Empathy is our automatic response/reflex to seeing other people’s emotions. It could be inaccurate, inappropriate, or distorted. Say, for instance, a man who shot and killed a bunch of children and drove away in his car, and later became fearful of getting caught and started crying in the street. You happened to walk by him and felt sorry for him as a purely empathetic response to seeing him cry. Your empathy does not take into account the reason why he is crying; it is context-blind.
Many women are hyper-empathetic towards babies, so the sound of a baby crying can be used as a form of torture for them. Even if they consciously understand that it is just an audio recording, it still causes them psychological and physical pain. For this reason, some mothers even resent their own children for constantly crying. Our empathy can often contradict our conscious minds.
The opposite is also possible where we understand someone’s pain while we have no empathetic response at all. People can suffer for reasons that are too complex or too foreign for other people to understand. Only those who have enough intellectual capacity or knowledge/wisdom to understand their situations can understand their pain. To distinguish this ability from empathy, let’s call it “compassion”.
People with Asperger’s Syndrome are said to lack empathy. This is true. Their automatic response to seeing other people’s emotions is weaker than normal. The lack of empathy is often equated with an image of a cold-blooded, uncaring person but this is not true if we take into account both empathy and compassion. Someone who is highly empathetic but not compassionate at all would feel sorry for others indiscriminately. It wouldn’t matter if it’s a Nazi, serial killer, or child-molester; as long as they are expressing their pain outwardly, these highly empathetic people will respond to their pain. There are situations where we need to ignore our own empathetic reactions. A mother, for instance, cannot buy her son a toy every time he walks by a toy store and cries. She would need to overrule her own empathetic response. In other words, being empathetic is not the only criteria by which we should measure our ability to understand other humans. Highly empathetic people may be on the opposite end of the “spectrum” where they lack compassion.
Highly empathetic people rely primarily on their own feelings and intuitions to judge and make decisions in their lives. Their advantage is speed. Because they do not need to process anything intellectually, they are able to respond quickly and fluidly in social situations. But their disadvantage is their inability to be objective. Because they rely heavily on their own feelings and intuitions, they are prone to being prejudiced. They would not make good judges, scientists, or journalists as their own emotions would distort everything too much.
Highly compassionate people can detach themselves from their own emotions, like fears and desires, which is what allows them to be compassionate. To be compassionate, you need to be able to evaluate your own emotions and intuitions for their appropriateness, and overrule them if necessary. And, when you are deeply compassionate, you wouldn’t see any reason why human beings deserve more attention and care than other beings on this planet, which is why those on the autistic spectrum often appear to show no interest in other people. It’s not that they are not interested in people; it’s just that there are so many other things that are equally interesting! They feel compassion for everything, and they don’t see why humans should receive special treatment.