Aspies Don’t Lack Empathy – Just the Opposite

Art work by Aegis Mario S. Nevado

Art work by Aegis Mario S. Nevado

A common trait that people associate with Asperger’s is the lack of empathy.  This misconception could be due to “normal people” lacking the ability to empathize with Aspies.  Chew on that irony for a moment.

First let me give you two sources who can explain this idea better than I, and then I will give you a glimpse into my own brain.

This has been an emotional topic for me. I am neurodivergent, and my world is rich with sensory perception sensitivity, compounded by forms of synesthesia and living as an empath. Sometimes I feel so much that I have to brace myself. It’s not just my own emotional and physical feelings, but those of others. If I care about the person, it’s intensified, but even a stranger’s emotions can touch me. And I mean touch me — where I am feeling the joy or anger or – sometimes – physical sensations that are supposed to stay put inside of that other individual. Add in synesthesia, and my eyes can strain from the changing lights that surround each person.

If I ground myself against the emotions, or motion with my hands as if to push away the feelings, I can come across as uncaring. Sometimes I have to the leave the room, regroup, and come back prepared for what I am walking into.  And sometimes I even feel anger and hurt at being assaulted by that other person pushing his or her emotions onto me, worse when there’s a demand that I only listen and “take it” instead of letting me try to fix it, to eliminate the source or to heal the person so we can both stop hurting.  However, sometimes it is important that the person go through that whole process, and it also isn’t always my place to “fix” anything.  Luckily there is a way I can meet this need without such harm to myself.

When allowed to be who I am and to use the strategies available to me, I can be my most powerful self – the self who is loving, nurturing, mentoring, healing, and creating.  It just needs to be on my terms, and – with the help of others able to empathize with me – I am learning what those are.  For example, I have honored some requests by parents to advocate for their student in a public school, and this usually involves sitting in a room with emotions running high from the teachers, parents, and especially the student, making sure everyone’s feelings and needs have been heard and understood. I can calmly direct that conversation with a balance of using empathy to guide me but, as far as people in the room can see, a gentle but solid power. They don’t know I’m trembling inside as I take each blow. If I weren’t allowed to put on my armor beforehand, I wouldn’t be successful.

A former boyfriend once described it this way. He sat across a table from me as he expressed anger, and then apologized when he realized he had been mistaken – a fact I knew the whole exasperating time as I tried to “just listen” to him, as he insisted, instead of eliminating the source of his hurt, which I finally did by saying a single sentence.  He described my demeanor during it all as calmly keeping multiple swords sheathed at my belt – a power kept in check. What he didn’t realize was that those were swords I kept collecting from him, sheathing them one by one in an effort to keep us both from being hurt. Either he was going to let me get a word in edge-wise or I was going to (figuratively) whack him over the head with the next one that came my way. Which pretty much describes our breakup.

I’m a messy empath, but I have learned much. The relationship noted above about killed me but served as the catalyst for me to become stronger and a better partner for my current relationships – all of which are a source of loving support and inspire me to be a better person. They are self-aware individuals who value the same traits that befuddle neurotypicals. It finally occurred to me that I had to be picky when it came to dating (and shouldn’t everybody do this for themselves?).  For me, I realized that I can only be that intimate with somebody who is highly capable of empathy, and I was more likely to find that among other neurodivergents. Including Aspies.



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My Own Education Journey

“And how might this event impact the hero on his journey? Tammy?” I immediately stopped writing so I could answer the question, and with ease that surprised my middle school language arts teacher who thought she was catching me not paying attention. We were a week into a novel that I finished the first day, and I was more than paying attention; I was writing my own story, applying stylistic concepts I learned, combining it with the other dozen novels I had read that month.  As for the hero’s journey, that is a favorite topic I like to apply to real life. We are all on our own journey, each on a unique path that should be respected.

Just as in the stories I read, my journey included both special powers and monsters. I often felt like an anthropologist in my own culture, marveling at the natives who, in turn, found themselves marveling at me and my lack of assimilation. I perceive the world in a unique way, both philosophically and literally, and life experiences – including a violent childhood – only heightened these traits.

I never subscribed to social hierarchies and other conventions requiring blind conformity, including that of the public school I attended. From my earliest memories, I saw everyone as being equally human – both fallible and worthy of love – and applied this to both students and educators. Friends with anyone friendly, I ignored cliques and pedestals – including the ones people tried to put me on. I also have always required a clear purpose for any task or expected behavior. Not motivated by gold star foil stickers or their equivalent, I needed something more meaningful. “What’s the goal?” is a question people learn to expect from me. “Because I said so” or “that’s just how it’s supposed to be” are never acceptable answers.  And even if the goal is agreed upon, the path to that goal is a separate conversation.

I also have a “super power.” Neurodivergent, I perceive and process information in a sometimes intense way that can be advantageous for learning and creating. I’m a synesthete, crossing perceptual modalities and even abstract concepts. For example, each number, letter, month, and day of the week has a color, gender, and personality.  Sounds, especially music, have colors and textures. So will your personality once I get to know you. Perceptions are sometimes amplified – with sounds, textures and scents proving overwhelming. When preparing to write this post, ideas formed in the air, some moving through me to hover behind me, others clustering together as I saw their connections. Suddenly tired, I closed my eyes to more easily sink into the ideas without the distractions of the physical world. Yes, I literally work in my sleep!

When allowed to learn and work in a way that meets my needs, I can absorb information and produce work at a greater level. Other than those moments of sleep-working, I am usually moving; a standing desk and pathways for pacing are ideal, along with a large table or floor space to spread out. I will take the ideas in the air and map them on graph paper so others can work with me. The challenge for me is to clearly communicate the many connections I am making in my head, sometimes including concepts for which spoken language is limited.

I learned early that not everybody understands this way of perceiving. I remember asking my grandmother what gender the ring finger was since it wasn’t clear to me like the other ones were. “What? You’re a girl. They’re all girl fingers.” I continued staring at my fingers, wondering why I felt she was wrong, and I decided to not ask certain types of questions. By the way, years later I would learn the word “androgynous.”  In public school, I remember feeling intellectually stifled by being forced to sit in a hard desk for hours each day, and I most enjoyed classes that allowed for movement and active engagement with the task at hand. Meanwhile, if I wanted to sit quietly with a book, why not outside on the lawn, or better yet, up in a tree?

The monsters are not something I want to spend too much time on here, but they played an important role. Being a survivor of child abuse and other forms of assault, and having to engage in physical battles to protect myself and family members, are definitely things that impacted my ability to learn and engage in school-related activities. My biological father was traveling the country from one job to another and was unaware of what was happening. I remained quiet because I didn’t want to be separated from my half-brother, and I was warned of the far-reaching consequences of breaking that silence.

I really should have slipped through the cracks.

One of the reasons I didn’t is because a school principal refused to let me. Robin Emmingham became principal at the elementary I attended, and the same year I moved to the combination middle/high school, so did he.  I just couldn’t get rid of the guy. He knew my dad’s side of the family and seemed to take it upon himself to keep an eye on me. I would appreciate this later in life. Thanks to him, I was enrolled in classes that challenged me and enriched my education beyond the typical choices, turning learning challenges into special skills. I found myself attending musicals, enrolled in clubs such as drama and problem-solvers, and participating in off-campus learning conventions. During my senior year, I only had to take two classes on site, and the rest of my learning was on a job site earning work-based credit.

Where the principal noticed me, the counselor didn’t until near the end of my time there.  When Pre-SAT, ASVAB, and IQ/capability test scores came in, she called me into her office to inform me that I earned the highest scores in my class, and was only ever outscored in some areas by one other person in the school.  While her voice and face expression seemed negative, her words sounded positive, so I smiled at the news.  My smile quickly faded when she began scolding me for not having a 4.0 GPA, and proceeded to lecture me about priorities. My legs started to give out as I began to shake, biting out the words, “You. Have. No. Idea.” And she didn’t, so I proceeded to tell her about those monsters. Outside of the school walls, I had little time for homework; I was too busy just surviving. The silence was broken, but it would take a few more years to free myself, and decades to heal.

I am thankful for both the principal and the counselor, and the many other educators who were part of my journey. The result of even the negative experiences is a well-rounded perspective that gave me what I needed in order to go into education as a change agent. After earning my teacher certification, I jumped immediately into working with at-risk youth and developing personalized education programs in various forms. I especially connected with neurodivergent students and found myself becoming an advocate for student-centered education, using technology to facilitate that process. I experienced growing success, but that didn’t prevent my own daughter from facing adversity. What happened to her was an important turning point in my own life. I was motivated before, but now my passion and drive was all the more fierce.  And that is its own story.

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Not Broken

Neurotypical syndrome is a neurobiological disorder characterized by preoccupation with social concerns, delusions of superiority, and obsession with conformity.

think do what told

The above quote, on a page titled the Institute for the Study of the Neurologically Typical, is offered by as a parody. It takes the same framing often used for neurodivergent perception and behavior, and applies it to neurotypicals (aka “normal” people) in a way that hopefully causes you to think.

Or to rethink.

Similarly, the following short video by Rethinking Autism packs a punch. By offering the perspective of somebody with autism, people have cried in relief of finally having something represent their views, or in frustration and confusion. This video has mostly been well-received, but some parents voiced concern that it might represent them in a poor light, and others expressed confusion over the responses offered from the autistic perspective.  Just remember that this confusion is the very reason why the video needed to be made; this is the voice that needs to be heard more often.  It’s a matter of personal agency. View the video and see what you think.

Those who are neurodivergent are so often told to adjust to neurotypical ways without equal effort of those who are typical to adjust to neurodiverse ways. Often “broken” aspects are not necessarily bad, just different, and often better. Yes, better. You might not agree, depending on your personal perspective, but these different ways can be preferred from a personal or even socio-cultural view. Many times, whether or not a way of thinking or being is valued depends on time and location. Beyond this, it is often those who do not “fit in” that rock our world and make the changes for which we are later grateful.

Human competence is defined by the values of the culture to which you belong. ~ Thomas Armstrong, author of Neurodiversity

Thomas Armstrong shares a pre-Civil War era article about a mental disorder among slaves. The symptoms? They wanted to run away. Obviously something was wrong with them, and this “disorder” required medical treatment. I hope this sounds absurd to you. I also hope that we can become more aware of the influence of society’s “supposed to’s” and learn to overcome them.

I love Armstrong’s section titles, but I will just share one more for now because it echoes something that The McAuliffe School often teaches:

Whether you are regarded as disabled or gifted depends largely on when and where you were born.

How many times have I said to people, “You are not broken” when in reality they definitely had some damage to overcome? However, the phrase is usually heard with grateful relief, and that is when the healing can begin.   The McAuliffe School often spends much time detoxing students and their parents from previous experiences, replacing the negative views with affirmations that you are strong. You have gifts. Okay, so you have quirks and you need to develop strategies to deal with some things; we all do, every single one of us, neurodivergent and typical both. Learn to play nicely with the neurotypical “natives” while also surrounding yourself with a support system of those who value you exactly how you are. As Chris Brogan encourages all of us to do: find your freaks.  You’ll be in good company, and it’s your privilege to do so.

Privilege of a lifetime is being who you are. ~ Joseph Campbell

Why so pushy? And now what?

I am often asked the question, “So, how did you get into this?” I can answer that I was interested in this career since my earliest memories, and that I went into education intending to change it. But that’s not what people are looking for. What they’re really asking is, “Why so pushy?” How did I come up with these ideas, and then push so hard to implement them?

It happened in phases.

The Parent

Here’s what lit that fire. While fighting to keep other people’s kids from falling through the cracks, my own daughter was being dangled over a deep ravine. 

The call came from my daughter Cass’s speech therapist. Cass was born tongue-tied, had surgery at age three, and was wrapping up her speech therapy by first grade. The therapist informed me that Cass had been put into a special education reading program by her teacher, and the therapist was correct in suspecting that I hadn’t even been notified, let alone consulted.

“I don’t think she belongs there,” the therapist said.

I agreed. More than agreed, I worried. I saw what happened when kids were tracked into resource and similar education programs.

And I felt guilty. I was helping other people’s kids get “off track” to reach full potential. How could my own kid now be there? What did I fail to do as a parent?

I also felt betrayed. This was my school district, and I worked hard for them. I now had the parent perspective of being blindsided and somehow dismissed in major decisions regarding my child.

So why was Cass in there? Cass had been labeled ADHD and dyslexic by her teacher. Yes, Cass did have a high energy level, making rapid connections from one topic to another. And yes, let’s just say she is “visually gifted.” To top it off, sometimes she talked funny; speech therapy takes time. However, the reading class was doing nothing to address these traits. It was just a place to put her.

I had been enjoying the success of designing personalized learning programs for students and watching them grow – both academically and emotionally. I had just been trained in reading recovery methods, and I combined that with my learning styles research in an effort to help Cass.

I had two weeks.

Over winter break, I taught Cass to read using methods that worked for her. It required taking over the living room. We needed space and textured carpet for the whole body and tactile-touch approaches. Textured paper and medium point pens, writing with eyes closed. Elephant-nose letter writing in the air. Feeling the sounds as they were spoken by her, then by me.

It worked. After only two weeks, Cass was retested and transferred out of the special education reading class. We were then approached about having her tested for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). Seriously.

She was tested the following year, scoring 99% on the assessment. By third grade she was reading at a college level. She started college at age 14.

A remarkable young woman, she gives me many reasons to be proud. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t had the training I did. How differently might her path have been?

The Teacher

She is not an isolated case. With this experience in mind, I continued employing personalized education strategies, with encouraging results. My “enthusiasm” was not always matched by my colleagues, even the supportive ones. This changed one particular fall after the school received the test scores from the previous spring.

I taught six sections of middle school language arts, class sizes in the 40s, and I endeavored to tailor learning to be competency-based and adjusted to their learning styles. My principal, a very nice guy, told me that he believed that kids often learn in spite of us. In other words, he appreciated my efforts, but stop working so hard. It probably wouldn’t make that much difference.

The message changed next fall: “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

The language arts department was called into a meeting to review the test scores from the last spring. Anger and anxiety dominated the room. The administrators were coming down hard on the group for the abysmal results. I was so confused. Sad. And more confused. Okay so maybe we didn’t spend much time on test-prep, opting for more authentic approaches. I had used formative assessments throughout the year, and I knew the kids were learning. At least, I thought I knew. Had I been wrong?

We were then provided with the details showing the scores for each grade level. Sixth grade scores dropped. Eighth grade dropped too. However, the seventh graders, my wonderful seventh graders, had such an increase that the school average as a whole didn’t drop. It flat lined, but it held steady. I thought the vice-principal was exaggerating when he said, “You single-handedly saved the school” – and I still do because test scores shouldn’t have that much power (but that’s a topic for another time).

However, the scores were impressive. My students gained between 10 and 30 percentile points on average depending on the category. Statistically staggering. “Resource” students became “regular” and “regular” became “honors” (much to the chagrin of some honors parents – but that’s yet another topic). It worked! But boy was I tired. I needed to make better use of technology to facilitate what I was doing. I had ideas of how that could happen, and I had the ear of the administration for sure.

However, those ideas came to a halt with the district’s response to legislation titled No Child Left Behind. They adopted a beautiful curriculum set that I was looking forward to implementing. However, it came with a lesson plan book that was pre-filled for the entire year. It also came with scripts. Yes, scripts of what to say. We were supposed to put the whole district on the same track to see how well the curriculum worked. If I did anything different, I would throw off the results of their study. But you already know how I feel about tracks. There’s also the issue of ethics. While I had one administrator suggesting that I could close my door and do my thing, a newer vice principal would come in and scold me.

I increasingly felt the urge to jump ship. And I did, right into the charter schools and other opportunities to continue developing personalized learning approaches. I earned the nickname “curriculum guru” and enjoyed invitations to review products and approaches. The homeschool families I mentored and my own daughters were excellent guinea pigs, and we would discuss ideas for a dream school.

The Administrator

In looking for options for my youngest daughter Heather, I began writing down what that model program might look like based on my previous experiences and reviewing hundreds of studies. I also tapped back into my previous experiences, from piloting a personalized learning program for “at risk” kids in 1997 to helping start a state-wide online school in 2006. What worked? More importantly, what didn’t?

I couldn’t find a school that met all of the criteria. The day finally came to gather all of my research, resources, and contacts with other change agents, and create a model school. I had been synthesizing everything I learned and created the Personalized Education Philosophy as part of a university course. I began connecting with key people I worked with in the past, including one who I took on as a business partner since he had a degree in business and experience as an administrator in personalized learning programs. With a small group of educators passionate about the philosophy’s tenets, we implemented a learning model based on the philosophy to create Christa McAuliffe School of Arts & Sciences.

Okay, so that is definitely the short version of the story. It went through many steps, required slaying dragons in the form of unethical administrators, criminal CFOs, and really confused school boards. In spite of these extra challenges, we created a private school in 2009 so we could maintain quality control to show how the model worked, and we then opened our doors to public schools to use what we created so that all students could potentially benefit.

We were the “freaks” during that initial accreditation review, but the piles of research and some supportive people who believed in us resulted in them taking a chance on us, and I will be forever grateful for that. By the year of re-accreditation, the school had been named in the top 5 of online diploma-granting schools, and it was spotlighted in a booklet put out by iNacol as a model program for personalized learning. From freaks to a model program, the school had arrived. I had my large-scale proof of concept, and it was helping so many people. However, as is typical, the program also felt a stuttering in the momentum in that it had gone as far as it could go in this way.

So now what?

The Patient

Well first there was therapy. Some things had happened that belong in a different post than here. Vaguely-speaking, a combination of a near-death situation that took months to heal from, combined with a personal betrayal of somebody who was sabotaging the work of several people including mine, put me in the “caterpillar as goo” phase of metamorphosis. It was painful. And beautiful. To get through it, I had to also address a childhood that left me with complex PTSD. This led to a post-traumatic strength that I could never have experienced had I not gone through this double-whammy life event.

I am grateful.

However, one does not get to the other side of such a thing without being unchanged, and this has made me all the more “pushy” – at least when it comes to things that matter to me.

The Facilitator

It became clear that the next step was for me to return “out in the world” to catch up with the latest, and it was amazing how many invites I received to gatherings the moment I hinted at doing this – from big education conferences to a consultant meeting on using VR technology for PTSD. With so many options, what should I do?

I took a deep breath and reflected on what makes my heart sing.

I’m eager to be in the service of helping others who have a gift or idea to share. This has included mentoring people in instructional design of their own courses and programs; providing teacher training in personalized learning; and – coming full circle to something close to my heart – supporting homeschooling parents.

It can be beyond the field of education though.

Broadly-speaking, I enjoy facilitating others in finding their voices, healing as needed, and in creating their own paths to their own dreams – especially when this is an individual or group actualizing a potential unique to them.  It’s not about “education” so much as about empowering personal agency, self-expression, and self-actualization – hopefully in a way that makes the world a better place.

It also means being a little less pushy; perhaps gentle nudging is better, or advising while stepping back and allowing others come into a knowing on their own. It is their journey, after all.

Here’s to you and your journey!


Original version published February 2, 2013. Updated with new information. 

Read an update on my daughter Cass:

My Daughter Wants to be Neil Gaiman, and I’m Good with That

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