Thursday, April 12, 2012

If I can't sleep, I might as well try to offer my thoughts on the subject of empathy. I am going to cop out and use the bulleted list format, however.

  • I feel that it is offensive in the extreme, to say that autistic people do not feel empathy. Because empathy is one of those attributes that is supposed to define humans as being different from animals (I might argue this, but not now), to say that people with autism do not possess a fundamentally human perception and experience sort of implies that we are a little less human than other people.
  • Who is to say what we do or don't feel? Does Baron-Cohen ask us if we feel empathy? It appears that he simply concludes that we don't based on observation and symptomology and our way of relating to the world. If he were instead to simply ask people on the spectrum something like, "Have you ever found yourself experiencing an emotion based on what was happening to or going on with another person or animal?", I am pretty sure he would get very different results. But no. As far as I can tell, this sort of thing happens a lot. People assume things about autistic people based on observation and a lack of empathy on their part.
  • Because, the truth of it is, people tend to have more empathy for other people who are like them. This is exactly why we demonize people we are at war with; by distancing ourselves from them, it is much easier to convince a nation that it's ok to kill those other people- they are not like us, they don't feel, dream, hope, grieve, think like we do. It's just the way things are. I have no idea what it's like to be male. I can try to imagine, but really, it's all speculative and based on asking questions of actual men (please note, this is more than some researchers seem to do!!) and the most compassionate, empathetic man in the world is not going to really be able to understand what it's like to be a woman, however hard he tries, either.
  • I will freely admit that autistic people often have trouble relating to the neurotypical mindset. Less acknowledged is the other side of the equation, which is that neurotypical people have at least as much difficulty, probably more, relating to the thought processes and emotional states of autistic people. We are surrounded and inundated with neurotypical media, role models, etc. We have it pounded into us from an early age, whether we understand it or not. In terms of exposure to the other side, autistic people definitely have the advantage here!
  • In other words, yes: neurotypical people will tend to have more empathy for their own type, and autistic people will have more empathy and understanding for other people on the spectrum, especially since there are fewer of us and there is often the perception on our part of being persecuted or unaccepted by the rest of the world. That people have more empathy for that which they can relate to is inevitable.
  • That doesn't mean we don't try, or that we don't feel empathy, although it may be clumsy, misdirected, very poorly expressed, etc. And be fair- it does in fact work the other way round as well! How many normal people demand eye contact from people who are made very uncomfortable by it? That's not empathy.
  • What people express isn't always what they feel, and or, it isn't always foolproof. For example, let's say that a woman is crying. She could be any of the following: sad, happy, angry, relieved, tired, in pain, afraid, frustrated..... I sometimes think women are more challenging than men to read because women have been taught to squash some of their emotions into more socially acceptable expressions. You hardly ever see a man crying because he's angry, but women do this regularly.
  • In truth, nobody really knows what someone else is thinking, feeling, or experiencing unless they ask or are told. If we did, people wouldn't go to marriage counselors or read books about how to better understand others, or have long, in depth conversations sharing their feelings and thoughts. I think it would be a pretty boring world if other people weren't something of a mystery, if everyone was an open book with absolutely no surprises!

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