Autism and empathy — where you’re getting it wrong
Autism and empathy, one of the most contentious topics I see thrown about by autistics and NTs alike (with the latter claiming the former don't have it, the former claiming they do, and both of them missing the mark).
And worse still are those annoying coaches I see popping up all over the place with their little pop-psychology bromides who are ignorant about empathy and what it is, and claim you either have it (and give a shit) or you don’t (and don’t give a shit). That was actually written to me in a reply by someone on LinkedIN.
See, she’d originally posted some motivational and “uplifting” quote about empathy, seemingly suggesting it was one of the highest human ideals (the suggestion being if you don’t have it, then you’re a bad, unpleasant, and possibly even evil person. Quite literally as bad as Hitler, to hear some speak).
All well and good, except for one thing: she was completely wrong.
Autism and empathy
There are two views of empathy: the affective view and the cognitive view. To talk of “empathy” as a single monolithic trait and without understanding these two views makes no sense (unless you’re a mis-, ill-, and, uninformed pop-psychologist with nary a pair of braincells to rub together).
From Baron-Cohen S., & Wheelwright, S. (2004). “The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences”. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2004:
“The affective approach defines empathy as an observer’s emotional response to the affective state of another…”
“Cognitive theories emphasize that empathy involves understanding the other’s feelings…”
Emphasis is mine (and I’m sure Baron-Cohen and Wheelright will be glad to be corrected by the lady on LinkedIn).
Whatever… if you’re lacking in affective empathy, in particular, the mainstream view is there’s something wrong with you. I’ll come back to why this is both moot and bullshit in a moment.
Now, in common with many, if not most autistics, I am severely, perhaps completely lacking in affective empathy, and somewhat lacking in cognitive empathy.
Why emotional contagion is overrated
First, the reason affective empathy — sometimes called emotional contagion — is so prized as a human trait is…
… 98.57% of people have it.
And there’s no other reason.
If the positions were reversed and having no empathy was the norm, you’d likely be considered a weakling and a freak if you did have it — imagine... being so weak, out of control, and co-dependent on others you share their emotions just by being with them.
But it’s neither intrinsically good or bad.
It just is.
And yet it’s so much a “thing”, there’s an entire book been written about it (Emotional Contagion, by Elaine Hatfield, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard Rapson).
But in a world made for and by NTs, if you don’t have affective empathy and so don’t suffer from emotional contagion, there must be something wrong with you. You’re broken at best, and an evil, unfeeling, and uncaring psychopath at worst.
Secondly, following on from this, those of us who don’t have affective empathy are not only apparently defective, but it also makes us bad people.
Ah, the classic “out group”.
Not one of “us”.
But there’s a problem...
If you think like this, then you’re conflating and confusing affective empathy with compassion, caring, and concern for or about someone or the situation.
Simply put, having no affective empathy is not the same as not caring for others.
Consider this scenario:
- Sarah's father died and she was upset. We live, we get old (if we're lucky), and we die. Happens to us all (unless we die young).
- Because I don’t have affective empathy I didn’t share in her grief (although I felt a little sad for Charlie, her dad, because he was a lovely bloke). That was nothing to do with Sarah's emotional response, though.
- Since I do have some cognitive empathy, I did understand Sarah's was upset, and why this was.
- And because she is Sarah, I cared because I don’t want her to be upset. That's compassion.
In fact, I'll go further and say having affective and cognitive empathy without compassion is far worse than having compassion with no empathy. It's like people who offer "thoughts and prayers' instead of doing something concrete to help. I guess the virtue-signalling makes them feel righteous.
And thirdly… without trying to make excuses, whether having affective empathy is intrinsically good or bad is moot, because we autistics frequently don’t have the neurological machinery to feel it.
We can’t help it, in other words.
To be fair, I wouldn’t want it even if I could have it, but that, too, is moot. The best I could ever do is pretend, and any NTs worth their salt would see through that in a heartbeat, so I don’t bother.
Criticising us for it and labelling us as unfeeling and uncaring is profoundly crass and ignorant (and who’s lacking in empathy when you do that, eh?). It’s like criticising an epileptic for having a fit and spilling your coffee, and then calling her careless.
I’m guessing this all sounds pretty bleak, right?
But you’re wrong.
Apart from anything else, I don’t know any different. I’ve always been this way. And from where I’m sitting, emotional contagion is more of an affliction than anything else. I see emotional contagion as a curse, and one I'm glad to have avoided.
It seems much easier and simpler not to be drawn into other people’s emotional baggage.
It seems more sensible and — frankly — saner to be able to keep a clear, logical head when everyone else is freaking out and panicking. In a crisis or moments of import I’m as cold, clinical, and dispassionate as a gangland execution.
I see that as a virtue. And if not a virtue, it’s a definite advantage (and benefit of my autism). As I’ve said before, this would make me a great leader, but a crap politician.
Judge me for this if you want, but remember you’re doing so from the position of one of the afflicted, as well as falling into the trap of thinking because I’m a member of a tiny minority, it’s somehow incumbent on my to aspire to your standards, the standards of the majority.
It’s not, I’m not going to, and I don’t even want to (and, ironically, the lack of affective empathy you’ll judge me for one of the reasons I won’t care about what you think or feel about it).
I’m not broken or faulty.
I’m just different from you, and I don’t need fixing.
Rather, you and the rest of society need to stop judging us by your own standards.
Fascinating autistic brain facts…
There’s evidence to suggest we autistics have irregularities in the fusisform gyrus, a part of the brain believed to be critical in facial recognition, which would tend to explain why we have difficulty recognising facial expressions and thus contribute to our lack of affective empathy.
In this respect it does seem autism and empathy are inextricably entwined.
Because it’s likely this has an effect on our ability to recognise emotions in others (it also suggests one explanation of why I and others often find it difficult to recognise people if they change their hairstyles or other aspects of their appearance).
… this is the way I am, and the way many of us are.
Like it or lump it.
As always, feel free to opine and comment below or stalk me on social media (links below).
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate