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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  • Jess


  • PK

    Thanks, M. I love your writing. I completely agree with you. It’s just insulting, and I

    I’m curious to hear what some other cultural examples of empathy would be. The “eye contact debate” brings up the fact that other cultures don’t interpret direct eye contact as “normal”, and in some cultures it’s an insult or challenge, etc. What, I wonder, is considered a “typical” display of empathy in Japan or China or the Middle East?

    I shared this on Jess’s post: “We NT’s might see that someone’s upset, and we react from the heart when we care. BUT sometimes we won’t actually really care, BUT we can PRETEND to empathize appropriately because we have the built-in wiring/rule-book or we’ve picked up the “appropriate” reactions through osmisis. We can fake it. Autistic people can’t (generally). And that makes US uncomfortable, I think, and we try to make a bigger chasm about empathy than there actually is. If every NT had the amount of empathy we keep blathering about, there would be NO bullying – but that is VERY much not the case.”

    So far, I haven’t personally heard this directed at my child or spoken in general. It’ll be interesting should it happen …

    • m kelter

      The cultural factors are definitely relevant, and just indicate how extremely nuanced and complicated these issues are. the little boxes do not fit…and autistics are a diverse group, their relationship with empathy is equally diverse, the rigid labels do more harm than good, prevent us from really understanding things.

  • April T.

    Oh god, yes, thank you. I saw this this morning and it made me angry enough to want to punch a puppy. I’m pretty non-violent so just making violent phrases says a lot about my anger levels.

    PK, both you and M had some wonderful responses; Jess, good lord, thank you for keeping the conversation going.

    At what point do we stop and think: just because you can’t understand it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or have it’s own innate value? We used to think the world was flat (lol) because we couldn’t SEE past our own noses. We were unable to recognize our own limitations. What is, is far greater than what our own limitations can perceive. And the only way that we can push the limits of what we know and understand is to open our minds up and say “No, I am NOT sure. I haven’t the damndest. While I will continue to try, as is the human way, I will also recognize that I am limited always by my own measly perceptions.”

    When I was getting assessed, I made it very clear how I felt about using Cohen’s stuff for assessment–I think theory of mind deficits and empathy limitations are universal and to focus on those things as static autistic traits does a grave disservice to the very research they are trying to do. The issue is that our social deficits are more obvious; therefore our deficits are more pronounced. That doesn’t mean that inherently all individuals with autism have theory of mind or empathy issues. I have seem those across the board. Some people just hide them better than others, people with charisma, people who were raised on a manners based system of interaction, people with narcissistic traits, people who learn to “network” well. What we focus on, we get more of. When we look at a map and see nothing but the molehill, it looks a whole lot more like a mountain; when we spend more time and effort trying to scale those geographies than seeing and utilizing the terrain of the bigger picture, we have often wasted so much breath and energy to come out of other side only to say “well, I’ll be damned.”

    And in the process–who gets hurt by this? Those who are under the microscope by those who hold the microscope.

    Empathy, theory of mind, deficits and strengths–those really are a human condition, a personality trait that transcends the boundaries of singular neurologies.

    • m kelter

      well put, thx for this April. Glad you expressed your reservations about these issues during the assessment process. As I read personal stories from the spectrum, both from people on the spectrum and family members, I just don’t see that many rock solid rules and labels…autism is complex, empathy is complex…and when people box everyone inside of these very simplistic categories, it just seems to shut down the learning process, make true understanding even harder than it already is.

  • alexforshaw

    This debate mirrors the one around the validity of trans people’s experiences in their identified gender. The same dismissal on the same grounds: you are different from me, therefore your experience, however similar it might appear, cannot be as valid — as real — as mine.

    I don’t know how empathy feels to any one of the other 7 billion people on this planet. I don’t assume that they experience it the same way I do. It doesn’t matter as long as what we each call empathy fits the same definition. (I prefer the everyday definition in the dictionary for this – it doesn’t get lost in irrelevant philosophical musings.) If the end results are the same then the process is irrelevant — it’s like arguing over what kettle to use when all you want is hot water for your coffee.

    • m kelter

      Thx for this perspective, Alex! Kettles and hot water: well put.

  • Elizabeth

    As usual, an excellent post. Awareness to avoid “boxes” and stereotypes is so important and you frame it well.

    • m kelter

      Thank you Elizabeth, appreciate that.

  • Ariane Zurcher

    Oh how did I miss this one?! I’m putting the link on my “Some thoughts on empathy and stereotypes” post!

    • m kelter

      thx Ariane, that is kind of you…your post was very inspiring, i hope people will read it…lots of great posts this week, it’s always amazing when the community picks up a topic, cross-bloginates.

  • emmapretzel

    Thisssssss is how I feel. I remember commenting on Jess’ piece the other day to similar effect. I also know I continually find myself frustrated when I attempt to counter intelligent people who feel they have the authority to invoke the “cognitive empathy” argument. I want to go through all the reasons it’s completely unsound…but there are so many problems with it that I don’t even know where to start.
    Like…one of the most infuriating consequences of the cognitivism-over-behaviorism shift in psychology is that theories and arguments are posed in terms of “mental states” (or some other construct), completely ignoring the fact that we’re still only measuring stimulus-response relationships. And I feel like it’s topics like “empathy” (and “theory of mind,” and so on) where that obsession with invisible and un-observable mental states is the most damaging: when psychologists measure and record different people’s responses to emotional stimuli/situations, rate those responses based on a some metric they’ve made up, and then publish that data as evidence of the relative presence/lack of empathy within different individuals’ “mental states.” As if their observational techniques, and systems of measurement are completely free of socio-cultural/normative bias.
    The reason I get so overwhelmed when trying to critique these uses of “empathy” is probably because they’re all predicated on the existence of a basic, unbiased, consistent example of empathy against which all other responses and variations can be measured. I should have figured this out a long time ago; only logical positivism gets me this riled up. (Also, I just wanted to end by saying that there was a Derrida-fueled rant about “the myth of self-presence” that almost happened here, but I refrained, in order to not seem like a complete tool.)

    • m kelter

      “As if their observational techniques, and systems of measurement are completely free of socio-cultural/normative bias.”

      Yes, that for me is the most frustrating part…it’s basically where the “2nd class” effect kicks in: even though the distinctions they are making are flawed, too simplistic…implied in their categories is a heirarchy…their views are on the pedestal, autistic views are now “less than”, so it can be difficult to feel like you are having a fair back and forth.

      And please, feel free to discuss Derrida any time here. I’ll respond with Foucault, the production of knowledge within the medical model context. You wouldn’t “seem like a complete tool”…and would very likely win bonus points.

      • emmapretzel

        Yeah, it’s just not sound reasoning to argue that autistic subjects in a study exhibited “impaired activity” on some scan solely because their scans differed from the control’s scans. It’s the opposite of sound reasoning. Of course, then they say “But we used a questionnaire/test of X ability/function as well, and the autistic subjects were impaired on that too!” Which is hilarious, given that 99% of all the “abilities” studied in research on autistic people actually appear in the diagnostic criteria for autism. Someone needs to tell Simon Baron-Cohen he can stop running experiments to determine whether or not his autistic subjects are more autistic than his control subjects.

        My personal favorite example of this absurdity is an article by Uta Frith’s lab from a month or two ago. They wanted to compare autistic teens with ToM impairment to autistic teens without ToM impairment (see, this is already funny!), and to control teens, to see if fMRI activation in the “Theory of Mind Network”–which they’re pretending is a thing–in the brain is impaired in one, or both, of the autistic teen groups.
        They do tests and scans. The two autistic groups both show greater activation in this “ToM Network” during a ToM task than the control group, and the level of activation the groups show is completely uncorrelated with their scores on the ToM test. Previous studies haven’t shown any consistent pattern of results for ToM-Network activation in autistics; sometimes is higher than controls, sometimes lower, sometimes the same. What does Frith and Friends conclude from these data? That they’ve found evidence of a consistent neurological abnormality present in all autistics that could cause impaired social interaction. It’d make a really funny joke if it weren’t already a peer-reviewed, published scientific article. Ha.

        [Lovely. "History of Madness" was my first Foucault! I had no idea who he was, but quickly determined that only someone really intellectual and cool would be so confusing, and that I should therefore carry the book around with me at all times. Also, I pronounced his name like "fu-KALT" (in my head), so the first time a teacher mentioned my book, I spent a solid minute looking quizzically back and forth from her face to the book jacket before my brain-lightbulb lit up. I was like "Oh, yeah. Totally. Foo-coe."]

        • m kelter

          “Someone needs to tell Simon Baron-Cohen he can stop running experiments to determine whether or not his autistic subjects are more autistic than his control subjects. ”

          this cracked me up.

          my first Foucault was “Discipline and Punish”…i didn’t know anything about Foucault, so I took it at face value that the book was a “history of state punishment”…it starts off in a fairly straightforward manner, then you realize he is basically writing a biography of modern consciousness…so i enjoyed the playfulness of it. weirdly, Foucault is pretty funny. i’m also terrible with pronunciations…it’s one of the real drawback to being an autodidact, it’s easy to just wing it, make up pronunciations and get it wrong. i’ve solved the “nietzsche” problem by just saying it a completely different way each time, basically hoping the “stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day” factor will kick in at some point.

          • emmapretzel

            But seriously: “The results of this study match my initial predictions: People who rarely look at faces are worse at looking at faces than people who look at faces all the time.”

            Yeah, I find theory/philosophy to be one of the few places where my complete and utter lack of linear/sequential ability really comes in handy. When people I know are trying to figure out how to read Foucault, or someone like him, I have this demonstration I do of how Foucauldian-style writing compares to typical intellectual writing. To represent more typical writing, I’ll get up and walk in a straight line from one point to another. To represent Foucault, I jog in a very small circles, then jog circles backwards, then spin in one place, then run away.

            Giant nerds think alike! I’ve always referred to the pronunciation thing as “The Curse of the Autodidact.” Nietzsche is killer because knowing the pronunciation then makes it almost impossible to spell. My name-puzzles of the moment include Deleuze and Guattari (they’re either pronounced exactly like I think they are, or nothing like I think they are, but I don’t know which), Canguilhem, Cixous, and Ricoeur.
            Then there’s also names where you never know what degree of “accent” to use; too much and you sound pretentious, too little, and you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. “Fifty Shades of Bergson.”
            …And then there’s Charles Sanders Pierce.

  • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    I think it’s projection. I learned that in Psych 101. We put upon others that we refuse to see in ourselves, don’t we?

    • m kelter

      so it turns out Psych101 CAN be useful…I like your style.

  • Autism Adventure

    Processing how I feel about this as I have never heard it explained quite that way. Empathy has been something I taught my son to think about since he was small. How would you feel if……So how do you think they feel? I wanted to say that I really really appreciate your article. It is something for me to think about. You did a great job explaining it. Empathy is very important to me because it is linked to compassion (to suffer with) which is essential to my Christian faith. It also helps me connect with others. When my son was diagnosed it was one of my main concerns because I was concerned about his ability to truly connect with others. We have someone else in the family who is older and we are all now certain that he in somewhere on the spectrum and he has almost no ability to see anything from another s perspective but, I don’t think anyone tried to teach him. I think watching him is what scared me but, my son caught on really quickly (a few years maybe) and now I think of him as having a lot of empathy and even though he processes it differently I don’t really think of it as a different empathy.

    • m kelter

      “When my son was diagnosed it was one of my main concerns because I was concerned about his ability to truly connect with others. ”

      I know when i was a kid, i wanted very much to connect with others…yet struggled mightily to make those connections happen. ultimately, i’ve just learned that i interact in a slightly different way…i connect in my own way. it doesn’t always look like everyone elses version of connection, but it’s just as real and valuable. and i think the same thing applies with empathy…there are many, many paths to empathy; some of us get there on a path that is uniquely our own, but it’s no less valuable, so i liked your statement, “though he processes it differently I don’t really think of it as a different empathy”, i thought that was very well put. thx so much for the comment, appreciate your insights about this challenging issue.

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