As a person with autism, I often hear that people with autism lack empathy. It is a hot button issue of debate between most Autistics and the medical and mental heath professionals. As autism continues to receive negative press, following the Sandy Hook tragedy and the alleged tie to Asperger’s, the empathy debate has been rekindled, but this time it is cutting deeper into the wounds of Autistics. This particular social tsunami is reshaping our societal shores, which is traumatic for those of us who are forced to live at the edge.
What Is Empathy?
Today, empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously esperiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another. The word empathy has only been in the English Language since 1909. The English word was coined by a British Psychologist named Edward Titchener in his studies on the structure of the mind, better known today as Structuralism. Dr. Titchener wanted to classify structures in the mind like chemists classified elements into the periodic table. Without getting too technical, Titchner believed that the goal of psychology was to study mind and consciousness. He defined consciousness as the total of mental experience at any given moment and the mind as the accumulated experience of a lifetime. He felt these experiences were the basis of reasoning. Since today we focus more on behavioral and cognitive psychology, the theory of structuralism is mostly ignored.
When using the word empathy, Titchener was attempting to translate the German word, “Einfühlungsvermögen” meaning “feeling into.” If we follow the etymology through the Greek, the word can be tied to meanings such as physical affection, passion, partiality, and suffering. What is most interesting is that empathy is often related to Alexithymia, from the Ancient Greek modified words lexis and thumos meaning “without words for emotions.”
Why the painful and dry etymology lesson? It should be understood how words begin and evolve into their current meanings. According to my research, the origin of the word empathy focused more on the feelings of self rather than the ability to recognize and relate to the emotions in others. In addition to that, the word Alexithymia, which is often used in tandem with empathy, seems to more accurately descried what we autistics experience – a loss of words to describe emotions. The idea of Einfuhlung (the German word that gave birth to empathy) wasn’t really explored until the publication of a philosophy paper by Robert Vischer in 1873. In other words, empathy derived from philosophy and is a relatively new idea in the grand scheme of time.
So Are You Telling Me There Is No Empathy?
No. I am simply recounting the history to show that the concept of empathy is a philosophical and theoretical construct that we have redefined over time to label and understand the basic human idea that we feel emotions for others even when the other persons feelings are different from our own. (check my sources at the end of this article for further reading)
I will propose, however, that we cannot measure the lack of empathy in another human. Why? Well, we can’t measure empathy so how can we measure a lack of empathy? In my opinion and personal experience with autism, the supposed “lack of empathy” associated with autism is actually an illusion caused by Alexithymia, compounded with sensory system overloads, and a thinned membrane in the brain that inhibits the ease of bilateral communication – all which are manifested in autism. In other words, since there are so many communication and expressive deficits in autism, along with the inability to sync thoughts in real time (or when immersed in the moment), we autistics can appear unfeeling when we are actually quite moved.
You’re right, I promised not to get too technical. Let me try an analogy.
I used to own a 1967 Malibu. Being a junk yard find, the car had many issues, including electrical issues. I bought a new wiring harness and went to work. The new harness was a re-production part and included wiring for air conditioning, which my particular model did not originally have. However, since other Malibu’s had a A/C option, I knew I could get it to work. I spent hours running wires, splicing, connecting and testing. This job even required the removal of the dash, which in 1967 was solid metal and very heavy. After several days and countless hours, every wire was finally connected. I hooked up the battery for a test.
I never could have predicted what happened next; when I attempted to use the turn signal, the windshield wipers moved, when I depressed the brake pedal, the brake lights blinked, and when I turned on the heat, the radio came on too. I was floored. The first thought that ran through my mind was that I had incorrectly hooked up some wires. For the next several days, I re-read the wiring diagrams and re-checked every single connection in the car. Everything was in its proper place. Defeated, and confused, I took the car to an automotive electrical specialist. He smiled and told me to check the grounds.
Car electricity requires a ground. A ground is a place where excess or “leaking current”, called fault current, is carried away harmlessly. Since I did not properly ground the electrical system of this car, the fault current had no where to go. Since the current doesn’t just disappear, it ran back through the system to other points, causing the strange behavior in the car. Since the car was old with no on board computer system, the car could not communicate with me.
In autism, we have a fault current and no ground. Overstimulated by our heightened sensory system and trapped in thought by our communication system, we display an array of behaviors that are not related to the cause. Flapping, humming and rocking are just a few examples of this, as is what looks like a lack of empathy.
Tying It All Together
I become very agitated when I perceive hypocrisy in another. During my morning news reads and social media scans, I keep seeing hateful messages in everything from headlines to user comments. Obama shows support for gay-marriage, and then the internet is barraged by hate talk. People begin to post pictures online of them eating at Chic-fil-A, an openly anti-gay institution, while using a technology built on the achievements of Alan Turing, a gay/cultural icon. When news outlets ran with rumors that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman, had Asperger’s Syndrome, again the hate talk flooded the internet stating that the lack of empathy in autism causes autistics to be a violent threat to society. Posting hate rhetoric and reporting harmless autistics to the police are behaviors that are the furthest from empathetic.
Yet, how did the autistic community respond? Did we post hate rhetoric about NT’s? Did we boycott all NT owned businesses? Did we rant or rave using hypocritical actions? No. We mourned. The autistic community was sad, scared, and expressed a deep compassion for the victims and their families through a host of generous and symbolic gestures. When we were attacked for being autistic, we posted photos of ourselves, listed out accomplishments and led the world to a more compassionate view of autism. Through compassion and empathy, we separated the autism debate from the Sandy Hook tragedy, giving the focus, honor, and respect the victims really deserved. Why should their tragic deaths be obscured by an irrelevant debate over autism?
Autistics are great mimics. We learn communication and the expression of emotion through hours of hard work, and by mimicking that which we see displayed by the neurotypical world. We autistics are struggling in the dark to show you our compassion, our intelligence, and our accomplishments amidst a social firing squad, armed by an apathetic political agenda.
If the neurotypical world wants the autistic world to better express our empathy, then perhaps the neurotypical world should be a better model of empathy. The hate rhetoric, the hypocrisy…..enough, enough, enough.
Some of My Sources