Lisa Jo Rudy has a blog on Autism Spectrum Disorders (http://autism.about.com).

Recently, the Autism at About.com Facebook community has been chatting about the topic of empathy. Do people with autism really have less empathy than people withOUT autism?

It’s a topic I’m presently researching for an article – and a question that is hard to answer. After all, what is empathy really: an ability to actually feel what others feel? An ability to sympathize strongly enough with others that you reach out to help? Or – perhaps – an ability to know what you SHOULD feel for and with others, combined with the ability to express those appropriate feelings verbally?

Which brings up a topic I’ve been pondering recently: how different, really, is the high functioning autistic experience from that of typically developing individuals? Are the differences as deep and absolute as they’re sometimes portrayed? Or are they more about how we express what we understand, feel, and want?

I ask this question, in part, because I think there may be assumption that “neurotypical” folks are just brilliant at all the things that are tough for folks with Aspergers and high functioning autism.

Can MOST of us “read minds” just by glancing at others’ faces? The truth is that MOST of us are easily fooled. Sometimes we’re fooled by someone intending to mislead. Sometimes we’re fooled by our own assumptions. Was Amelia’s friendly wink a sexual come-on or a tease? Is Jane’s frown directed toward me – or is she nursing another migraine? Even neurotypicals can’t always tell for sure.

Do most of us find it easy to develop solid friendships or create strong, loving partnerships for life? If neurotypicals found these things easy, there’d be no need for e-harmony or match.com… we’d never read columns on “how to find friends,” the divorce rate would be well under 50%, and no neurotypical person would ever sit at home alone unless she actively wanted to. As everyone knows, though, making friends and building solid romantic relationships is hard work – not just for people with autism, but for everyone.

And what about the supposed neurotypical ability to communicate flawlessly, so that we understand and are understood at home, at school and in the workplace? As a whole industry of coaches, psychologists, consultants and trainers can attest, very few people are natural communicators. Sure, most neurotypicals are better at reading vocal tones and body language than most people on the autism spectrum. But few neurotypical people are so good at human relationships that we consistently say the right thing at the right time to the right person. That’s why so few talented writers have best selling novels… so few capable sales people are making money hand over fist… so few parents know all we want to know about our kids.

So why are so many of us convinced that neurotypicals have extraordinary skills not granted to those on the high end of the autism spectrum?

Yes, there are some real neurological differences, and there’s no doubt that neurotypical people really can interact more successfully than people with Asperger syndrome – most of the time. But here’s a thought to consider: could it be that neurotypical folks are simply better at SAYING they know, feel and understand others, even when they don’t? Maybe we’re more likely to tell Joe how bad we feel about his crumpled car when we’re really thinking “just what you deserve when you drive after four beers!” And maybe we’re better at nodding, smiling, and saying “I know what you mean” when in fact we don’t have a clue.

If we’re convinced that women are from Venus, men are from Mars, bosses are from Jupiter and kids are from Pluto… are we neurotypicals really so impressive when it comes to communication?

Maybe… just possibly… we “Aspergians” and “neurotypicals” aren’t as different as all that.

Recently, the Autism at About.com Facebook community has been chatting about the topic of empathy. Do people with autism really have less empathy than people withOUT autism?

It’s a topic I’m presently researching for an article – and a question that is hard to answer. After all, what is empathy really: an ability to actually feel what others feel? An ability to sympathize strongly enough with others that you reach out to help? Or – perhaps – an ability to know what you SHOULD feel for and with others, combined with the ability to express those appropriate feelings verbally?

Which brings up a topic I’ve been pondering recently: how different, really, is the high functioning autistic experience from that of typically developing individuals? Are the differences as deep and absolute as they’re sometimes portrayed? Or are they more about how we express what we understand, feel, and want?

I ask this question, in part, because I think there may be assumption that “neurotypical” folks are just brilliant at all the things that are tough for folks with Aspergers and high functioning autism.

Can MOST of us “read minds” just by glancing at others’ faces? The truth is that MOST of us are easily fooled. Sometimes we’re fooled by someone intending to mislead. Sometimes we’re fooled by our own assumptions. Was Amelia’s friendly wink a sexual come-on or a tease? Is Jane’s frown directed toward me – or is she nursing another migraine? Even neurotypicals can’t always tell for sure.

Do most of us find it easy to develop solid friendships or create strong, loving partnerships for life? If neurotypicals found these things easy, there’d be no need for e-harmony or match.com… we’d never read columns on “how to find friends,” the divorce rate would be well under 50%, and no neurotypical person would ever sit at home alone unless she actively wanted to. As everyone knows, though, making friends and building solid romantic relationships is hard work – not just for people with autism, but for everyone.

And what about the supposed neurotypical ability to communicate flawlessly, so that we understand and are understood at home, at school and in the workplace? As a whole industry of coaches, psychologists, consultants and trainers can attest, very few people are natural communicators. Sure, most neurotypicals are better at reading vocal tones and body language than most people on the autism spectrum. But few neurotypical people are so good at human relationships that we consistently say the right thing at the right time to the right person. That’s why so few talented writers have best selling novels… so few capable sales people are making money hand over fist… so few parents know all we want to know about our kids.

So why are so many of us convinced that neurotypicals have extraordinary skills not granted to those on the high end of the autism spectrum?

Yes, there are some real neurological differences, and there’s no doubt that neurotypical people really can interact more successfully than people with Asperger syndrome – most of the time. But here’s a thought to consider: could it be that neurotypical folks are simply better at SAYING they know, feel and understand others, even when they don’t? Maybe we’re more likely to tell Joe how bad we feel about his crumpled car when we’re really thinking “just what you deserve when you drive after four beers!” And maybe we’re better at nodding, smiling, and saying “I know what you mean” when in fact we don’t have a clue.

If we’re convinced that women are from Venus, men are from Mars, bosses are from Jupiter and kids are from Pluto… are we neurotypicals really so impressive when it comes to communication?

Maybe… just possibly… we “Aspergians” and “neurotypicals” aren’t as different as all that.

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