People with autism do not lack empathy!


Autism and narcissism have a few things in common: First, they are both spectrum disorders. With autism, the spectrum runs from mild (Aspergers, colloquially known as “geek syndrome”) to full blown autism so severe the patient seems retarded and cannot even perform the most basic self-care or live without full time supervision. With narcissism, the spectrum runs from “benign” narcissism (people who are self-centered and vain but not completely lacking empathy or a conscience and don’t deliberately want to hurt anyone) to full blown malignant narcissism/psychopathy (which are basically one and the same).

Second, they are both at least partially (in the case of autism, probably totally) due to a miswiring or malfunction in the brain. One can be born without the ability to love or feel empathy (though abusive parenting does seem to exacerbate an inborn tendency), and almost all persons with autism were born with it (although there does appear to be a suspicious correlation between Aspies and narcissistic mothers, which probably exacerbates the Aspergers symptoms).

In one important way, autism and narcissism are mirror-images of each other. Narcissists cannot feel empathy for others, but can fake empathy quite well if they wish to. They can be very good actors. People with Aspergers (or mild autism) have the opposite problem. They can feel the emotions of others around them (very keenly in fact) but due to their inability to read social cues and difficulty acting “appropriately” in social situations, they can seem unempathic because they can’t express their emotions well.

Due to their difficulty showing empathy (people with Aspergers can seem aloof, cold or just awkward) it’s become popular to believe that people with Aspergers or autism, just like narcissists, do not have empathy. M. Scott Peck’s book “People of the Lie” is one of the best books I’ve ever read about malignant narcissism (it wasn’t called that when the book was first written in the early ’80s), but there was one thing that really bothered me: Dr. Peck used the term “autism” a number of times to describe the psychopath’s inability to feel empathy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Here is an excellent article that makes mincemeat of this popular notion. If anything, people with mild autism/Aspergers empathize too much. I would even go out on a limb and say most of them are also Highly Sensitive People (HSPs). HSPs worry excessively about the impression they are making on others and whether or not they’ll be liked–and that sort of anxiousness itself can be socially disabling, even if no autism is present.


15 thoughts on “People with autism do not lack empathy!

  1. Do not expect empathy from them. As you have said they are disordered. We are in order so we are the one who must be in control. I once remember a neighbor who spoils his autistic son, I told her to control him, when he gets old it might put you in trouble.


    • Do not expect empathy from autistics? If that’s what you meant, it’s true we don’t show empathy well, so people sometimes assume we don’t have empathy. But most of us definitely have it in spades. We’re just bad at expressing it.


  2. This is spot on! I have autism, and sometimes I hurt others without knowing. Also, we’re terrible liars! If there was a class on lying, you and I would fail miserably.


    • Bingo. Sometimes you have to lie but it’s very hard for me. It’s not always a good thing. Sometimes “lying” isn’t telling an untruth, it’s by omission–and aspies have a tendency to open their mouths when they should not.


      • Aspies do have a harder time lying. I realized a lot of the social world is run by the omissions, and lies. It drives me personally crazy some of that stuff. I also decoded the NT world as being based very much on status, and who can acquire it and this competitive angle that I as an Aspie had very little interest in.

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        • There are actually “aspie rights” movements now, similar to gay rights, womens rights, etc. People in the Aspie rights movement don’t even consider Aspergers a mental disorder, but a variation of a normal person. There’s a lot written about it, and even though I don’t think I’ll join, I think it’s a good idea and I might post sometime about the Aspie rights movement. Why are WE the abnormal ones and NT’s the normal ones? Because theyre more common? Yeah, I think that’s the only reason.


  3. .I had to train myself to hide emotions such as tears to function socially. As many know I am an Aspie from my blog. I can easily cry and sometimes intuitive stuff overwhelms me. I don’t know if I am an Empath or anything like that, but social functioning for me usually means a suppression of a lot of emotions and tears. I even was going to cry at church, and knew I had to suck the tears back in, lest I shock a few people. Of course growing up with my kind of family, I had to train myself to hide all vulnerabilities but open emotions was an avenue for them to go on attack.

    . I believe Aspies have a harder time saying the right things or showing nurturance, because our affect is so different, we can easily anger some NTs and the false judgment is that we have no empathy when in actually we feel overwhelmed. In fact if an NT is crying in a group of people, I know I will anger them. I am not sure why. I have had bad moments where I tried to soothe them or nurture them but there was some kind of formula I was not getting and I always managed to say the wrong thing. If they were a close friend, they would allow me in to help but if not close, I learned to hold back, and realize the group dynamics of neurotypical group nurturance were far too confusing for me. Now sadly someone could judge an Aspie for being cold because of these circumstances, but I was feeling their emotions. I just did not know what to say.

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    • Peep, we must have been separated at birth! Your experience sounds so much like mine. As a child I cried very easily and was bullied because I was so sensitive (and was constantly being reminded of this by my parents too, blaming me for being hurt by them by telling me I was “too sensitive.”) I know you have experienced that.

      I also have that weird experience of trying to offer support and sympathy to an NT who is crying or upset, and YES YES YES! I get that hostility thing too. I never could understand why my synpathy was reacted to this way (or just ignored) but it must have been some sort of social awkwardness, saying the wrong thing, showing the wrong facial expression, something that just didn’t go over well.

      So now, if I see a person I don’t know well suffering or has received some bad news, I say nothing. Maybe “I’m sorry” and that’s it. And maybe that appears to others as if I have no empathy, but it isn’t true. I just gave up trying to express it to those I don’t know well because I never seemed to know how to express it “right.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel for them.


      • Oh, and I wanted to add that I was trained out of showing my emotions readily. Actually I was bullied out of it. I used to be terrified of being seen as too sensitive (now I don’t mind having that quality at all because it has so many benefits as long as it’s not selfish sensitivity — narcissists have that kind–their feelings are SO easily hurt but they only feel for themselves)
        Since adolescence I have found it very difficult to cry. I wrote an article about this called “I’m jealous of your tears.” I’m envious of those who can show their emotions easily without fear of being judged. When I’m upset, even very upset, I rarely if ever cry. But I can go through a case of Kleenex at a sad or touching movie or story or song–because the feelings are vicarious and not directly related to me–and so it’s “safe” to cry at those times.

        I wonder if narcissists feel empathy and can cry when they see sad movies, read sad books, etc–when the feelings expressed are those of fictional people. I always wondered about that.


    • There’s another aspect (in most cases; probably not all):

      How you are perceived by others (as in your identity) influences in large measure how your actions will be received.

      Normdom (those having those instincts which mark them out as being ‘social’) tends to see those who are not *instinctually social* as ‘interlopers’ (and hence, anything and everything you do is likely to be seen as inappropriate and worse).

      In order to be received in the spirit in which it was given (when addressing Normies / Nts), you first must ‘register’ to the unconscious as 1) having the correct wiring (which produces the correct instinctual behavior, including the correct patterns in your brain waves); 2) having sufficient similarity to the ‘target’ that the target regards you as ‘sufficiently similar’.

      Failing the first test causes ‘instant-outing’. You can disguise your behavior, but you cannot hide this kind of difference.

      # 2 overlaps into the conscious mind, but it happens first in the unconscious.

      Only when those two most-instinctual qualifications are met can you expect to ‘interface’ with most Normies / Nts; (and, if you do this, you can get away with some astonishing affronts, at least for a time. This is how NPD /ASPD manage to do so much damage, as they’ve got that instinctual thing happening – while it keeps well-meaning autists OUTSIDE ‘where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

      Finally, Normdom as a whole honestly believes we are ‘defective’ by our conscious and ongoing choice – which, while it isn’t true – fuels most of their unpleasant attitudes.


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  6. Hi Lucky Otter,

    Good article.

    I am an Aspie too, and Peck’s comments about autistic people in “People of the Lie” bothered me also – particularly the likening of autism to a form of evil (which he does explicitly in the book). So much so that I wrote to him when he was alive to complain about them, though he didn’t choose to reply.

    As far as I can tell, he constructed a whole theory of autism and autistic spectrum disorders from his contacts with just one patient – Charlene – who seems to have given him a lot of grief. I don’t believe any objective scientific researcher would ever make such a mistake.

    Best wishes,

    Graham Giles, Cornwall, UK .

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