When I Struggle With Cognitive Empathy as Someone on the Autism Spectrum


This is a very hard article for me to write, but I think it might help others in the same situation as me. Until my diagnosis as autistic, I was so scared I would be seen as something evil if anyone ever found out I have this “deficit”; you see, I have a problem with cognitive empathy, what is also known as theory of mind. I have a problem putting myself in other people’s “shoes.”

Let me say unilaterally and profoundly — not only to help myself, but to help those reading this with the same problem I have — having a deficit in cognitive empathy is not something you should be angry at yourself over, scared of, hate yourself for, or that makes you a bad person.

My cousin unexpectedly passed away a few weeks ago. I was not close to her, but I was very close to her older sister. Her sister came over to tell me in person and started crying, and I wrapped my arms around her. This may sound bad, but for me, due to my deficit causing more problems than normal, my brain defaulted to the social script/rule. Now let me mention, this problem happens less frequently now than in the past, because for one, I have enough experience to be able to match up automatically what others are experiencing and what I have experienced in my life, and two, I generally don’t put myself in situations where much if any cognitive empathy is required. However, when my cousin came over, I ran into the problem again: I could not put myself in her “shoes,” and I needed to.

This is a type of empathy that some of us on the spectrum can have problems with. Many of us can empathize with your emotions; in fact, some of us can do it too well, feel your emotions too much. I have a strong empathetic reaction to people displaying a strong emotion, or characters in movies. However, the type of empathy I am talking about, cognitive empathy, where we can see something from others’ perspectives is where a few of us can have a problem. There is a difference between the two, although many people might not realize that, and this may be why some people say those on the spectrum have no empathy.

I don’t do that well at understanding nonverbal communications anyways; throw in the issue with cognitive empathy, and all I can understand is she is crying and the emotions that typically go along with it, which gives me 20 percent of the information I needed to understand what was going on. Normally, this would not have caused an issue; normally, I don’t have reasons to put myself in someone’s “shoes.” But here, I felt I must to be able to best help her. I have lost both my parents, but that is different; I have lost grandparents, but that is different. I had no scripts, social rules or experiences that would allow me to be able to see this from her perspective, which made me very distressed and confused.

In situations like this, not only is the other person having problems, but for those of us with deficits in cognitive empathy, it can also be a scary and extremely confusing situation. Oftentimes, we may know we should be able to see it from their perspective, but we can’t. I know she must have a perspective, and if I could see it I might be able to better understand what to do to help her and how to react. Instead, all I had was a confusing blank inside of her, a flashing cursor. After my cousin left, it took me a little while to stop hating myself, to stop deriding myself as a horrible person for not having a “normal” ability, to stop being angry at myself for not being able to understand her. In situations of deficits, I’ve found many people direct large amounts of self-hate at themselves where a deficit is seen as interfering, especially with something important. But I am starting to realize and accept that having problems with cognitive empathy is OK. I am not perfect; neither is anyone on this planet. If we have a problem putting ourselves in someone’s “shoes” we do, and we should not beat ourselves up over it. We all have strengths that may give us unique abilities and insights, but we also have deficits, and those deficits are not the whole of our definition. We can work to lessen their impact on our lives by developing good coping skills and accepting the deficits.

A benefit to getting older is I have built up a library of scripts. It is how I survive, pass, function. I also have coping skills I have developed over years, like avoiding situations where something I have a deficit in is required or likely to happen. However, no matter how hard we may try, how many scripts we may have, how many rules may be in place, and how many experiences we can reference, there can still be times when we will have to say or do something despite our deficits that we are not ready for.

I was lucky; I think I did OK, just holding, listening and supporting her, basically, just being there for her.

Image via Thinkstock.

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