Part 1: Autism & Empathy — A Case Study6 min read

Mother and Daughter

Elise, 36, is autistic. She sits in her mother’s living room, researching the neu­ro­log­ical impli­ca­tions of trauma spec­trum dis­or­ders in early child­hood devel­op­ment. Her mother, Linda, 58, sits in a recliner with a blanket over her lap, reading glasses perched low on her nose as she scrolls through Facebook on an iPad. Fox News, a news net­work with a con­ser­v­a­tive affil­i­a­tion, plays in the back­ground. Something piques Linda’s interest, and she turns up the tele­vi­sion, watching intently over her reading glasses.

Elise, annoyed with the volume level, closes her laptop and resigns that she will not be able to con­cen­trate. She looks at the tele­vi­sion. A ruggedly hand­some, square-jawed man speaks with a strong accent and col­lo­quial (improper) English. He wears faded jeans and a worn work shirt with his name on the chest: Rick. A hard hat bounces on his head as he talks with pas­sion about his sit­u­a­tion. Rick is a plumber or a con­struc­tion worker or some other manual labor posi­tion, and he’s decrying the cor­rup­tion in the “lib­eral agenda.”

Rick is there to put a face to the pain of income inequality and speak out in oppo­si­tion of a bill being debated in Congress. Elise looks at her mother, who is grin­ning and brim­ming with empathy. Linda finds him attrac­tive, relat­able, and “straight-talking.” Elise rolls her eyes.

Forever at Odds

Linda is relating to Rick. She has grown up around these hard-working men whom she con­siders to be “good ol’ boys.” She likes that he is straight-talking and sees him as rich in common sense. Her heart swells when Rick talks about how he puts in more than 60 hours a week to try and put food on the table for his kids and how he has to miss his son’s foot­ball game and daughter’s piano recital just to keep the lights on.

Rick is “on the ground” in the struggle, dealing with the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of an unfeeling gov­ern­ment… like Linda’s hus­band, who comes home six days a week cov­ered in dirt and sweat, his worn joints cracking with the abuse they’ve taken for decades. Elise makes the same con­nec­tion emo­tion­ally.

Linda doesn’t iden­tify with the nasal-voiced eco­nomic ana­lyst who fol­lows. He’s too thin, balding, old, and not attrac­tive. His hands are not cal­loused, and his suit is a far cry from Joe’s dirty uni­form. She doesn’t trust the aca­d­emic and sees him as unable to empathize with Rick. When the com­men­ta­tors inter­rupt the ana­lyst who begins to counter Rick’s posi­tion, Linda grins. Let him have it, she’s thinking.

Elise’s brain is elec­tri­fied with pro­cessing the rapid-fire thoughts. She’s read the gen­uine pride on her mother’s face. Her mother, whom she knows is a very smart woman, has been manip­u­lated. Elise empathizes with Rick’s struggle, but feels frus­trated with him.

Rick, like most people, is loyal to a polit­ical party. He believes that since the bill was intro­duced by the Left, it must be there to favor those who aren’t working as hard as him. Because he does not trust the Left, he believes that the bill must be a mea­sure to make his life harder so someone else can be given a “free ride.” The bill, though, had nothing to do with enti­tle­ments. It was written to advan­tage the working class– people like Rick. He has scape­goated the wrong boogeyman, Elise tells her­self.

Elise has read the 428-page pro­posal already, and has read com­men­tary from ana­lysts in var­ious fields to learn of the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the bill. She has read the pro­jec­tions of how the leg­is­la­tion will affect people at dif­ferent income ranges in the short- and the long-term future. Elise does mostly align with the Left; how­ever, she does not speak about any issue without first con­ducting thor­ough research. Without any doubt and according to all the num­bers, Rick’s oppo­si­tion to this law will harm his family. It will harm Elise’s father and mother, too, who have never man­aged to build a sub­stan­tial sav­ings or retire­ment. Linda has bought into the nar­ra­tive.

Failed Communication

Elise: Mom, you can’t seri­ously be okay with this…
Linda sighs deeply.
Elise: Mom, I feel sorry for that poor, hand­some beef­cake, too. I want him to go to his kid’s piano recital, too. But, Rick is wrong.
Linda: You’re just brain­washed. You’re just ready to fight any­thing from a con­ser­v­a­tive stand­point.
Elise, growing angry: This is not a par­tisan issue. It’s an eth­ical one. I read the entire bill, Mom. I’ve read analysis of the effects of the bill from top experts in behavior eco­nomics, public pol…
Linda: You’re not always right, you know.
Elise: What rel­e­vance does that have to this dis­cus­sion?
Linda: This isn’t a dis­cus­sion. You’re barking at me, and I’m just trying to watch the news.
Elise: But Mom, you’re being lied to!
Linda’s frus­tra­tion is growing: Why do you care?
Elise: Because you’re being manip­u­lated. You are being told to invest in your own oppres­sion, and you’re buying it! You’re being taken advan­tage of, and you’ve just fallen for it because handsome-five‑o’clock-shadow Joe seems relat­able to you!
Linda: His name was Rick. I’m just trying to watch the news and relax, and all you want to do is start argu­ments. Can’t you just respect my opin­ions? I’m not dis­re­specting yours.
Elise: I don’t care about opin­ions, Mom. I’m trying to pro­vide you with unim­peach­able facts.
Linda: No, you’re being a bully. Can’t you just show a little respect and empathy? Be nice for once and just enjoy some quality family time, okay? This is not a com­pe­ti­tion. I’m just trying to unwind and have my coffee.

The Aftermath:

Elise’s mind is whirring. She’s got twenty-seven browser tabs open and has cued up soft­ware for run­ning sta­tis­tical analyses. She’s deter­mined to show Linda that she’s not a bully or lacking in empathy. She wants to prove to her mother that her motives are pure and that she only has Rick’s (and her father’s) best interest at heart.
Linda is scrolling through her Facebook feed, while the news plays on in the back­ground.

Elise is becoming increas­ingly angry, espe­cially when a Black man begins to dis­cuss how the law is racist and will harm minori­ties. She knows that this is not even in the realm of truth and is enraged that this can be aired, unchal­lenged.

Meanwhile, Linda con­tinues to try and change the sub­ject. She is showing Elise pic­tures and videos of people from her Facebook feed, dis­tant rel­a­tives Elise has never met and chil­dren of co-workers. When Linda shows Elise a pic­ture of a little girl who par­tic­i­pated in a national cheer tour­na­ment, Elise responds, “Eight year old’s shouldn’t be dressed up to look like porn stars. That make-up, hair­style, and outfit are provoca­tive. It pro­lif­er­ates the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of women and teaches chil­dren that their value is in their ability to look sexy.”

Linda glares at Elise for a moment, then slams shut the case of her iPad and storms out of the room. Linda has always been dis­ap­pointed with Elise, who hasn’t shared any of her inter­ests and only seems to want to argue. Elise can’t handle the way she’s been per­ceived and how incon­gruous it is with how she sees her­self. She doesn’t want to argue with her mother, but she can’t stand leaving untruths up in the air. Elise feels she always has the bottom hand, and Linda feels her daughter is hos­tile and pes­simistic. Interactions like this are common for the two of them and have char­ac­ter­ized their rela­tion­ship since Elise was a teenager.

Empathy and the Lack Thereof:

So, with whom in this sit­u­a­tion did you most iden­tify? Linda or Elise? What are your thoughts? Who was demon­strating empathy here? What does empathy mean to you?

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1 Comment

  1. Elise’s empathy was borne out of infor­ma­tion, whereas Linda’s was a visual cue. It was the image of Rick, that trig­gered some­thing familiar in her. Her empathy is one that was manip­u­lated. Interestingly, she showed little empathy towards her daughter. Elise on the other hand per­haps needs to be more invested in a person/situation to feel empathy, which I can relate to. I may need to rewrite this answer as my mind keeps changing.

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