Inventing Empathy (the autism spectrum and empathy types)

Debates about Aspergers, the autism spectrum and empathy generally go something like this:

Side 1: Autistics struggle to experience empathy.

Side 2: Actually, many autistics not only have it…they may even experience a surfeit of empathy.

Side 1: Well…okay. But it’s not cognitive empathy; autistics don’t intuitively “get” what others are feeling. They first have to process social cues and arrive at the empathy the way others might solve a math problem.

Side 2: But the empathy is still very real and often intense.

Side 1: Maybe, but again, it’s not true cognitive empathy.

And so on. (You can see a perfect example of this discussion in todays post at Diary of a Mom, it’s a great read. And please check out this post at Emma’s Hope on this topic, it’s another vital perspective.)

When this debate pops up, what generally happens is that Side 1 brings in labels like “cognitive” and “emotional” empathy as a way of establishing that most people (neuro-typicals) experience “true” empathy, while autistics have to “problem solve” their way to empathy.

Let’s be very clear about what’s happening in these moments: when someone incorporates “types” of empathy into a discussion about autism…what they are really doing is a creating a 2nd class empathy. They are minimizing the authenticity of autistic reactions, while simultaneously putting neuro-typical reactions on a pedestal.

Which is nothing new. The “Sure, autistics have empathy, but not cognitive empathy” is an updated version of the old stereotype: “Autistics lack empathy.” That stereotype is false, dangerous…yet alive and well. It’s just hiding behind a new set of terminology, thanks to these cognitive/emotional labels.

The truth is that empathy is far too complicated to fit into a series of cute little boxes. Cognitive versus emotional, intuitive versus delayed; labels like these are fine……if you are teaching a Psych101 class. If, however, you are discussing the real world and real people, these labels are far too simplistic to be of use. And once you begin to discuss autism, these labels do far more harm than good due to the long history of damaging stereotypes relating to this topic.

Empathy does not exist in a vacuum. It integrates and interacts with a vast array of human traits, to the point that it has no clear boundaries or definition. I’ve witnessed a lot of discrimination in my life, for example; the news is filled with stories of crime, poverty, hate. Is this because most people lack empathy? No. It’s just that empathy is deeply connected to cultural norms and belief systems…it’s not a singular, easily identifiable thing. It is integrated with the fabric of human life to such a degree that simplistic labels explain nothing about it’s true nature.

So, don’t use these labels. Don’t make these arguments.

Researchers, mental health professionals, journalists, general public: do not discuss autism and types of empathy. Just don’t. You lack the scientific literacy needed to accurately describe and understand what empathy is, how it works. You lack the ability to make cautious, responsible distinctions…the kind that are required for a truly meaningful conversation.

Personally, I’d like to see a moratorium on the autism/empathy issue. Just stop.

You should not be allowed to broach that topic until you can do so without the lazy use of stereotypes and Psych101 labels. (I’m estimating that we’re at least twenty, thirty years away from that happening, probably longer.)

I’m not saying I can make all of the right distinctions. I can’t. That’s why I strive to avoid making erroneous arguments…that’s why, for example, I avoid pointing out that if my empathy takes longer to achieve? Maybe it’s more valuable. Maybe your faster,“intuitive” empathy strikes me as being fairly shallow…sort of the fast food empathy to my gourmet version. Ahem…what was I saying? Oh, right: not gonna make those arguments. They would implicitly validate the very labels I’m hoping we can do away with, at least in the context of autism issues.

We need discussions predicated on a genuine desire to understand one another. And you are not qualified to participate in that discussion if you utilize the half-formed vocabulary of empathy “types”. These labels prevent honest discourse and wall people off behind discriminatory labels.

I cringe every time someone condescendingly acknowledges that, sure, autistics have empathy; I feel like I’m receiving a little pat on the head. Then they continue: “But it’s not cognitive empathy.”

I suppose I should buy into this fairly meaningless distinction…it’s been repeated enough by now, it’s just part of the discourse.

But I don’t buy into it. I don’t think it’s a humane distinction.

I don’t believe in a 2nd class empathy.

You can find more Invisible Strings on Twitter and Facebook. Recent posts: I discuss the ups and downs of Aspergers and friendship during high school; a discussion about how families can perceive spectrum traits; and a look at the spectrum, persona and mimicry during adolescence.
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