Empathy is difficult. People tend to forget how hard it is, because most of us spend a lot of time around people much like ourselves; or if we’re around people who are quite different, we’ve usually had time to learn how to put ourselves in their shoes. But the history of human treatment of people perceived as ‘other’ brings home how much of an imaginative leap it actually takes to see things from the perspective of someone really different.
As you probably know, autistic people are really quite different from those who are not autistic. Our brains work differently. Perceptions are different. Misunderstandings frequently arise.
One of those misunderstandings has lamentably come to be seen by some as a central feature of autism: the notion that autistic people lack empathy. This has been pushed especially hard by Simon Baron-Cohen, who is also well-known for the related (and similarly wrong-headed) ‘extreme male brain’ interpretation of autism.
Research by Damian Milton, Brett Heasman and others brings into focus just how mistaken it is to see deficient empathy as a defining feature of autism. It turns out that allistic observers are at least as bad at reading autistic expressions as vice versa. Milton labels this the ‘double empathy problem’: any failure of autistic people to empathise effectively with the rest of the population is magnified by the routine failure of allistic people to understand what autistic people are actually feeling.
The common lack of allistic empathy for autists is painfully apparent in many of the ways autists are treated. Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), in common with other behaviourist approaches, is specifically based on modifying behaviour without even attempting to gain any insight into the subject’s internal life (even if it is not always practised that way). The refusal to enter the subject’s point of view shows in the callous use of punishments and withheld rewards. A similarly unempathetic attitude is all to often obvious in institutional settings that autistic people find themselves confined in.
The stereotype that autistic people are unempathetic is not completely without basis; just mostly. Partly this is because, as I say, other people are just so different — but, just as black people in white-dominated societies are much better at empathising with white people than vice versa, we are so surrounded by allistic perspectives throughout our lives that most of us end up getting at least some insight into how they work, even if it takes us longer than most allistic kids and we might never get it completely. So cognitive empathy (or ‘theory of mind’) with allistics is harder for us, just as cognitive empathy with autistics is harder for them. Anyone who’s spent time in a peer support group for people on the autistic spectrum will tell you that cognitive empathy between us is generally not such a problem.
Affective empathy needs to be considered separately, although it’s not always possible to cleanly distinguish the two. This is the side of empathy sometimes coldly called ‘emotional contagion’ — where other people’s emotions just sort of leak in when you witness them. On average, autistic people have about as much of this as anyone else. It’s complicated, however, by difficulty with non-verbal cues, and the monotropic tendency to completely miss things when we’re not tuned in to them — and to experience things very intensely when we are.
Sometimes tuning out other people’s emotions is an important coping strategy, avoiding overwhelming feelings coming in from outside. Other times, failing to tune in to the emotions of others is a simple mistake. Some of us end up tuning that stuff out most of the time, perhaps as a response to an exceptionally difficult upbringing. John Elder Robison, an autistic author and advocate, found that TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) left him suddenly experiencing other people’s emotions, and his own, with an intensity that was hard to handle. This experience has been characterised misleadingly as feeling empathy ‘for the first time’, but it is possible the treatment really pulled down psychological barriers erected in his youth. Many autists remain intensely empathic throughout our lives.
The myth of the unempathetic autist is one of the most harmful stereotypes facing autistic people. It’s on a par with the related notion that we’re unemotional, which is even more misguided: we tend to experience emotions very strongly, we just don’t always connect with them or express them in the same ways as other people. Along with the damaging preconceptions it gives people about autistics, it also leads to some people (often women) not getting diagnosed because they’re thought to be ‘too empathetic to be autistic’.
Nobody is too empathetic to be autistic, just as nobody is too emotional, or too extroverted. It’s high time we put these myths to bed, and concentrate on building empathy for the autistic mind. The ‘theory of mind deficit’ interpretation of autism is a deeply deficient theory of autistic minds.