Tag Archives: empathy and autism

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

Empathy and Autism

My thinking on this topic has changed since I last posted about Emma and Empathy over a year ago.  I am not convinced that Emma “has a terrible time figuring out what another person is thinking or feeling.”  Today that is not something I would say.  I often wonder if Emma feels things in the extreme rather than not at all.  I have read a great many articles written by people on the spectrum who describe their feelings and responses to other people’s emotions as being too much for them.

One young woman, Dora, says:  “I often feel things too deeply or have too much empathy and have to run away, not because I am callous, but because I feel so strongly it causes my brain to shut down or freak out.”    Her statement is similar to another woman with autism, who’s amazing mother, Clara Claiborne Park wrote two books about her daughter, Jessy.  She describes how Jessy would cover her ears and could not tolerate certain words because they were “too good”.

When one of us is upset and Emma appears to completely disregard our emotional state, whether by ignoring it or making sympathetic comments, which to our ears strikes us as insincere, I have to question whether our interpretation is accurate.  How can we know what she is really experiencing?  We cannot.    I choose to believe Emma is deeply sensitive to her  own and our emotions, but just as she has trouble expressing herself verbally, she may express her feelings differently as well.

Dora goes on to point out:  “The notion that we don’t have feelings frees up people to commit atrocities against us without accountability.”

When I hear neuro-typical people discussing autism I am often surprised by the conclusions they come to.  How differently might we treat someone if we believed them to be fundamentally unintelligent?  How would we speak to them?  What things would we say because we believed they have a low IQ, lack empathy, could not understand us?  How would we treat them as a direct result of our assumptions?   If we decide a child’s behavior is a form of manipulation or because the child is “spoiled” or because they “think they can get away with it”, do we not treat them differently?  Isn’t it true we can behave in some pretty horrific ways when we make assumptions about other’s actions?  Isn’t it easy to rationalize our behavior when we’ve decided a person or child is “dumb”, “less than”, “inferior”, cognitively unaware”?  And what if all those assumptions we’ve so quickly and easily come to are completely wrong?  How does our response stand up under further scrutiny?  Have we not behaved with callous disregard?  Have we not completely “disregarded” their “feelings”?

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and her relationship with her brother, Nic go to: www.EmmasHopeBook.com

Emma in Union Square Park – Summer, 2011