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Autism and empathy

I finally got around to watching the PBS NewsHour’s series, Autism Now. I was first made aware of the series by an alert from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network. The group was concerned by the lack of participation by autistic individuals and the apparent reliance on dubious scientific claims and biomedical interventions. They were also concerned about an interview with NewsHour journalist, Robert MacNeil in which MacNeil stated that Autistic Americans lack “the most human thing we have, which is our ability to look into each others eyes and feel that other person’s existence and what might be going on in their mind, and to empathize with them.”

I was especially concerned about that last quote.

I read a lovely blog post about autism and empathy this week. I urge you to read it, too.

I did a couple of blog interviews, one for Susan Kaye Quinn, and another for Blythe Woolston, who asked me this:

"Eddy's concern for others is very impressive. Is that "out of character" for a person with limited social skills?"

Here’s how I answered that question:

"Not necessarily. A lot of people think that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy, that they don’t care about others. This could be because autistic people may not express their concern in ways that neurotypical people would expect. They also might not catch the more subtle, nonverbal communications, and so their apparent priorities may seem unusual. In the book, Eddy is not so good at figuring out who his real friends are, but his concern for the safety of the neighborhood kids when the crossing guard is laid off is very real. He has a very strong idea about what is right and what is wrong."


Here’s my take on empathy and autism.

Eye contact is not required for empathy. In fact, research shows that eye contact induces the fight-or-flight response in autistic people by activating the amygdala. It seems to me that the fight-or-flight response is antithetical to feeling empathy, so for an autistic person to experience empathy, eye contact should be avoided. People on the autism spectrum must use other ways of gathering information they need to understand what others are feeling. This is possible, of course. Otherwise, blind people would be unable to feel empathy, which I’m sure is not true.

It is true that people on the autism spectrum have difficulty with interpreting facial expressions. This does not mean that it can’t be done. Neurotypical people have this instinctive ability, but it is a skill that can be learned. And facial expression is not the only way to communicate emotion.

Another reason people may think that autistic people lack empathy is because they may not manifest feelings the same way neurotypical people would. Many of us have a perception of what empathy “looks like.” Just because someone doesn’t display those behaviors, that doesn’t mean they are not feeling those feelings. In fact, there is one theory that people on the autism spectrum feel empathy so intensely that they can’t deal with it and appear to shut down.

What I think we need is not more empathy from those on the autism spectrum, but more empathy from neurotypicals toward those who may experience and express feelings in ways they don’t expect. All minds don’t work the same way, and that’s something we would all do well to keep in mind.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2012 08:36 am (UTC)
Empathy/Eye Contact
I am a female with Asperger's. Most of the empathy I feel toward other people is when I sense they are in pain. This is something I remember feeling since the age of 4. (I had very painful eczema as a child and very bad nightmares.) On the other hand, I don't much empathize with many styles of happiness. A lot of things that people seem happy and smiling about just bewilder me. However I can understand animal sadness AND content/happiness. Animal emotions are virtually tangible to me. As for eye contact, that is elusive. Besides, I have always read emotions on faces by looking at peoples' mouths. That way I also am more clear about what they are saying because the moving lips reinforce the sounds. When there's a lot of background noise it can be hard to decipher people. I once had to take a test and tell the doctor what emotion people had by looking at their eyes, and I did not do well. It was baffling. It seemed like I could only narrow the answer to friendly or angry. If they had shown only mouth expressions I would have scored much higher. I remember asking the doctor, "Can a lot of people figure out a person's feelings just by looking at eyes?" What a revelation that was. It instantly reminded me of the first time that I realized you could memorize phone numbers by pattern and not think about the numbers at all. Thanks for your blog!
Mar. 1st, 2012 12:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Empathy/Eye Contact
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. It does seem to me that there is a lot of information to be gained by looking at people's mouths.

You might enjoy Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's blog, Autism and Empathy. http://www.autismandempathy.com/

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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Jacqueline Houtman
I'm a freelance science writer based in Madison, WI. I also write sciency fiction for kids. My award-winning debut novel, THE REINVENTION OF EDISON THOMAS, was published by Front Street/Boyds Mills Press in March 2010.

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