Myth: Individuals with ASD Lack Empathy

06 Oct

If I’ve been asked once, I’ve been asked a million times: “Why do people with ASD lack empathy?” Mind you, people are not asking me IF empathy is absent. No, they believe that it is missing, without a doubt. Unfortunately, for the questioners, this issue stirs up as much annoyance and passion as questions about manipulation do. (I have an old blog on that issue, if you care to read that rant.) John Robison wrote a beautiful chapter about empathy in Look Me in the Eye, a text not at my immediate disposal right now to use to help me. So, I decided that a fight today answers that ever-so-common question.

Mike has dealt with others taking advantage of him in the worst of ways. He’s become unsurprisingly cynical, guarded, and defensive at times. Unfortunately, he’s too nice and too rule-governed about in/appropriate behavior to stand up for himself — the irony of AS. (Downtrodden by others, so many Aspies won’t break their personal rules to right a situation. In fact, it wouldn’t be “right”.)

I transitioned him into a group where he would practice being a role-model, a leader, a self-advocate. Today, a fight broke out in Mike’s group. Several small issues snowballed into one of the guys, Joe, trying to fight four other guys, including Mike. Mike’s response was interesting. He stayed removed until Joe came after ……….. me. Then, Mike grabbed Joe’s arms, put them behind his back, and pushed him to my couch. It was so quick, so skilled, so painless for Joe that I was shocked. Joe tried to continue fighting, but Mike held him still. In a rather tv-worthy moment, Mike’s hand was on Joe’s head, as Joe thrashed and thrashed and never came close to touching Mike. “Are you done?” is all Mike asked.

After 40 minutes of processing through everyone’s version of what happened, the guys left the office as calmly as I could have hoped. Mike hung around, asking me if I wanted to buy any magazines from him for school. Then, Mike said, “I’d never let him hurt you, okay?” “Thank you, Mike.”

The “thank you” wasn’t just about my safety, or that of others, it was for standing up for himself, for his group mates, and for me and against those who doubt his understanding of others.


Posted by on October 6, 2010 in Educating the NTs, NTs on ASD


3 responses to “Myth: Individuals with ASD Lack Empathy

  1. Rachel

    July 6, 2011 at 11:57 AM


    I love this post! I’m a 53-year-old woman with Asperger’s, and I’ve just started a website called “Autism and Empathy: Dispelling Myths and Breaking Stereotypes” ( The site features articles by autistics, parents, professionals, and others who write about the ways in which autistic people experience and express empathy.

    I would love to repost this piece (and any others you may have on the subject) to the new site. Would you give me permission to do so?

    • jholverstott

      July 6, 2011 at 10:17 PM

      Hi, Rachel, Absolutely! I would be honored to be reposted. Jeanne

      • Rachel

        July 7, 2011 at 8:50 PM

        Excellent! Many thanks. 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: