Does Loss of Empathy make you Autistic? Continuance of the Internet-ASD Debacle.

Autism Awareness Ribbon

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In an attempt to defend herself against growing outrage at her suggested link between autism and internet use, Baroness Susan Greenfield has stated the following:

“I have never claimed new technologies are causing autism. Rather, I’ve said that the increase in lack of empathy, that is documented scientifically, may be leading to behaviours like that and this should be explored.” (From the Daily Mail.)

So, if I am reading that correctly, she is equating “an increase in lack of empathy” with autistic behaviours. (Do let me know if you read her statement differently, but the rest of this post takes her words as they are, and is based on her previous statement clearly linking the rise of autism with internet use.)

Autistic behaviours are those defined in the DSM-IV-TR, as qualitative impairment in social interactions, communication, and restricted or sterotyped patterns of behaviour. When you broaden autistic behaviours to include the other four pervasive developmental disorders that make up the autism spectrum (as it’s come to be known), you don’t need all three areas of impairment (sometimes two is enough, and Retts and CDD have somewhat different criteria). If any of those three areas of impairment include or suggest a “lack of empathy,” it would come under the head of “social interactions.” But empathy is not mentioned nor necessarily implied, in the description of those impairments.

Specifically, the mentioned social interaction problems are as follows: impairment in the use of non-verbal behaviours, failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to level of development, a lack of spontaneously seeking shared enjoyment, and a lack of social or emotional reciprocity. An autism diagnosis (though for not all conditions on the spectrum) requires only two of those social impairments to be present.

If someone with autism had every single one of those social impairment criteria (my son, for instance, had everything on that list when he was diagnosed), that would not mean they lacked empathy. It might mean they are very withdrawn, which is often the case. But having immense trouble interacting with and understanding other people, is not the same thing as lacking empathy. Indeed, there has been growing understanding that autistic people often suffer from too much awareness of others emotions and feel overwhelmed by facial expressions (again, my son has become such a person). Even if an autistic person cannot read another person’s body language and facial expressions, and struggles to understand what another person means, that is a very different claim from the idea that they don’t care what the other person feels and thinks.

Being able to understand what someone else feels and thinks and not caring about it, is something else entirely. A very nasty something else, and incidentally, the same something-else that is often linked to internet use; the trolling, cyber-bullying, griefing behaviours that concern parents and society more generally.

It has been argued that internet time – particularly the time spent on an internet by a  parent when the should be interacting with a child – can reduce a child’s ability to learn from and about body cues and facial expressions. But the internet time would have to be extraordinarily extreme to actually give rise to anything like autistic behaviours, and the child would have to be excluded from interactions with other human beings too, who would otherwise have passed along this non-verbal information. Furthermore, in addition to this extremely deprived situation, the child would have to somehow pick up repetitive / stereotyped behaviours, and have marked communication problems or abnormalities, for an actual diagnosis of autism.

The idea that abuse or neglect on this sort of scale, could lead to autism, is an old and fully debunked theory. There is no connection at all between parental abuse or neglect of a child, and a child getting autism. There are entire cultures that do what we in the West would consider extremely neglectful behaviour when bringing up their young children, and yet they do not have higher rates of autism (anyone not familiar with such cultures and the fact that there is no connection between abuse and autism, would be well recommended to read “Unstrange Minds” by Richard Grinker). Autism is, by definition, a pervasive developmental disorder; both those words – pervasive, and developmental – are essential to appreciating the nature of the condition.

What of the older age groups then – the teenagers who are face-down in the internet and technology, and thereby take on “autistic behaviours.” Considering that autism isn’t something you suddenly get as a teenager, this is a very misguided approach. Autism is present from very early on in life; usually evident before the third birthday, and often by 12 months old. Less severe forms of autism may go un-diagnosed until the teen (or even later) years, but there is no evidence linking such diagnoses with increased internet use. None. (If you know of some, do share, I’d be very interested to have a look.) Again, you would have to also account for such things as repetitive behaviours; even if internet use lead to lower social skills and communication skills, and even if we labeled this “empathy”, where did the autistic stereotyped behaviours come from?

But there’s a great big elephant in the room that I haven’t even pointed out yet.

It’s got a great big sign on it that points out that internet use has also been linked with higher levels of empathy and more real-world social interactions. So even if the internet was leading to lower levels of empathy that created more “autistic behaviours,” might it not – in the same breath and reasoning – be reversing autistic behaviours and tendencies? (Though I think the link to autism in either direction is weak and unconvincing.)

There are some things we do know about autism and internet use. We know that the internet allows autistic people to get jobs, make friends, get a sense of belonging and self-worth, that might not have otherwise been possible. If there is a link between autism and the internet, it would seem to be one that helps those who are already autistic, not turns non-autistic people into autistics. To demonize internet use, is to not helping autistic people, in fact it may harm them in some very real ways.

There is one way to perhaps save the statement linking lack of empathy to autistic behaviours, as arguably represented by the social impairment criteria for autism. Which is to say that the behaviours at issue are only the social impairment ones, not autism as a whole (this is definitely a way someone might read Greenfield’s statement). However, that makes the “autism” reference entirely redundant. Autism is not just social impairment, (even if social impairment there meant lack of empathy). If what she means is just social impairment, then she should say that. If what she means is just lack of empathy, then she should say that. Autism, on this reading, is in no way part of the picture, and is a meaningless tag-on word serving no obvious nor helpful function.

In the meantime, the damage to understanding autism, its behaviours, and its causes, is already done. Headings like those at the top of the story by the Guardian on this matter, “Research linking autism to internet use is criticised,” makes it all the harder, since there is no such research (and in the piece itself they don’t even suggest or refer to any such research; it is just a bad header). And just when I thought the story was bad enough, she had to throw in that suggested link to empathy, which is a widely-spread misunderstanding about autism already, and which particularly damages the public’s willingness to interact with, and themselves empathise with, people on the autism spectrum.

Autistic people are not unfeeling, uncaring monsters. Struggling with non-verbal and verbal language, doesn’t make you a sociopath nor a psychopath. Lack of empathy is not part of the definition or description of autism. Suggesting it is, is not only wrong, it is harmful.

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11 Responses to Does Loss of Empathy make you Autistic? Continuance of the Internet-ASD Debacle.

  1. Kitty Kay says:

    Your comment “It’s got a great big sign on it that points out that internet use has also been linked with higher levels of empathy and more real-world social interactions. So even if the internet was leading to lower levels of empathy that created more “autistic behaviours,” might it not – in the same breath and reasoning – be reversing autistic behaviours and tendencies? ”
    is so true. I recently did a project for a class where we as a group thought we were going to find that our research would show that the internet would isolate people and hinder their social skills. What we found was very different. The internet actually seems to help people with their social interactions, they seem to be more confident and less anxious. They also report a increase in satisfaction with their face-to-face interactions. We were just looking for studies on social networks so the entirety of the internet was not looked at and autism was not a criteria in our project. These are the studies that we looked at:

    Coyle, Cheryl L.; Vaughn, Heather. Bell Labs Technical Journal, Summer2008, Vol. 13 Issue 2, p13-17
    Dawson, S. (2008). A Study of the Relationship between Student Social Networks and Sense of
    Community. Educational Technology & Society, 11(3), 224-238
    Dwyer, C., Hilltz, S.R., & Passerini, K. (2007). Trust and privacy concern with social networking sites: A comparison of Facebook and MySpace. Retrieved from
    Mikami, A., Szwedo, D. E., Allen, J. P., Evans, M. A., & Hare, A. L. (2010). Adolescent peer relationships and behavior problems predict young adults’ communication on social networking websites. Developmental Psychology, 46(1), 46-56.
    Sheldon, P. (2008). The relationship between unwillingness-to-communicate and students’ Facebook use. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 20(2), 67-75.

    • Excellent, thank you for that Kitty Kay!
      When I get the time I will have a look through, but the findings as you’ve described them, do make sense. It’s great to have that list available for others who are interested in further research in to the topic and implications too. I am very grateful that you took the time to compile and share that. Much appreciated.

  2. David says:

    Thanks for your posting. My daughter is on the spectrum and she has empathy in spades. To suggest that a lack of empathy is connected with autism and that this is related to Internet usage is political posturing in the extreme.

  3. Lindsey Wright says:

    Sorry for the off-topic comment, but I couldn’t find any contact info on the blog, and I wanted to ask about the possibility of a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail!



  4. Sharon says:

    Great Post. I am sick to bloody death of people referring to Autism in such overly simplistic terms. Drawing ridiculous analogies in trying to determine causes seems to be a great way to get your name known, and that’s about it. Credibility gone.

  5. mattyangel says:

    I love lots of people and I always try to show them that I love them very much. I even write poems about it.

  6. Sheogorath says:

    “Lack of empathy is not part of the definition or description of autism. Suggesting it is is not only wrong, it is harmful.”
    Quoted for truth. While I don’t automatically know why someone else is crying (they might be happy!), I always feel the (imaginary) pain of somebody else’s injuries if I see them. In fact, that’s why I don’t like watching certain factual programmes (shows) on TV.

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