Some Thoughts on Stereotypes and Empathy

Stereotypes are more problematic than not and yet most people, even though they may be unconscious of this, behave according to what they’ve been told or have observed to be true, even though it may not be true.  So, for example, if we are told Autistic people lack empathy, we will unconsciously be on high alert for any example of this.  In doing so, we behave in accordance with the very stereotype we are critical of.  In other words our own empathy suffers.

In the case of war, where we are fighting an “enemy” this type of stereotyping is actively sought and pursued so that those who are on the front lines can justify their actions.  We are told the enemy are “radicals” or “terrorists” or “fundamentalists” or “extremists” or unduly aggressive, thus justifying our own aggression toward them, which is seen as “good” and “necessary”.  Often we are told the enemy is deceitful, even “evil” or “bad”.  Stereotyping is usually negative, but not always.  It is a way to claim pride and feel a sense of belonging to one group, while seeing the other group as different, lacking understanding and often threatening.

To take this a step further, the people, usually a group of people who are not the majority, such as those who are being grouped into the “lacking empathy” category, may also internalize this idea and be on the look out for instances where they “lack empathy.”  And yet, most of us can find examples of this if we look hard and long enough, times when we have behaved in ways that would be seen as “lacking empathy”.

Empathy is both a feeling and the ability to sense another person’s emotions as well as imagine what they might be thinking or feeling, coupled with the ability to communicate all of this.  If communication is even remotely an issue, expressing one’s empathy will be difficult.  If you are in a country where the spoken language is not one you understood or know, its culture one you are not familiar with, would you be able to adequately express the empathy you felt in a way that would be recognized and understood?   Is it possible you would be misunderstood and labeled as something that you are not, simply because the cultural norms did not come naturally to you or you had not learned them and could not express yourself in a way that the other group recognized?

Additionally being on the defensive, feeling constantly attacked and criticized might also erode your ability to express yourself.  Feeling anxiety, judged, and ill at ease might put you on high alert.  It’s really tough to feel for other people when you are in a state of almost constant attack.  This is counter intuitive to all human beings regardless of their neurology.  But saying that those who are under almost constant attack (and for those of you who will argue that this is hyperbole, please know I am not suggesting every single person whose neurology is Autistic is feeling attacked, rather I am pointing out that many are and have been saying so for quite some time now) lack empathy is an interesting twist, exonerating one’s own actions and part in all of this, while holding another to a higher set of standards.

While stereotypes may help one identify with a specific group, they are largely negative and encourage assumptions that, more often than not, exclude rather than include.   I keep hoping we are heading toward a more inclusive society, but so many of the current debates suggest otherwise…

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference - July, 2013

Emma, Mark Utter and Ibby at the ICI Conference – July, 2013

This post was inspired by yesterday’s post over on  Diary of A Mom, that Jess alerted me to.

Related Links from others:

Empathy as a Form of Communication by Michael Forbes Wilcox
Not Guilty by BJForshaw
I am in here by Mark Utter
The Sound and Worry By Arianna
Inventing Empathy by M Kelter

34 responses to “Some Thoughts on Stereotypes and Empathy

  1. The stereotypes about autism and empathy are just so damaging, off-base…and now people are trying to hide these stereotypes behind cheap, Psych101 labels. They will often say, “Well, okay…maybe autistics have empathy…but it’s not intuitive, cognitive empathy.” These distinctions are the same old stereotypes in new clothes, and just as wildly inaccurate.

    The truth is that the autistic community is large, complex, diverse, no two people alike. the simplistic Psych101 labels simply do not fit such a diverse group of people, especially when it comes to a topic as enormously complicated as empathy. Thx so much for this post, really appreciate your insights and compassion.

  2. “Additionally being on the defensive, feeling constantly attacked and criticized might also erode your ability to express yourself. Feeling anxiety, judged, and ill at ease might put you on high alert.”

    YES. When you’re spending ALL of your energy in self-defense–of your boundaries, of your personal integrity, autonomy, self-worth–there’s precious little energy left for reaching out to others…especially when those others are the people who, deliberately or not, are putting you in bad situations.

    • It’s a bit like the old – put the oxygen mask on yourself before you attempt to help another with theirs. No one is suggesting that by putting it on yourself first you lack awareness or empathy for the person sitting next to you, yet this is essentially what is being repeatedly said with the whole “you lack empathy” stereotype.

  3. Wow, I’m almost embarrassed that the connection between sensory processing overwhelm and empathy wasn’t obvious till I read this. Will you be posting a link to this on Diary? It brings up a really great point that I don’t remember seeing before.

    • I don’t feel comfortable putting a link to my blog on hers… even though I’m sure she wouldn’t mind… however I did put a link to hers on my post above 🙂

      • Oh for heaven’s sake, post away, sister. always!!!

      • I love the connections from blog to blog. This community is so supportive, educational, thought provoking, etc. Do you mind when commentors link you up to other posts? Thanks 🙂

        • No! I don’t mind at all. In fact that’s how I had my “great awakening” way back when. Someone sent me the link to Julia Bascom’s blog Just Stimming and I’ve never looked back. Also loved that Jess just sent the link to her old blog post, that made me laugh and happy.
          But some people (not suggesting you, Jess ❤) don’t like it and many say it’s rude, specifically to promote one’s own blog on someone else’s, so I just like to err on the side of caution, even though I do not see it as “promoting” but more exchanging related posts…

  4. M, I was about to quote you and then, poof, here you are! I was going to say, as I said privately to Ariane a moment ago, “As my friend, M, says, there’s nothing better than cross-blogination.” lol The best part? This particular cross-blogination started a long, long time ago. By way of a hearty “Amen,” I just went to find something similar that I’d written nearly two years ago about empathy and expression and language and all that messy stuff and wouldn’t you know it, it turns out that the post I was looking for was prompted by none other than Ariane. It’s just too deliciously, circularly, well, circular. This is what I’d written back then, quoted here as my way of saying, “Ariane, I couldn’t agree more.”

    Ariane’s post took me right to the crux of it – this difference between having / experiencing / knowing / feeling and comprehensibly expressing. And all that our insistence on the latter as proof of the former implies.
    If you found yourself in a Bantu village in East Africa tomorrow and someone asked you, in Swahili, to tell them a bit about yourself, could you? Even if you could somehow discern what they were asking, could you find a way to answer them? How? Might you try speaking reeeeeeally slowly in English? Gesturing? Drawing?
    And if not, if you couldn’t find a way to express yourself in a way that made sense to them, would that mean that you didn’t know who you were? That you had no sense of self because you couldn’t find a way to make yourself understood?
    And following down that road, does an inability to convey your thoughts in a way that NT people can discern mean that you don’t *have* the thoughts you have? How about feelings? Empathy? Knowledge? Self-awareness? I’ll take a stab at those if you don’t mind … No. No, no, no and hell no.
    No more than not being able to speak Swahili means that you don’t know who you are.
    Thank you, Ariane, so much. For continuing the conversation and continuing to inspire me to be a better parent. xo, Jess (Diary of a Mom)

    • Haha! Jess, did you see the reply I just wrote to PK on here? You were writing this while I was responding to her… “cross blogination” indeed!

    • PS this is like some sort of overlapping blog-talk… and can I just tell you one more thing? I was invited to speak (Congo) where you will be speaking with Ari in April, but because of some timing snafus (I didn’t see the email in time) was unable to respond in a timely manner and once I did, suggested Emma “speak” by reading some of her writing, they’d booked you. So pleased you’ll be there with Ari. You guys will be formidable!

  5. One of the strong effects reinforcing stereotypes is confirmation bias: people in general assign greater importance to observations that confirm the beliefs they already hold, as well as interpreting ambiguous evidence as supporting their views. A negative effect is that people do not look for evidence that “can’t exist” according to their beliefs.

    The result is that if somebody is told that autistic people do not show empathy, they will not look for signs of it and so perpetuate the false stereotype. The way to counter this is to teach people to approach things with an open mind, to question what they are told. Not something that often happens in our education systems.

    • Such a good point, Alex. And in addition, it has been shown that countering stereotypes often happens when individuals have the opportunity to meet another individual from the group that has been given the stereotype, thus seeing for themselves how wrong these stereotypes so often are.

  6. It is very easy for people to understand that a person who’s afraid of loud sounds probably has very sensitive hearing, but for some reason, when it comes to empathy, they assume exactly the opposite. I feel other people’s emotions as strongly as if they were my own, so being around people who are suffering makes me just as miserable. I want to help them, but I don’t know how and I’m afraid i’ll mess things up.

  7. Terrific, Ariane. You wrote in your very personalized style which brings these concepts to life. I especially smiled when I saw the reference to communication, because I has written a (rather drier) piece about that a while back:

  8. Mark in the pic with me and Emma is a perfect example of why it is hilarious (not in a good way) to think we-as-a-group are “just-not-empathetic.” Everyone should watch Mark Utter’s movie right now and check out his way of being in the world if you want to meet someone who basically personifies kindness and compassion, which I think are the actual virtues we are saying-in-code that people who “lack empathy” fail to possess. It’s called “I am in here.” Get it at as soon as you can and you’ll be smiling soon thereafter. Ariane, I love you. Love, Ib

    • Oh thank you, thank you for the link Ibby!! I’ve just put it at the bottom of this post under “Related Links”. It is such a great movie and along with you, Mark is one of the kindest, most emphatic person I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
      PS I love you too, Ib. (“So much”, as Emma would say!)

  9. I am currently writing an essay for school about I find this entry very interesting. Good Day!

  10. Reminds me of a post I did in January, “The Sound and the Worry.” I watch TV with captions because my empathy is too great, as I had to explain to my science teacher.

  11. Pingback: Inventing Empathy (the autism spectrum and empathy types)

  12. Presumption of autistic people having no empathy is horrible and scary. As a mum I find it shocking that kids are presumed not to have empathy and then treated with no empathy as a result. So grateful to the autistic people who are sharing their inner thoughts hoping that this myth will be busted xoxo

  13. usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    I’m thinking of writing a book, “The Science of Greed, Using “Othering” to Further Your Career as ‘The World’s Autism Expert'”. Whadda y’all think?

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