How the mainstream construction of empathy has harmed the autistic community

How the mainstream construction of empathy has harmed the autistic community

Excluding references and external links, here are a handful of psychological constructs and the number of times they appear in the Wikipedia page for “empathy” as of March 18, 2021:

  • Antisocial: 3
  • Bipolar: 3
  • Narcissism and narcissistic: 3
  • Trauma: 3
  • Schizophrenia and schizoid: 5
  • Borderline: 8
  • Female: 9
  • Male: 9
  • Pain: 15
  • Personality: 16
  • Psychopathy: 21
  • Disorder: 25
  • Autism: 31
  • Distress: 34
  • People: 41
  • Cognitive: 58

Excluding autism, these constructs exhibit a pretty clear pattern: specific diagnoses or individual traits (i.e.  “antisocial”, “borderline”, and “narcissism”) are not discussed at length, while more general terms such as “people” and “cognitive” are discussed at greater length. However, regarding “autism” as a keyword, we can note that “autism” is disproportionately discussed compared to other constructs listed. Indeed, the word “autism” appears more than both “female” and “male” combined, and more often than any other diagnosis.

Deep-diving into the actual contents of the Wikipedia page, a number of psychological concepts and theories are proposed to describe the presupposed lack of empathy exhibited by autistic people, and attempt to explain why this occurs. Autistic people are described to have “deficits in cognitive empathy as well as deficits in both cognitive and affective empathy”. Citing fMRI studies, it is noted that “alexithymia is responsible for a lack of empathy”. Alexithymia is defined as “the inability to recognize and articulate emotional arousal in oneself or others”.

Indeed, “high-functioning autistic children showed reduced mirror neuron activity in the brain’s inferior frontal gyrus (pars opercularis) while imitating and observing emotional expressions”. This implies that the ability to imitate and observe emotional expressions indicates a sense of empathy. More problematically, it implies that empathy can only be neurologically indicated by neurotypical people, and divergence from a neurotypical brain expression of empathy necessarily means a lack of empathy.

Let me ask you this: does it, though?

We are extremely familiar with psychological constructions of the concept of empathy. Less familiar to people may be sociological constructions of empathy. Per Dr. Elizabeth Segal, Professor of Social Work at Arizona State University, “social empathy is defined as the ability to more deeply understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities”. Dr. Sam Richards, sociologist at Penn State University, as well has a magnificent TED Talk on how teaching empathy is instrumental in sociological training, both within and outside the discipline.

Let me draw your attention to the biggest difference between empathy as a psychological construct and empathy as a sociological construct. When we define empathy as a sociological construct, it’s a very intentional and deliberate act. It is the conscious and willful choice to gain an understanding of another person’s or group of people’s circumstances, when presented with the information necessary to gain that understanding.

On the other hand, within this psychological construction of empathy, empathy is demonstrated behaviorally: monkey see, monkey do. In order to appear empathic, we are instructed to operate under a set of socially-constructed behavioral guidelines that autistic people struggle to recognize and adhere to. This is why autistic people and our presupposed lack of empathy appears to have been researched ad nauseum. However, autistic people don’t struggle with these behavioral guidelines because we necessarily struggle to have empathy. It’s because these guidelines are made for and by neurotypical people using unspoken social cues that autistic brains, by definition, struggle with.

Today, I’m going to posit two takes:

  • Empathy, per its more mainstream construction, is not actually an inherently good thing.
  • The preoccupation with autistic lacking empathy encourages prejudice against and dehumanization of autistic people.

As we’ve discussed, tremendous scholarly attention has been paid (predominantly by neurotypical people) to how autistic people lack empathy because we struggle to display it within the parameters set by a neurotypical society. We don’t mimic or observe emotional displays very easily. We find it difficult to identify the emotions of others and sometimes even our own emotions. Because these traits are valued and cherished highly by neurotypical society, it is challenging for people who don’t have these characteristics. Conversely, it very handsomely rewards people who do.

Consider the outcomes of people who do have these preternatural traits. People who can easily mimic, reflect to others how they themselves must feel, and easily identify with the emotions of others find themselves extremely successful in the worlds of business, sales, law, and politics. Indeed, on the campaign trail, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were praised for their abilities to use empathy to build relationships with their constituents. Not only did Trump’s ability to read the room and work an audience make him a successful reality and game show host, but it eventually won his favor with the American Rust Belt, securing his 2016 presidential victory.

In addition to encouraging people to vote for him, Trump was also able to use these traits to convince his constituents to not wear masks to protect themselves and others from COVID-19, support a tax bill which benefited an incredible few of them, and eventually storm the Capitol in response to completely unfounded allegations of voter fraud during the 2020 elections. As discussed, Trump is a brilliant reality and game show host, substantially more brilliant than he ever was as a businessman (and certainly as president!). This would not have been possible if he didn’t exhibit these superficial markers of empathy.

Now that we have finally reached 2021, we can see what the consequences of the Trump administration were for all Americans. Over half a million Americans have perished from COVID-19, and that statistic alone is enough to decry Trump’s presidency–and the social, political, and economic systems which made it possible for him to be president at all–as a colossal failure. Let’s take a look at the reverse. What are the consequences of creating a culture that insists that people who lack this superficial empathy must lack empathy period? What happens when the psychological community wastes unfortunate amounts of time insisting that autistic people do not have empathy? What does that look like for autistic people?

I asked an online support group for autistic women the following question: “How have you been personally affected by the stereotype that autistic people lack empathy?” For contextual purposes, I will note that this support group accepts self-diagnosis in its entrance criteria; as accessing a diagnosis can be difficult for autistic adults, particularly autistic adult women, this is common in online support groups for autistic people. For some respondents, the stereotype prevented them from fully identifying with their diagnosis, or even accessing a diagnosis at all:

I get dismissed as a neurodivergent often because I’m extremely empathetic. It’s super gaslighty and patronizing to be told I’m not autistic just because I have empathy.

I didn’t think I had autism for most of my life because I have empathy… couldn’t be more wrong!! Such a stereotype.

Yup. Didn’t get diagnosed until 46 because I have too much empathy. So, you can say it has literally effected (sic) every single day of my life until 2 months ago.

undiagnosed. basically anyone I tell that I strongly believe I’m autistic immediately discounts my self-assessment bcs I give a shit about other people.

I often doubt if I have autism because I am so strongly empathetic… from the various groups I have been in, it seems plenty of autistics DO have empathy, but I just sometimes feel like an imposter (I’m also self diagnosed though I have done hours of research.)

Other respondents actually reported identifying with the stereotype, but suffering negative ramifications as a result:

I actually really struggle with empathy (and struggle with wanting to achieve it too). I have reasonably intact cognitive empathy but very little compassionate empathy. So the stereotype hasn’t harmed me, it’s actually partially accurate and validating for my case. … I can’t actually help having no compassionate empathy, I’ve tried to care but I just don’t and get irritated by having to pretend to. Of course it’s one of those traits that people seem to find unsavoury and don’t want to be associated with but it’s as out of my control as any other trait I feel. … I mean I do get it sort of. Why would you care to understand someone who says they don’t care or can’t find the motivation to try. But there is a difference between choosing not to care or being mean and just really struggling with a gap where it’s supposed to fit.

I’ve always found it ironic that some folks will talk about people who struggle with different sorts of empathy in such an unempathetic way. … I have difficulty showing empathy. I can feel when people are upset when I’m in the room with them but typically if they aren’t in the room I don’t really feel it. But it doesn’t affect my own emotions the same way other people are affected.

I actually believed I lacked empathy because there’s lots of things that others will feel sad about that don’t bother me at all, but I realized very recently that I do have empathy … Just because watching the news doesn’t make me sad doesn’t mean I have no empathy. I just show and experience my empathy differently. … So yeah for me the ‘lacking empathy’ wasn’t /completely/ a stereotype for me. I think there is SOME truth to it. But it is harmful and makes autistic people feel less than human or like we’re cold heartless people when we’re not. We’re very nice and kind and helpful and we absolutely do have empathy, it just looks different.

A recurring theme was the plea that autistic people indeed feel empathy very strongly, but often struggle to express it, particularly in a way that lines up with neurotypical expectations:

I struggle to read the room a lot so when I do finally get it I become more aware of people’s emotions and it causes trouble me. I wanna cry when others are upset even if it has nothing to do with me. And contrary to belief I do love I just struggle to show it because I don’t like to touch people, being around too many people, and I certainly don’t like being touched unless it’s by someone I 100% trust. It makes people think of me as emotionless but I am really not. I just shut down from being overwhelmed. I Just because I have trouble understanding and then I tend to shut down doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings. 98% of the time I am feeling anxious.

I have a really tough time showing it outwardly. I feel it all inwardly though. If someone gets upset, I’ll stare at them. But inside, my heart is breaking for them and I struggle to process it.

… I will feel intense empathy, to the point I hurt for someone deeply inside, I feel what they feel. However, I do not outwardly express this very well. I can come across extremely cold and uncaring despite feeling deep emotions.

My boyfriend however has said sometimes that I am “eerie” at times with my lack of displayed emotion and I have also been called “cold” because I don’t pre-emptively react to situations in a way I guess most people would do intuitively/automatically?

Also to note, I believe we feel empathy but often lack the social skills to show it, I can feel sad for a person and not know what to do and sometimes trying to do something can make the situation worse and not be what the person wanted

I think that one of the reasons autistics are said to not be empathetic could be because a shutdown due to taking in too much can look a lot like ignoring or being indifferent to issues when it’s really just trying to process it all.

By failing to do the work necessary to unpack how autistic people feel and process empathy, and instead declaring that we lack empathy because we lack a neurotypical presentation of empathy, the psychological construction of empathy has created an unfortunate stereotype. It could, however, be argued that indeed since some autistic people do report struggling to “feel” empathy internally in the same way they expect a neurotypical person would, that this does support the argument that autistic people lack a capacity for empathy.

However, at no point do any of these responses, including those from people who do admit to struggling with empathy per its psychologically-constructed definition, preclude the respondents from participating empathically in a sociological sense. None of these responses demonstrate an inability to deliberately see where another person is coming from, adapt an understanding of  their lived experiences, and behave in accordance with that information. Moreover, as was aptly pointed out by one respondent, there is a puzzlingly unempathetic narrative surrounding the stereotype that autistic people lack empathy. Regardless if such a stereotype is true, it should not be used to support the widespread dehumanization or infantilization of autistic people, often by the very organizations which claim (and get paid) to advocate for us.

I will close with a quote by American livestock scientist and autistic advocate Temple Grandin. There is so much attention devoted not just to the autistic “lack” of empathy, but also our other perceived behavioral flaws as well. The autism services market annually generates between $5 billion and $7 billion annually, much of it in the form of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) treatment. Billions of dollars each year is spent on forcing autistic children to learn to make eye contact, have fewer meltdowns, and engage physically and socially with peers and family members.

Is this empathic?

Is this a deliberate attempt at understanding what the autistic experience is like?

Or is the stereotype that autistic people lack empathy just another way to justify abusing them into neurotypical presentation and complicity?

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