Asperger's Diary

Life through the lens of Asperger's Syndrome.

Feeling Another's Pain: Of Asperger's and Remorse

Do people with Asperger's feel true remorse?

Girl CryingRecently, in a discussion on another PT blog about remorse in people with Asperger's, the question was asked if the pain that they feel when they discover they have caused hurt in others is tied to a true appreciation of the pain felt by the other party, or rather tied to the feeling of embarrassment that they did something wrong.  In answer to that question, let me tell you a story.  

I was about nine or ten, and my father and I were staying with my Grandmother.  She  had invited her best friend and the friend's husband over for a visit.  The friend's husband was obviously very fond of children, and had always been kind to me.  My grandmother was a widow, and up till then, he was probably the closest thing I had to a grandfather on that side of the family. 

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So, as everyone settled in to their seats in the living room, he went out of his way to engage me, in the way caring adults often do.  But something went wrong.  In the conversation, I, in my careless kid way, popped out some naive, unthinking reference to "old people."  In response, he chuckled. "Old? How old do you think I am?"  

Truthfully, I answered him. Then he said, "You think I'm how old?!"  Suddenly, without warning, I burst into tears and ran from the room, leaving a room full of dumfounded adults behind me.  

When my grandmother came to get me, she found me sprawled across the bed in the spare bedroom, weeping inconsolably into the pillow.  "Honey," she said, "What's wrong?"    

I lifted my head just far enough from the pillow to allow me to talk, and stammered through sobs, "I....hurt....his....feelings! [sniff] I...called...him....OLD!"  Then I clutched he pillow and cried some more.  

"Oh, no, honey! " came the answer,  "He was just joking with you.  Couldn't you tell?" 

I stopped, lifted my head again. "No. [sniff]"  I paused a bit, gave her a funny look and said, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, he was just teasing you.  Why don't you come out and let him tell you himself..."

With that, she and I came out into the living room, and my father and grandmother coached me through the conversation.  The man was completely taken aback - and felt terrible that he had upset me.  With my family's help, I explained that I was so upset because I thought I had hurt his feelings, and felt terrible for doing so. He reassured me that his feelings weren't hurt at all. 

I pressed him on the point.  By then, I had come to realize that adults generally do not like little children to cry or be upset, and they would sometimes lie (Oh, horrors!) to spare a child's feelings and make them feel better.  I didn't want that.   If I had hurt his feelings, I wanted a chance to make it right.  I wanted the truth.  But, in the end, I took his word for it, even if I had room for reasonable doubt. I had no choice - I couldn't judge his veracity by any other means except for his words.

Replaying this incident in my mind, now, in adulthood, I realize that he was no doubt telling the truth.  With the social experience I've gained since, I can read the signs, and put the pieces together in a way I couldn't back then.    He was a jovial, jokey kind of person - and he loved to tease a smile onto a little kid's face.  That's what he thought he was doing with me...but I couldn't read his signals.  I couldn't pick up on the expression on his face, or the tone in his voice - or at least assign the proper significance to them.  So, when he said, "You think I'm how old!," I took it at face value.

Thinking I'd insulted and hurt a man who had been so kind to me hurt me badly.  But, I didn't know what to do about it, how to make it right, or how to constructively deal with those feelings.  So I choked and ran.  

The challenge placed before my family and my teachers was to teach me these skills, and I like to think they've done an admirable job.  But it was a lot to learn.  I knew that a smile meant you were happy, and crying meant you were sad - but there was a whole world of subtle signals that I was simply blind to.   And social rules - what to say to whom, and predicting how they would react...very difficult.  It's something I still continue to learn to this day.

But, to go back to the original question: does causing someone else pain cause me pain? Absolutely - in fact sometimes it causes me worse pain than it should.  Just the thought that I could've hurt someone is enough to cause me pain.

I'm a person who finds it difficult to watch Jerry Springer, or even some situation comedies...  Why?    Because if it involves someone being hurt, in any way, it hurts me.  So, when I hear it said that people like me "have no feelings," or "do not feel remorse"  -- you can bet that hurts me.

Like so many others of us out there, I care....but I haven't always known how to show those emotions in a way that others understand.  However, not seeing a thing doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

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Lynne Soraya is the nom de plume for a writer with Asperger's Syndrome.

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