A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger's do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others' emotions too intensely to cope.
People with Asperger's syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, are often stereotyped as distant loners or robotic geeks. But what if what looks like coldness to the outside world is a response to being overwhelmed by emotion – an excess of empathy, not a lack of it?
This idea resonates with many people suffering from autism-spectrum disorders and their families. It also jibes with the "intense world" theory, a new way of thinking about the nature of autism.
As posited by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, the theory suggests that the fundamental problem in autism-spectrum disorders is not a social deficiency but, rather, a hypersensitivity to experience, which includes an overwhelming fear response.
The whole "Aspies lack empathy" thing never made any sense to me. Especially in my own case. Sure, I have trouble reading body language, but I have long been able to feel people's emotions like a sixth sense. And a few years ago, when I was still living with my parents, I spent a year or more caring a lot about what was going on in the world... in fact, I cared so much I drove myself to the brink of madness, even having fits of paranoia and other phobias I'd never had before. Events in my life forced me to get off that kind of thinking, thankfully. But even now I tend to care too much about the crap going on in the world around me and I have to either shut my emotions off for awhile to cool down, or balance out the effect with good news.
The hyperstimulation from social situations theory makes a lot of sense also insofar as Aspies tend to have at least one sense that is hypersensitive. Mine is vision: I notice things most people don't, and I can memorize places to a bizarre level of detail so much so that I can still remember precisely what the Buffet at Terrible's Lakeside Casino looked like before they remodeled, and that was way back in 2005. I can also remember all the details of every stage of the remodeling, even if it was up for only a day (as long as I was there that day). My room-mate's hyper-attuned sense is her hearing: music I can barely hear when it's playing right in front of me, she can hear loudly and clearly three or four rooms away. My Dad has a similar hyper-attuned hearing, one of the many reasons I suspect he might be an Aspie too.
It also makes sense because I can barely tolerate my own emotions sometimes. Also, I used to think I was a loner by nature but have since discovered that I need other people in my life, especially where I can touch them... touching, especially cuddling, is so important to me that when I lived by myself in Osceola and had almost no physical contact with anyone, I nearly went crazy. (I had other issues, too, but that was a BIG one.) I've since figured out that I'm not a loner: I just need to be by myself sometimes to recharge, since other people's emotions just overwhelm me; it's exhausting being around other people sometimes. (Though when they're happy, I can be around them longer usually.)