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What is Empathy?

Posted Jan 01 2013 8:54pm


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.

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