Part 1: Autism & Empathy – A Case Study

Sad gumby blockhead with its arms raised to its head

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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9 Responses

  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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