One common characteristic of people with Asperger's is that we are more or less blind to the non verbal communications of others. As a result, we find ourselves forever saying and doing the wrong thing, with the best of intentions. We're described as arrogant, aloof, uncaring and inconsiderate.
I contend that we are none of those things. I believe we are simply blind, emotionally.
We do not respond to other people's observable cues because we don't see them. Neurotypical people read the signals and respond; we don't. But just as a visually blind person can understand a world he can't see, I can understand and feel empathy and emotion even though I can't automatically see the triggers.
For example, I'm quite sure I feel empathy for other people. If my wife were to be injured in a fall, I would immediately share her pain and distress. I would become distressed myself, and my top priority would be to relieve her discomfort. That's what empathy is all about.
When it plays out in the real world, though, it's easy for people to get a wrong impression. Imagine my wife and me, walking on the recreational trail. She trips on a stick and falls. I turn and look at her. There's no sign of injury. None of her limbs seem twisted or broken. She did not yell loudly, and she's not making any loud noises now.
"Are you damaged?" I ask because I know it's possible to sustain damage that's not visible from the outside. I'm not too worried, though, because I know most falls do not result in injury. I've seen this before.
"No, I don't think so." Her answer reassures me that there is no cause for alarm. I'm relieved.
"OK, then, get up and let's go." I give the only practical answer I can see. The day is passing, and we are standing still. Time to get moving again!
I have had third parties observe exchanges like that with a very critical eye. "I can't believe you're so callous," they say. But if you read my thoughts, I wasn't callous at all. I made a reasoned evaluation of the situation and acted appropriately.
The relief I felt when she said she wasn't hurt was a genuine empathy reaction. And in that case, it's all that was needed. There was no real injury or pain to share or mitigate.
If there had been injury, I was calm and logical and ready to act. Luckily, that wasn't necessary.
Why is my wife satisfied with that response?
Sometimes observers challenge us with questions like that. It's a valid question . . . we meet many alienated Asperger spouses at my speaking events. In our case, the answer is simple. She's known me for many years. There have been times when she was hurt, and in those times I never failed to be there, supportive and helpful. I have shown my empathy by my actions over a period of years. She knows it's there even though the superficial manifestations may be missing in situations. Therefore, she's perfectly comfortable with my response, as nothing was really wrong.
She knows that I'd have responded very differently if her leg had been broken.
What might one conclude from that? She is very sensitive to me, and she can sense what I'm thinking and feeling even though I give very little sign. She's comfortable with what she sees and senses. Her greater than average sensitivity offsets my own partial blindness. Together, we make a successful team.
She knows that I am just are caring as anyone else. I just show it in different ways.
Sometimes people ask me, "What kind of person should a guy with Asperger's look for?"
I can't speak for you, but this is an answer that's worked for me:
People with Asperger's have very weak sensitivity to other people's thoughts and feelings. But we often offset that with exceptionally strong logical brains. Therefore, we are wise to seek a mate with exceptional emotional sensitivity and less logical brainpower. Then, our mental abilities compliment each other's. One of us has great emotional intelligence, and the other has great logical intelligence. Individually, we're each weak. Together, though, we are very strong.
Of course, your mileage may vary.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The opinions expressed here are his own. There is no warranty expressed or implied. While reading this essay may give you food for thought, actually printing and eating it may make you sick.