The Autistic Brain
The autistic brain does intake and synthesize empathy (and many other processes) differently from the neurotypical brain. How each person on the spectrum experiences these differences will vary depending on which ways their brain is divergent from the neurotypical wiring.
Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a series. You can read part 1 here.
There are many on the spectrum who experience and demonstrate empathy in the same way a neurotypical person might.
“Autism” is as broad a category as “human,” and is a term used to describe neurological (wiring) differences in the brain.
Depending on these differences, a person will experience varying degrees of symptom expression in the domains of sensory processing/sensitivity, socialization, emotion regulation, talent, perception, communication, empathy processing and expression, interpersonal relationships, and perseveration (hyperfocus).
These symptoms or traits may be muted or intensified according to environmental stimuli, particularly those in early childhood development (e.g. trauma, sociocultural enforcement of gender norms, parenting style, nutrition, therapeutic interventions, etc.).
Specifically, though, I want to address something that is under-represented in literature about autism, and that is the philosophical, innate predisposition to a certain moral orientation. In later articles, I will use this framework to demonstrate the differences between autism and other diagnoses which are often confused or thought of as similar to autism.
Empathy & Philosophy
Multiple theorists have tried to quantify empathy by creating frameworks to understand it and arrive at a definition that is standardized. If really pressed to understand what empathy means, most people would have a hard time defining it; yet, most people feel they understand it intuitively even if they aren’t able to put words on it to define it.
Some people describe empathy as being able to understand how another feels and thinks, by putting themselves “in someone else’s shoes.” Others feel that empathy is sympathy plus concern, or feeling sadness for someone experiencing hardship and caring about their well-being.
What is nearly universally understood about empathy, though, is that it is a positive and important quality to have. A person without empathy would be cruel, unfeeling, or a malignant abuser, maybe even a sadist who enjoys other people’s pain.
Anyone who read the story of Elise and Linda would likely feel that both women had empathy; however, both demonstrated it in very different ways.
Reactions to Part 1: Mother & Daughter
In order to have a frame of reference for this discussion, part 1 of this series is a necessary read. If you haven’t yet, please read part 1 of this series and review. A link at the bottom of the page will bring you back to this article.
Reactions from Neurotypicals
The reactions to the scenario from part 1 were varied. Most of the neurotypical people who responded to this article empathized strongly with Linda. People characterized Elise and/or her approach with the following words or phrases: bully, narcissist, jerk, she ranted, she had no empathy, she was just interested in winning an argument, she had no emotional empathy, she just wanted to show off, she was a know-it-all, she thinks she’s better than her mother, she thinks her mother is stupid, she had no common sense, arrogant, robotic, emotionally empty, hateful, biased, idiot, antagonistic, not perceptive, out-of-touch, leave her poor mother alone, she hectored and badgered her mother, and does not understand elements of persuasion.
Some people were easier on Elise, but still ultimately felt that she was in the wrong in this situation.
Reactions from Autistics
When I asked autistic people, there was very little variation of perception; however, their answers varied dramatically from the answers from neurotypicals.
Here’s what they said of the situation: Linda didn’t hear her daughter out; Linda didn’t give her daughter a chance to make a point; Linda should have listened more to her daughter’s case; Linda made personal attacks on Elise’s character; It was not fair for Elise to just be shut down; It’s understandable there will be different viewpoints, but I think it’s acceptable and even expected that there will be different viewpoints.
Many autistics remarked that the case study was a good example to illustrate different types of empathy. Others pointed out that the article showed how empathy can be beneficial and harmful at the same time. A few asked for a more standardized definition of empathy as there were multiple empathic dynamics at play in the article. One woman pointed out that Linda’s reaction to Rick was more related to sympathy than empathy.
Another had this to say:
Your article does well at showing that there isn’t one objective definition of empathy in any given situation, and it’s opening up thought about that. Considering others’ definitions of empathy is so meta.
There were a few outliers who didn’t match up with the rest—two neurotypical women who sided with Elise and one autistic who said that it was best to never discuss politics with family or friends.
One neurotypical woman said that she had spent years in therapy with her daughter who wasn’t autistic but who was wired differently, and that the therapy and studying she had done had taught her to better relate and have a better relationship with her daughter and others who had perceptive differences.
Another neurotypical woman felt that Linda was in the wrong through the whole of the conversation and could not understand why Linda felt Elise was being argumentative. Her reaction differed from that of the autistics in that her first comment was, “She [Linda] was being a nincompoop.” This woman had at least one parent, a brother, and a romantic partner on the spectrum.
This is not a scientific study. It was the author of the case study (me) who reached out to people for feedback, so that leaves tremendous room for bias. People could have been responding to me more than to the article itself.
I also found many of my respondents in social media groups with distinct personalities and populations, and most of the people who responded had more knowledge of autism than most. Still, those factors considered, this was a valuable thought experiment with potential to inspire
What do you feel is causing the perceptive differences? Why do you think the neurotypical people responded so differently than autistics? What are your thoughts after reading this article in the series?
Click here to read part 3: Empathy and philosophy
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