A common description of autistic people is that they are incapable of empathy, and this is often reflected in the popular media as meaning that autistic people are incapable of compassion as well. Anyone who takes time to read the extensive amount of writing by autistic people online and off can see that these characterizations are overly simplistic and do not remotely approach the truth.
Indigo Jo posted a criticism of Simon Baron-Cohen’s recent book, Zero Degrees to Empathy (called The Science of Evil in the US), which describes four conditions that he describes as lacking empathy:
I recently got hold of two books by Simon Baron-Cohen which focus on the subject of empathy. The earlier, The Essential Difference, focusses on the difference in empathy and systemising between men and women; the more recent (published this year) is titled Zero Degrees of Empathy (the American edition is called The Science of Evil) and is about specific disorders that involve impaired empathy, in which he includes autism, Asperger’s syndrome, borderline personality disorder, psychopathy and narcissism. The first two he calls “zero-positive”, meaning that they have worthwhile qualities, while the last he calls “zero-negative”, meaning they have nothing to recommend them and lead to self-harm, social alienation and anti-social behaviour. He also posits the idea of the autistic brain being the “extreme male brain”, an idea first advanced by Hans Asperger in 1944 but only translated into English in 1991. His ideas have offended a lot of people within the autistic community, particularly women with autism who object to being described as more male than most men, as well as some who say that their empathy is much more highly developed than Baron-Cohen gives them credit for. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has been one of his most articulate critics from this camp and you can read her views here: , , , .
Much more, of course, at the link.
One thing about that post that gets me is the quote from Simon Baron-Cohen in which he dismisses autistic criticisms of his work by saying that the people who criticize it are simply not autistic enough to be representative. This is fairly typical of many researchers, who find it more important to impose their own models on autistic thought and behavior, and ignore what autistic people have to say about their thought and behavior.
I’ve never particularly been fond of the “extreme male brain” theory, as it arbitrarily defines certain traits (systemizing) as being inherently male and other traits (empathizing) as inherently female (and as far as I understand, there is not sufficient evidence to support this) . Indigo Jo’s post above and Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s new site (below) go into great depth on this topic and explain what is wrong with it.
Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg of Journeys with Autism has also recently started a new blog called Autism and Empathy: Dispelling Myths and Breaking Stereotypes (quoted from this post on Journeys With Autism):
In light of the prevailing mythology that autistic people lack empathy, and in response to the damage that this stereotype does to our lives and to our psychological well-being, I’ve created a new website.
Autism and Empathy: Dispelling Myths and Breaking Stereotypes exists to undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long.
It will feature writing by autistic individuals, by autism parents and family members, and by others who understand that autistic people all along the spectrum experience the world in highly empathetic and sensitive ways. Telling our stories, describing our experiences, and speaking the truth in our own voices, we can break dehumanizing stereotypes and increase understanding.
I welcome all submissions, including previously published work. Please submit your piece or a link to your work to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a blog, help spread the word! Provide a link to the Autism and Empathy website, and post an announcement. Together, we can make a difference.
Also, for the record, I am on the autistic spectrum.
Edit to add: I do know some autistic people do in fact report lacking affective empathy. One thing I’ve seen Amanda Baggs point out is that autistic people can tend to extremes – having a really strong trait or not having it at all, and this seems consistent. In this context, I should clarify that a significant part of my issue with Simon Baron-Cohen is his universalizing of things like “lack of empathy” and “lack of theory of mind” as core deficits in autism when even by his own research they are far from universal. Also, both tend to be very poorly explained and misunderstood and misreported by the media, as well as being taught to future professionals in ways that dehumanize autistic people.