A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Autism and Empathy

One of the many controversial topics in autism is its relation to empathy, that is whether autism in any way and in any cases helps or hinders one develop empathy or a ‘theory of mind’ and how this should affect the relations between the non-autistic and autistic populations. Even professional philosophers in the area of the philosophy of psychology/psychiatry debate and argue over such issues, especially given to this day no precise definition of autism exists. Deborah Barnbaum, for example, in her book “The Ethics of Autism” puts forth that indeed a lack of a ‘theory of mind’ is what characterizes and then tries to reconcile this with various ethical systems to try to come up with one that would work for people who lacked a ‘theory of mind’ (they lack the understanding that other people have minds). Other philosophers have criticized Barnbaum and others for holding such views and how holding such a view is not only dangerous for the autistic population’s well-being, but for the human race in general, as it corrupts people’s intuition of what it means to be a person.

I myself lean heavily towards the latter view, especially given as someone with autism who does experience empathy (and I know a lot of others do too). Another interesting book I read on the subject was The Philosophy of Autism by Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing. It is a series of articles by professional philosophers who gave their own views on autism and how it is best for people with autism to fit into the world. One article that particularly intrigued me on the issue of empathy was written by Dr. Michelle Maiese of Emmanuel College in Boston. In her article, she carefully analyzed how two people without autism primarily interact through the use of body language. Her theory is that neurotypical people (people without autism) communicate through their bodies becoming attuned to one another and forming an affective frame with respect to each other. In her words, it is an “emotionally coloured lens”. She maintains that when this happens, it is not only that neurons in the brain that are doing all the work in achieving boldy attunement. Rather, it is the whole body that gets involved. Also, there is no first observing, and then inferring, and then the body deciding how to respond. Rather, the two bodies that are communicating do so, to use another term she used, are in a “shared dance” that is based on pure emotion.

She uses her theory of describe what goes in someone with autism. Since the brain isn’t the only thing involved in bodily attunement, she argues that a different rewiring of the brain is not the only difference between someone with autism and a neurotypical. She defines empathy as the ability to feel for others and to do so through bodily attunement. While the sensory problems that a lot of people with autism have interfere with their ability to achieve bodily attunement, they still indeed can conceptualize empathy in the brain and from there to go on to achieving a society that rests on empathetic principles. They may do this entirely different than the body attunement method. People with autism tend to like order and structure, for example, and so they use rational thinking to conceptualize a world that runs on empathetic principles. So while they do not have empathy in the bodily attunement sense, they still have empathy in the ethical sense, which is how Maiese argues for the ability of people with autism to empathise.

While I would hesitate to include this bodily attunement right in the definition of empathy, I do believe that Maiese is right in her analysis here. I particularly like how her explanation of how two neurotypicals intereact through bodily attunement has little to do with any kind of a logical process. I highly doubted there was any kind of logic to it anyway and it really opens up just how different the ways are that we can interact.

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Comments on: "Autism and Empathy" (11)

  1. Below is my personal story that proves we have at least as much empathy as anyone else:
    I’m Autistic, and because of this, cannot easily tell if someone’s upset unless they are crying. Yet when discussing loom bands earlier, a friend who can’t make them said, “I don’t even want a loom band.” Most NTs would have taken her at her word, but I immediately offered to make her one since I can, and the offer was accepted. Who said I’m not empathic?

    • Thanks for replying and I do think you’re right. I guess what I was trying to get at is that it can be challenging for NTs to view someone was empathetic if his/her body and/or words aren’t responding in an “appropriate” manner. NTs can sometimes be quick to draw the possible conclusion of a lack of empathy, when in actual fact it’s something else altogether (such as difficulty in communicating with body language, tone of voice, etc).

  2. And no one wonders what it says about all these people when they discuss autism as if we are incapable of voicing an opinion of our own. 😉

    • Thanks for commenting, yes, people who do research autism do have to be careful to not let their own opinions overshadow those who are on the autism spectrum. Different researchers will often disagree and fortunately there are researchers out there who are genuine and treat people with autism as people and not as people who “need to be fixed”.

      • So far when it comes to reseach I have found the Markams, Temple Grandin and Michelle Dawson. All either on the spectrum or parents to someone who is. I’d love to read from more researchers who are as open minded. Do you have some names to track down by any chance?

      • There is Simon-Baron Cohen, if his ideas interest you. And also the book (which contains various philosophical essays by various philosophers) The Philosophy of Autism, edited by Jami L. Anderson and Simon Cushing.

      • Baron Cohen is a superficial idiot if you ask me. I was talking about research tht does not look what is broken in us. Will check out the book. 🙂

      • I suppose Baron Cohen can come across as negative toward people with autism in his language, but I just look past it and find his ideas interesting regardless. Since I have no background in psychology, however, I don’t feel comfortable promoting or rejecting his theories myself at the moment. There are at least a couple of chapters in the book I mentioned where it’s more apparent autism is being shined upon in a positive way so I hope you enjoy it 🙂

      • I tried to look past it. Have read several of his papers, seen interviews. I see many flaws as do others. My prime issues with him is not his condescending attitudes but his condescending theories about which criticism is raised that is scientifially solid. Anyhow there is a book to consider so i will focus on that 😀

  3. This is really helpful to me – I found the link through my niece who follows Seventh Voice. Thanks for the insights! I and many of my large extended family have ASD traits to varying degrees, and I frequently find myself wondering what it is that I am missing socially, when I work so hard to be inclusive, kind, thoughtful, attentive, calm, etc!! Why is it that some people, often quite unpleasant or boring or domineering or manipulative at times, draw people to them and their ideas, outings, projects, so much more and so naturally? This body dance theory makes total sense, but as you say, is not logical. Can it be learned, do you think?

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