Part 2: Autism and Empathy — Feedback5 min read

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 how much his or her 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 neu­ro­log­ical con­fig­u­ra­tions would lend them­selves to dif­ferent sub­types of autism.

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 nar­cis­sism which are often con­fused or thought of as a con­tinuum. At their core, and with regards to iden­tity, these two ori­en­ta­tions are polar oppo­sites.

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 a sociopath or a malig­nant nar­cis­sist, 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 Aspies

When I asked people with Asperger’s, 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 aspies 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.

Outliers

There were a few out­liers who didn’t match up with the rest—two neu­rotyp­ical women who sided with Elise and one Aspie 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 aspies 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 with Asperger’s.

Disclaimers

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 Asperger’s than most. Still, those fac­tors con­sid­ered, this was a valu­able thought exper­i­ment with poten­tial to inspire

Perceptions:

What do you feel is causing the per­cep­tive dif­fer­ences? Why do you think the neu­rotyp­ical people responded so dif­fer­ently than aspies? What are your thoughts after reading this article in the series?

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2 Comments

  1. This Is a dif­fi­cult one because Linda could be having an off day and just wants to be chal­lenged. She could be patient with Elise at other times. However, if we are to per­ceive this as their normal behav­iour then I would say that Linda is just the type of person who doesn’t want to engage with expe­ri­ences from a con­sid­ered per­spec­tive. Instead she is happy to just accept her ini­tial response and that is as far as it goes with her. That’s not to say that she doesn’t con­sider other things on a deeper level. She does. It also high­lights that For Elise, such emo­tional responses don’t pro­vide her with enough infor­ma­tion to trigger empathy, which is why she searches out mul­tiple per­spec­tives.

  2. From a per­sonal point of view (unsci­en­tific) this piece per­fectly demon­strates the way that NT responses can make them easily manip­u­lated in pol­i­tics. Interestingly, in my expe­ri­ence Aspies are at high risk of being manip­u­lated in ordi­nary life. I have cer­tainly been manip­u­lated myself due to a ten­dency to take people at face value and to believe that people are telling the truth (this is exac­er­bated by a strong wish to please, having masked my autism for years with dam­aging effect, but I digress…). However-as far as cur­rent affairs goes, I believe I am at less risk of being manip­u­lated because of a strong drive to fact-check. If an Aspie is inter­ested in pol­i­tics, it’s likely to be a rea­son­ably obses­sive and pro-active interest. (Again it’s impor­tant to empha­size that I don’t believe that my truth is nec­es­sarily true for all Aspies!).
    Long before my diag­nosis I was fas­ci­nated by the “wiring under the board” (McKenna) of the hege­monic system we inhabit. Studying pol­i­tics at uni­ver­sity, I became aware that some stances were more accept­able than others (lib­eral, cen­trist stances) in this sub­ject, not because of supe­rior truth, but due to a ten­dency in polit­ical studies to sup­port the status quo (whereas in the arts you were allowed to be as rad­ical as you wished as long as you respected canon).
    A healthy desire to fact check and search for truth, to ques­tion manip­u­la­tion by media and to think “out­side the box” can make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence (as Thunberg demon­strates). It’s harder to turn away from ugly truth, and this is a good thing. Likewise many of us thrive on con­structing models for a healthier world.
    Autistic voices can, to this effect, be really helpful in trans­forming argu­ments beyond polar­i­ties. Early diag­nosis and sup­port for autistic chil­dren (allowing them to be them­selves and facil­i­tating their processes) will help them to find strong voices from the outset.

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