The idea that autistic people lack empathy, is as often stated as it is attacked. Some of the disagreement turns on definitions, which isn’t surprising since the common usage and dictionary definitions of terms like empathy, sympathy and compassion, are not consistent.
I’d written a post (as yet unpublished) looking at and testing each definition. It was humming along nicely to begin with; I came across new ideas and information, about things like “alexithymia”, and psychopaths vs autistics, and how some autistic people are actually overly aware and sensitive to others emotions (to the point of pain and extreme anxiety). But the more I read, and the more I collated what I’d read into that post, the clearer it became that any meaningful answer to the question of autistic people and empathy, had to deal at some level with the question of language (both verbal and body language), and had to confront questions of theory of mind (which is closely related to the issue of language).
Essentially, theory of mind is the ability for someone to imagine what is happening in someone else’s mind. In order to figure that out, the prior development of language – or more so, some form of communication and meaningful social interaction with others – is apparently required. This is obviously a challenge for autistic people. So, arguably, without having the usual communication skills, the ability to empathise (which I’m taking at this point to include sympathy and possibly compassion) is necessarily compromised. (Or is it – I’ll get to that soon.)
Then there’s the question of the relative importance of spoken versus body language for forming a theory of mind. Studies have shown that not being able to see another person (being blind) did not change the areas of the brain that were active when dealing with theory of mind tasks. So not making eye contact or being able to read people’s gestures and body language, is apparently not as vital as verbal language for empathy. So if an autistic person won’t look you in the eye or watch your body, but otherwise has good verbal language skills, they’re not necessarily missing some “key” to empathy.
Even the theorists who propose this link between language and theory of mind, recognise the capacity to teach an autistic person to recognise and respond to emotion, so the deficits can be addressed. Often such learning will be in the form of rote-learning recognition and responses (which is arguably the first step towards “real” response, though some believe rote-learning is the best you can hope for with many autistic people). Does teaching the rote-learnt recognition and responses, actually mean the autistic person now has a theory of mind? For the purposes of the question of empathy, does it mean that the autistic person is then truly empathetic, or have they just learnt behaviours to make it look like they are? (And how much does the difference matter, if the resulting behaviour – acts and words of compassion – are the same.)
And what of this theory of mind in the first place, does it really incorporate emotions, or must emotions be treated as a separate consideration: Is there a vital difference between being able to understand what someone else is thinking, and being able to share in what someone else is feeling. If different parts of the mind are at play (and at least one study I came across suggested there are), then the talk of “theory of mind” perhaps needs to be separated out from issues of empathy.
Once I started getting my head around all of that, and the chicken-and-the-egg questions that kept popping up at each stage (do you need X for Y, or Y for X, and then is X a pre-requisite, or just helpful, to achieve Y, etc), I started working my way through some incredibly thought-provoking blog posts. Such as one about replacing “theory of mind” with “theory of self”; that the problems autistic people have with integrating their inner worlds is the more essential and prior problem to figuring out whether they can understand other people’s worlds. And some very good points about how empathy comes hand-in-hand with deception; being able to understand other people’s emotions and thoughts also means you can do some down-right nasty things to them, which don’t come naturally to autistic people either. (Who’s the psychopath now.)
After all that, my brain was feeling a bit… full (if you’ve ever studied for weeks on end for an exam, you know the feeling). I’d learnt a hell of a lot, some of it so important that it has changed the way I now think about certain aspects of my son’s past and current behaviour. Some of the lessons I’ve learnt are ones I want to share (such as the incredible importance of realising that your autistic child may be avoiding eye contact and shutting themselves away, because they are over sensitive to emotional input – or it’s causing anxiety because they can’t but really want to understand it – so either way you need to be careful and thoughtful about what emotions you exhibit around them). The post I’d initially written turned into spin-off stories about my son, and my Aspergers friends, and was turning into a top-heavy monster: Lots of spin-off, not enough foundation, not stable enough to hit publish.
So here I am. Writing a post about a post I didn’t publish yet. Trying to make sense of this huge wealth of information that has broadened my horizons and my passion about autism yet again. My inner academic tells me to go back to university and do a proper degree that allows me to specialise in autism, but my inner academic is an expensive pain in the butt, and I’m busy raising children right now, so it can just sit down and be quiet thank-you-very-much. Some day, maybe. But for now, I’ll keep reading, and writing, and learning: From others’ posts, from compiling my own posts, and from what people share with me in the comments. Isn’t blogging awesome 🙂