Susan's Blog

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

What is Empathy?


Empathy: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

The other day in my favorite bookstore, I came upon a paperback by Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Science of Evil. I have not read the book, but in the New York Times Book Review in June of 2011, Katherine Bouton writes: “The Science of Evil, by Simon Baron-Cohen, seems likely to antagonize the victims of evil, the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder…” Baron-Cohen is in some ways the Bettelheim of the Modern Autism Era (1989-present) because he is the one who coined the term “MindBlindness” and developed the Theory of Mind. I believe that these concepts have likely done more harm than good, at least in the hearts of autism parents. I can’t speak for people on the Spectrum, but I assume that some of them don’t like it being said that autism = inablility to empathize. But this is essentially what Baron-Cohen believes and has researched. While I see how he came to those conclusions, I do not understand why he has not moved beyond them. His theory when applied to autism is flawed because he is attributing flat affect and perhaps communication errors and neurological mix-ups to an inner lack of empathy. In other words, just because someone with autism can appear not to care about or understand another person’s mind, doesn’t mean that is the truth.

I don’t believe that in autism, empathy itself is broken, as much as is the mechanism for interpreting social signals and cues. Nat, for example, may smile at a moment where smiling is basically wrong. That doesn’t mean he is sadistic. I believe it means that he doesn’t know not to smile. But he might be feeling the “correct” emotion. Smiling may mean something different to him than it does to me.  Baron-Cohen and those who use the term Mindblindness are reading the autistic’s signals wrong.

In the wake of the violence in our nation of the last few years — the killing rampages in Columbine, West Virginia Tech, and Newtown — and the speculation about the diagnoses of the murderers (the media asked questions like: Did they have Asperger’s? Did this have any relation to the deadly behavior?) it is absolutely necessary for us to unhook autism spectrum from explanations of evil. And if people continue to believe that autistics have no emotions or empathy, then autism is going to be blamed for crimes that actually have nothing to with it.

My experience with autism spectrum is very different from the misconceptions in the media. People will still ask me if Nat has special brain powers. My guess is no, but he is particularly gifted in charming people. Just today, I had wandered upstairs to my room, where I was suddenly experiencing an awareness of depression, dripping all over me like cold rain. Nat was in my room, on my bed. I knew he’d leave because I had come in. That’s what he does.  He doesn’t like to stay in a room with someone else, if he has previously been in there alone.

I was looking in the mirror, thinking, “why?” as I often do when I’m depressed, as if coming up with the reason will somehow make it go away. I heard Nat walking around near my room. He was near my door and I said, “Nat, I’m starting to feel really sad. I don’t know why.”

“Yes,” he said, and stopped his pacing. He paused a beat, and then he came quietly into my room, settling himself on the bed. He stayed a while, watching me in the mirror, looking intently at my expression, my tears, my eyes — with simple yet complete presence.  And after what seemed to be a decent amount of time, he left. But for the rest of the day, I could still feel him with me.


I love that and couldn’t agree with you more. It’s not a lack of empathy at all, it is a different way of perceiving or communicating it. And the empathy and emotion is so powerful when it comes from these people. I had an experience a couple of weeks ago that will stay with me for the rest of my life. One of my guys, whom I had known for 30 years was very very sick. I was at the hospital sitting with him and his parents who had become part of my family all those years ago. J was incredibly connected, more than at any other time. I was sitting next to him talking softly and he looked into my eyes, straight into my heart. We held the gaze for a long time. There was a peaceful energy in that room that I’ve never felt in that way before. I stayed for a few hours and his parents for the rest of the day. J spent 5 hours that day holding his mom’s hand and looking at her, which in all of his 37 years he had been too physically active to do. For a guy who was completely non verbal, his communication was profound. He gave his mother a gift that day and he gave me one too. In retrospect, I realized that he was saying goodbye to us. He gave his mom the peace that he was feeling to help her through what was to come. I truly believe that. It made all the difference to her. That is empathy.

— added by Michele on Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm

What a beautiful story, Michele. Thank you.

— added by Susan Senator on Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 9:48 pm

My eldest has minimal to no empathy, severe TOM (which the school is working on as well) and is slowly (very slowly) mastering the basics of inferencing. The world revolves around him, he has no ability to improve on something simply because it gives pleasure to himself or anyone else. As I call it he’s missing the “I give a shit” gene.

No, I’m not being mean, nasty, cruel etc… the school has officially discovered it this year when they pushed his social skills for going into high school. They don’t ask “how will so and so feel” because honestly he cannot answer that. What they ask is “how would you feel”.

My bro is exactly the same. It happens, it exists, and we don’t find it funny, amusing, “a way of being” but a flaw and one we have dealt with and taught to since he was small. Because of this we have an annoying teenager (aren’t they all?? 🙂 ) but one that does very well in social situations although we can’t always promise the verbal filters will hold and sometimes there’s some interesting stuff that gets said. But overall, he does better than most children/adults with his HFA in public places/activities and enjoys attending them.

Now, ironically, my severe 11yr old is emotionally normal. He’s very socially blind, but he’s happy, he feeds off my emotions and reads them well.

When you have one on either end of the emotional spectrum, what a “lack of empathy” is becomes very obvious.

— added by farmwifetwo on Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 8:06 am

Definition of Empathy
Empathy is most often defined by the metaphors of ‘standing in someone else’s shoes’ or ‘seeing through someone else’s eyes’. After combining and synthesizing the different ways the word is used, here are the four basic aspects of empathy that I have come up with. One way to think of it is as the ‘wheel of empathy’. There are 4 major spokes to the wheel but we can keep adding more and more to become more and more ‘granular’ in describing the process

— added by Edwin Rutsch on Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 12:01 pm

If I bang my arm or something and say ouch, Dylan will always stop what he’s doing and come over to me and rub his hand over the affected area. Yesterday something upset me and I was crying just a little, tearing up, trying to keep it to myself, but he noticed and as I was sitting at my computer he started kissing me on my cheek and forehead repeatedly. Then he stopped and looked me in the eye and said “I love us” I don’t know if it’s exactly empathy but he certainly doesnt like when something is troubling me and he does things he thinks will make me feel better 🙂

— added by eileen on Thursday, January 3, 2013 at 6:14 pm

This post reminds me of one Lance Mannion, a blogger with a son with Asperger’s in college, wrote about empathy and Asperger’s a couple of months ago:

On another note, so glad to read someone criticize Simon Baron-Cohen. I can never figure out how he gets taken seriously. Extreme male brain? How ridiculous and how sexist can you get? It’s like something out of Cosmo magazine: Does your man have and extreme brain? Six ways to tell.

— added by Barbara on Saturday, January 5, 2013 at 2:35 pm

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