So sang Professor Henry Higgins in ‘My Fair Lady’. Obviously he had never met an asperger woman! Sounds a bit like a superhero’s name, like Superman, don’t you think? “I am ASPERGERWOMAN!” She cooks, she cleans, she can even give birth: just don’t ask her to empathise! She can’t multi-task!
I don’t do empathy. This is not because I don’t want to, but because I can’t. My wiring doesn’t allow for it. Now I realise that in our society this is not a very comfortable thing to have to consider, the idea of women not being empathetic. After all that’s their main role in life, isn’t it, to do most of the nurturing, at least at an instinctive level? Heaven’s above that’s what they were made for, wasn’t it? To look after men (and their brood)? “She must be inhuman, abnormal, a freak! She’s probably just a rampant man-hating feminist who just needs a good man in her life, and she’ll soon find herself feeling like other women, and wanting to have children, and the rest of it!”
I have thought these things myself, and had these doubts, mainly because of all the messages I have picked up from society, and what other people have believed about me. I can now say, without a doubt, that I don’t have it, and it’s not for any of the reasons listed above. I actually rather like men – a lot! It’s rather a nuisance sometimes because I find myself obsessing about them, and flirting with nearly every man who comes within spitting distance of me: and it happens without me knowing why! It doesn’t matter who he is – the gas man, the doctor, the delivery driver! It’s that bloody annoying “human factor”, and those annoyingly uncontrollable things called hormones!
For a long time I believed that it was a choice I was making because I’d decided that I didn’t like people (hated a lot of them), and that I was trying to toughen myself up against feeling anything in order to not be hurt. A lot of change has happened to me since those days, and especially in my view of people: I’ve grown to like them, I’ve tried to integrate with them (and in the process found myself disintegrating!), and I’ve stopped trying to pretend that I don’t have any feelings. It was a bit silly anyway, considering that I get upset at the slightest thing, especially if someone raises their voice at me!
So having discovered I’d got feelings (though never having mastered the art of being able to identify what they are, having such a limited emotional vocabulary) I naturally assumed that being able to empathise was automatically part of the package. Er, apparently not! I’ve tried doing it. I’ve believed that I have been doing it. But it turns out that what I’ve been doing is having compassion, and this is not the same as empathy. My neuro-typical best friend (and interpreter) explained it to me. And then she explained it to me again. And again! (It takes me a while for things like this to fully compute, and fortunately she has infinite patience!) Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but still as yourself, does not constitute having it!
To be empathetic is an innate quality and not just a transitory condition, apparently: so no, you can't learn how to do it! In order to be empathetic you do not have to have experienced what the other person is experiencing. You are not comparing your situation to one that is similar in order to be able to find a commonality with which you can identify (eg comparing the plight of having aspergers, and being in a minority, with that of being black or gay, etc.), and so have compassion for their situation.
And if I can’t find anything with which I can identify then I find it very difficult to be compassionate, and can often end up being, or seeming, very intolerant as a consequence. It’s because I do not understand what is making the other person tick, and what their motivation is. And if you don’t operate like me, or within my range of understanding of human affairs (which I now realise is VERY limited), then you’re kind of buggered and off my compassion list! And, let's face it, I don't have a clue half the time how I tick!
The thing is I apply logic to everything, especially emotion. Okay so my logic is very wonky, and not very logical at all at times – but it would be because I’m being driven by the instincts of a very young child! Young children don’t tend to make a great deal of sense most of the time! So if it doesn’t make sense to me then it’s dumb. I find it very hard to take into account the “human factor”. This means that I have problems even, or particularly, identifying with my own sex - my answer to women who go on about men is “well why do you bother having relationships with them then? Just stay single.” Fortunately I have learned to keep my mouth shut, and to possibly look and sound as if I’m empathising, but I’m not really.
Nor do I know if I’m responding appropriately: for all I know I probably have a look of total bewilderment on my face, or a vacant gaze! I can’t even empathise if I’ve had the same experience: the emotional part of it has gone from my memory bank, so I just cannot connect with what the other person is going through at all. Apparently this is what men are missing, the empathy gene or wiring. Now you’d think I’d be able to empathise with them since we have this in common, but I can’t: I can no more put myself in the place of a man than I can of a woman. I think they’re just as dumb when they go on about women!
And nor can I empathise with other aspergers, be they male or female. In fact they are posssibly the people I understand the least, which makes sense considering I'm one of them and I don't understand myself! Plus I've spent a great many years studying neuro-typicals, of which I thought I was one, and misguidedly believed that this had given me great insight into how they, and therefore I, operate. How wrong can you get, on both counts?!
The other thing about empathy, which I find bewildering, is that the person doing the empathising is not actually experiencing the other person’s feelings whilst putting themselves in their place. This would actually make them ineffective in trying to be of use: can you imagine two people experiencing the same nervous breakdown?! Methinks this qualifies as “the blind leading the blind”! No: somehow, which is totally baffling to me, they are just able to place themselves temporarily there in order to see the world or some particular circumstance from the other’s point of view.
Isn’t that awesome? They can pop in, and then pop out again, because that’s the other thing about it – once there they don’t remain there for longer than necessary: it doesn’t take over their lives: they don’t become obsessed with it, and worry long after they’ve ended the encounter: they don’t feel responsible for the other person, and for having to come up with a solution! They’re not aspergic about it!! I tell you, if I reincarnate after this portion of my life has ended I want to experience being able to do that! But for now I am coming to enjoy being Positively Autistic!
"Do you believe in Magic?" asked Colin.
"That I do, lad," she answered. "I never knowed it by that name, but what does th' name matter? I warrant they call it a different name i' France an' a different one i' Germany. Th' same thing as set th' seeds swellin' an' th' sun shinin' made thee well lad an' it's th' Good Thing. It isn't like us poor fools as think it matters if us is called out of our names. Th' Big Good Thing doesn't stop to worrit, bless thee. It goes on makin' worlds by th' million - worlds like us. Never thee stop believin' in th' Big Good Thing an' knowin' th' world's full of it - an call it what tha' likes. Eh! lad, lad - what's names to th' Joy Maker."
From 'The Secret Garden', by Frances Hodgson Burnett
"There is no way to happiness - happiness is the way."
The Dalai Lama
"If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything."