was younger and in school, I never understood the effects my grades would have on my transcript, I only thought about the fact that my parents were angry at me for my lack of motivation and lack of good grades and how it upset me that they were mad at me, but I didn’t understand the actual significance of the situation and how it affects me.  The only time I ever felt truly motivated to do better and improve was if my parents threatened to take something that I really loved away from me, and if that thing was taken away, I worked hard to get it back, but once I got it back my performance levels dropped back down to the way I normally worked.

Not Funny – To address an additional thing regarding my lack of empathy, I had trouble as a kid understanding why it wasn’t a good time to be laughing at something funny that crossed my mind while my mother is crying about something at the dinner table, and I had trouble understanding what was meant to be funny and what wasn’t.  I remember laughing at a few serious moments in serious movies, and it wasn’t like they were cheesy movies in the first place.  I love laughing, but laughter is something that’s gotten me in trouble on multiple occasions.  Even today, once in a while, I still have this problem, though I’m better at holding it back now than I used to be because I’ve gained a better understanding now regarding when the right time is to laugh and when it’s not.

Before I finish this one though, I have to say that it doesn’t matter how much I’ve accepted my position on the spectrum and how much I’ve accepted who I am, I think there will always be a small part of me that feels sad that I can’t feel the same level of empathy that other people can.  I feel a little, but not what would be considered the ‘correct’ or ‘typical’ amount.  It makes me nervous because of the thought that others will think that I don’t care because I don’t show it most of the time, or because I can’t conjure up the ‘others-minded’ feelings often enough.  I want people to understand that I care for others a lot, I just can’t always display that when it’s expected of me.

By the way, if you guys want to shoot me an email for any questions or comments, my email address is


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