Who can't empathize with whom?
July 2, 2011 10:25 AM   Subscribe

"It’s an oft-repeated and erroneous stereotype that autistic people lack empathy." Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who was diagnosed with Asperger's at the age of 50, blogs about the different kinds of empathy and to what extent they are present in those with autism.
posted by Obscure Reference (93 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite

 
As someone with Autism, who has been told repeatedly that we don't understand either irony or empathy, i find the opposite to be the case. The signal to noise ratio is completely out of whack, as is the ability to process what I am feeling, or how to feel.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:39 AM on July 2, 2011 [11 favorites]


As a "neurotypical", I just can't imagine what it would be like to be one of those horrid artistic people.
posted by orthogonality at 10:43 AM on July 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


Mrs. Trurl affectionately calls me her "little Aspy boy". So a personal experience of mine might be informative.

We were sitting together in the living room when she spilled some hot tea on herself and cried out. I immediately paid attention to her but otherwise waited to see whether it was anything serious.

It wasn't. But in the pain and annoyance of the moment, she found my looking blankly at her to be unendurable. "Why are you just staring like that!"

Now I'll have to ask you to take my word for it that I'm very devoted to my wife. I would have gladly volunteered to endure the burn myself if it would have spared her.

So it was not that I was indifferent to her ouchie. But whatever is the thing that lets regular people conjure up the appropriate facial cues of sympathy in such a situation is a thing I don't have.

Sorry about that. I don't like it much either.
posted by Trurl at 10:47 AM on July 2, 2011 [53 favorites]


As inquisitive humans, we have a need to classify everything as much as possible. The broader the subject gets, the harder it is to stick everything in one "box". Autism exists along such a broad spectrum that it's natural for most people (especially those who don't have any close relationship with autism) to accept a "shorthand" understanding of it.

It's bad enough to have to struggle with what most people take for granted. To be completely misunderstood on top of that has to be incredibly frustrating.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 10:52 AM on July 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


The most frustrating thing for me, is the constant need to translate everything that I do to proper responses, and to have that translation fail completely. This work is so autistic, because it is a work of taxonomy and translation...like Trurl trying to figure out how bad the injury of his wife is before he did anything.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:56 AM on July 2, 2011


I pass, by and large, but the ultra-sensitive hearing (I always carry earplugs; some high pitched sounds drive me batty) and reaction of others to my blank-face until I've processed the right response do make things a little difficult. On the other hand, I get some benefits in my photography and other work (focus & perception enhancements) so I am figuring this "autism" is just another axis along which humans vary so there are enough different phenotypes available in a population to allow us to exploit resources (and each other) effectively.

In other words, I think autism is something (like near-sightedness, and being an asshole) that is a superpower some people get via the roll of the die that doesn't benefit them /personally/ but does benefit the tribe as a whole through division of capabilities. (We're not all equally gifted, but when we stand together we are stronger as a team than if we were all equal.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:05 AM on July 2, 2011 [21 favorites]


I was watching a sad movie and started tearing up. My seven year old autistic son came over and patted my face, saying, "Mommy is crying. Why is mommy crying? Mommy sad." Then he hugged me and patted my back saying, "It's okay. There, there. I know, I know. It's okay." He checked to see if I was still upset, then ran off to tell his father.

He was repeating a bit of Ni hao, Kai-lan, some Sesame Street, and a little of my own past comfort attempts.

Sometimes he misses a social cue and seems awkward, but never because he isn't trying to reach out and connect.
posted by FunkyHelix at 11:09 AM on July 2, 2011 [41 favorites]


While I don't doubt that people on the autistic spectrum have feelings, something about the claim that autists/aspies have supernatural emotional empathy seems a little far fetched. From the article:
I have read story after story by autism parents who say that their children cry when they see scenes of animals suffering;
Which is completely different from how those stoic "neurotypical" children would react to seeing an animal hurt. Or:
I see a film in which a person is being shot, I immediately imagine the bullets tearing into my own body.
I think every man who has seen another man kicked in the balls knows this feeling.
posted by stavrogin at 11:12 AM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've been diagnosed with having a very mild form of Aspergers, characterized by sensory defensiveness, difficulty maintaining eye contact (particularly in otherwise uncomfortable situations), and a deficit in reading facial expressions and body language, along with other miscellaneous manifestations.

I also lack empathy in some respects - for panhandlers, for those whose suffering is not apparent in my daily life, for followers of religion in general and those of contemporary or near-contemporary origin (Mormons, Scientologists, others) in particular.

In my anxiety and depression, I once thought that I was entirely lacking in empathy... but it was in learning the extent of my deficit in reading facial expressions that I discovered otherwise.

As the neuropsychologist gave me that test, which showed me a series of close-ups of people's eyes, and made me choose the proper emotion for each from a multiple-choice list, I found myself becoming angry. Not because I was obviously failing, as I found myself guessing again and again, but because I realized the pain and discomfort this failing must have caused others in my life.

How many times had I missed the cues that would be obvious to a normal person, that would make that person stop talking, or otherwise retreat from an awkward social interaction? I remembered only the most glaring cases, like when I accidentally brought one of my father's sisters to tears with a tactless evaluation of some food she'd cooked, or when my parents told me that I'd been awkward and cold in conversation with another relative I knew was gay. From that test, which a normal person would pass easily, I realized just how many more of these scenarios there must have been, and it killed me.
posted by The Confessor at 11:18 AM on July 2, 2011 [16 favorites]


Stravrogin not saying you're wrong, but I remember boarding school. Not my favourite time by any stretch. One thing I recall was getting into fights, loosing fights, because people hit posters of animals and I felt I needed to stop them. I'm pretty sure that's not normal.
posted by YAMWAK at 11:27 AM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I use to think I was on the spectrum. My roommate at the time, a psych major, told me not unkindly that according to the DSM I wasn't an Aspie, just an asshole. That honesty was a gift.

I probably am a little bit on the spectrum--it's not a concern for me any longer-- but at least the asshole thing I can do something about.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:54 AM on July 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


My autistic student this year was very empathetic... he would comfort people who were upset by trying to hug them, which kind of freaked some of them out, admittedly.

Compare that to some of the moms in my room who would talk about what a handful he is and how strange he is in front of the other kids, and even in front of his mom, once. Who has no empathy?
posted by Huck500 at 12:00 PM on July 2, 2011 [35 favorites]


5 years at MIT and nearly 20 years near MIT, and I've met dozens of people suffering from Asperger's syndrome to varying degrees.

I've yet to meet one who is unable to empathize with other people's feelings.

The ability to process cues and discern other people's feelings on the spot is one thing, and I know people who are entirely unable to do it. What's even more frustrating with such people is that they are also unable to produce those same cues and make their own state of mind discernible. That blank stare does not mean they are robots.

But the ability to empathize, I've yet to meet an Aspie who lacks it.
posted by ocschwar at 12:01 PM on July 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


Which is completely different from how those stoic "neurotypical" children would react to seeing an animal hurt.

Yes, but this is also a group of people who society tends to see as emotionally dead robots, so... Every little bit counts.

As someone who frequently gets overwhelmed by emotion to the point of not really responding beyond very subtle choking-back-tears cues, this was an interesting read and something I can relate to. What's really frustrating about any atypical psychological experience is that if other people are clued into your condition, they'll completely invalidate your experience all the time. I can be in a situation where I have to leave because I'm on the verge of tears or just don't know what to say or I need space to process something, and someone will argue with me until they're blue in the face that their perception of my response is more valid than my experience. Just because you don't get to see me sobbing in the other room doesn't mean I have a tiny, coal powered metronome for a heart.

(Not diagnosed with autism, but I have some similar baggage to carry.)
posted by byanyothername at 12:28 PM on July 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


So I do a lot of folk dancing. (Bear with me here, it gets relevant in a minute.) And a lot of social interaction strikes me as analogous to the lead-and-follow that goes on in, say, contra or swing or square dance. In order to do it "right," you need to react faster than it's possible to form a conscious reaction. You can't think to yourself "Right, he's raising my left hand, that means I could follow by turning under his arm, or I could go that way instead, now I need to decide which one I want to do this time...." — you just have to feel the lead and go, in a more or less spontaneous and muscle-memory-driven way.

And there's no such thing as a 100% natural leader or follower in any of those dance styles. Everyone has to learn what the leads mean, and go through an awkward phase of needing to think about them, before they internalize the cues and the range of possible responses and learn to react spontaneously. But there are some people who get through the awkward overthinking phase quickly — maybe it only through the first half of their first lesson. And other people spend a year or more as a overthinking dancer, really having a blast but maybe always a split second behind and never quite able to relax, before they can quit thinking so hard and just move. (For what it's worth, some of the best dancers I know spent a long time as overthinkers before they got through it, so it's not really a matter of dancing skill per se. Some people just live in their heads, and some live in their bodies, and some are in between, and that's how it goes.)

Anyway, I think a lot of the really good teachers in the dance community started out as big-time overthinkers, and were stuck intellectualizing at least some of their their lead-and-follow interactions for a long-ass time before they began to dance in a fully intuitive and unintellectual way. The dancers who made an early switch to intuition, stylistic "feel" and muscle memory have a hard time describing what they do. "Just, you know, go in the direction that feels right when your partner gives you a pull or a push." But if you want to know, in words, "Which direction is the right direction?" (or worse "Which directions are the right directions, and how do I choose between them?"), they can't articulate the rule of thumb. Whereas the big-time long-term overthinkers will be able to articulate it, has perhaps already articulated it to themself, and that makes them better able to teach and explain what's going on.

Of course, there are exceptions — people who learned spontaneity early, but can still step outside the dance and reason about it and find the patterns. They're just, in my experience, somewhat rare.

All of which is to say, I absolutely fucking love reading social and emotional analysis from people on the Autism spectrum, and for much the same reason. I usually find that they've been able to capture and articulate some useful generalization about How Feelings Work, or How Friendship Works, or whatever, that I wouldn't have been able to articulate. It sounds right when I hear it, but I couldn't have worked out the pattern on my own. And that's awesome.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:34 PM on July 2, 2011 [38 favorites]


This is a fascinating piece and I think she's right. I've written a bit about autism and empathy and the "intense world theory here and here [sorry paywall] and in my book about empathy, Born for Love.

In my experience, there are many, many autistic people who are overloaded with affective empathy and have some difficulty sometimes with cognitive empathy or with simply responding appropriately to the overload. What's ironic is that a surfeit of emotional empathy can actually result in non-caring behavior because the other person's distress is so overwhelming that you respond by running away rather than helping.

Some people have tried to argue that this is not "true" empathy because it doesn't result in altruism. I think that's wrong, I think the problem is in learning how to cope with being overwhelmed so that you can actually behave kindly.

The other irony is that some people with Asperger's may have problems with cognitive empathy not because of an inherent theory of mind deficit but because their minds work so differently that when they predict other people's behavior based on how they would respond in the same situation, they get it wrong because of their unusual perspective. So, it's a problem because if the majority of people use their own experience to "think about what it's like in their shoes." they'll more often than not get it right— but this isn't true for those who are cognitively and emotionally "different" in some way.

I almost certainly would have been diagnosed as Asperger's if I were growing up now (reading at 3, hypersensitive to sounds, lights, itchy fabrics, OCD-like behavior, complete social cluelessness resulting in being bullied, literalness/gullibility, etc.) but when I've written about it recently I've been horrified by some people's intense stigmatization of people on the spectrum.

If you suggest that someone has Asperger's, people often respond as though you've said they are a bad person: they don't stop to think that the person who is suggesting that might be saying it because they are similar and don't think it's bad or problematic to be different in this way. It's sad because I think these labels can help people understand themselves and others—but not if they are used to stigmatize and dehumanize.

But I think a lot of people don't get that the "lack of empathy" in autism is not at all like the lack of empathy in sociopathy. In autism, people tend to care about hurting others and want to avoid it—but they sometimes don't know how to do that. In sociopathy, in contrast, they know but don't care.
posted by Maias at 1:37 PM on July 2, 2011 [24 favorites]


Maias, I had a very similar experience growing up. I've never been officially diagnosed with ASD but if nothing else, I seem to have some "autistic" traits. At age 11 (the late 1970s) I was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder and had to go to OT. As a adult I've been diagnosed with mood (bi-polar II) & anxiety disorders and ADHD - disorders that are often "co-morbid" with ASD. If the diagnostic tools that are available now were available when I was a child, I would not be surprised if I got an ASD diagnosis.

The social isolation is the hardest - realizing that you've made someone feel so uncomfortable that they want to end the conversation, but not being entirely sure why. Learning how to "fake it" but never becoming entirely fluent in the unspoken rules of social interaction. Blowing off opportunities to make new friends because you're afraid that you're going to screw it up. Experiencing a distressing interaction with another person and it taking days to figure out what exactly happened and how you are feeling about it. Feeling anxiety and emotional discomfort and acting in ways that others find off-putting because you're trying to calm yourself and feel in control again.

Now I have a kid who has the ASD diagnosis. He's getting treatment and he seems to be flourishing. I try to use everyday moments to teach him how to read social situations. He starts kindergarten this August. Sometimes my heart aches for him because I know that all the treatment in the world can't protect him from the sting and confusion of rejection that will inevitably happen at some point in his life.
posted by echolalia67 at 2:03 PM on July 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Confessor : for followers of religion in general and those of contemporary or near-contemporary origin (Mormons, Scientologists, others) in particular.

Heh... Don't worry, nothing wrong with making fun of... people... who knowingly follow a "religion" created by a 3rd-rate sci-fi author to win a bet that he could found a religion. :D

As for Mormons, well, I cut them a bit more slack because their founding only involves a series of rather silly miracles, rather than an outright hoax that the founder actually bragged about.
posted by pla at 2:09 PM on July 2, 2011


One of the best things that happened to me as a small person was that, out of curiosity, I read the entire shelf of etiquette books at the library. It was rules for how to behave! I could learn it by rote and not have to guess!

I've wondered if that is something people do nowadays for autistic children - it seems like it would be better for them to be a bit overly-formal but comfortable inside the rules than for them to not have any rule-set within which to operate.
posted by winna at 2:18 PM on July 2, 2011 [8 favorites]



I've wondered if that is something people do nowadays for autistic children - it seems like it would be better for them to be a bit overly-formal but comfortable inside the rules than for them to not have any rule-set within which to operate.


In ages past, that would suffice. But our media drenched culture equates "empathy" with emotional displays bordering on exhibitionism, which no etiquette book talks about, and which autistic types couldn't get right to save their lives.
posted by ocschwar at 2:48 PM on July 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


@pla

Yeah. Also, lots of Scientologists are Hollywood types and rich people, so it's not like our empathy even really matters to them.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 2:58 PM on July 2, 2011


I've wondered if that is something people do nowadays for autistic children - it seems like it would be better for them to be a bit overly-formal but comfortable inside the rules than for them to not have any rule-set within which to operate.

It's essentially done for some children on the spectrum, depending on their adaptability. My wife designs preschool curricula, and owing to some socioeconomic factors associated with our area and the schools she visits, she does a good bit of work for children with different flavors of autism. Because preschoolers basically learn through play, it's fruitful in a lot of cases to encourage dramatic play in groups wherein children pretend to react to mildly emotional situations. It's valuable to the non-autistic children because they learn that there are differing appropriate reactions for many scenarios, and it's valuable to children on the spectrum for the same reason as well as helping to establish what wider expectations are.

There are lots of other exercises to help on-the-spectrum children develop an awareness of common social cues and expectations, both as part of integrated curricula and things done one-on-one with an OT. There are also a lot of different conditions that govern how and when these techniques are appropriate. I don't have any grasp of the nuance, I only know about it conversationally. But I do know for certain that "etiquette" of sorts can be and often is taught to children who are likely to find it challenging, and much earlier than they might be able to read up on it. Which is really fantastic-- as someone who was a quirky kid with his own idiosyncrasies (unrelated to autism), I often wonder how I would have turned out if the knowledge and resources to steer me a bit better were available.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:31 PM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


the claim that autists/aspies have supernatural emotional empathy seems a little far fetched.

Think about it this way: how would someone react who was -overly empathetic- to the point that other people's pain/tragedy/suffering caused them to feel strong (even -threateningly strong-) negative emotions? Imagine a person like that in a tragic environment or with parents who don't understand what "overkill" means?

Clearly some cases of sensory or social withdrawal are a SELF-DEFENSE mechanism. Anyone who's been badly burned in a relationship is capable of grokking that.
posted by Twang at 4:36 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


No test, no research, no science can prove love, or measure awareness, or gauge emotional sensitivity, especially when that sensitivity is literally off the charts.

The word "love" is sufficiently ambiguous that it's difficult to establish what it refers to in any context, let alone scientific. So, to say that science can't measure love says nothing about the limitations of science, nor about the transcendental properties of love.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:37 PM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Emotions are fucking terrifying. I'm not talking about any particular emotion here, I'm talking about the fact that a person might be driven to do anything at all, at any moment, because their hormones and neurotransmitters zigged when they should have zagged, and they end up falling in love (or out of it) for absolutely no reason whatsoever.

Neurotypicals misread one another's emotions all the time. It's usually not a big deal, because once it's obvious that there was a misunderstanding, they just move on. You can teach an autist to follow emotional protocols, there are classes you can take for it. You might even teach them how to be flexible about them; the author of this piece learned to do this by talking about the protocol directly, which works fine when you're in "Ask Culture". All of these individual facets of the autism diagnosis can be addressed, and even solved for some. But if you teach an autist how to act like a neurotypical, you haven't changed the way they see the world. Autism is a mental disorder, not a behavioral one, although behavioral problems often come with it.

I think the behavioral problems don't come directly from the mental ones, but rather from the emotional stress of living in a world where people will say one thing, do another, never notice they've done anything wrong, and get annoyed when you try to resolve your confusion. Neurotypical people don't really understand these issues any better than autistic people, but they are better at working past them. Sometimes that means following protocol when it doesn't make any sense. Sometimes it means ignoring protocol so you can get to something more important.

They are so very comfortable at making these decisions that they often don't even recognize that they are decisions. That's creepy too.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:55 PM on July 2, 2011 [9 favorites]


I work on and off with a couple of people who are "aspies," and while I can say that they are very smart and very much capable of emotion, feeling, and empathy, the process of leading the horse to water every single time is also exhausting. In a professional context, it gets old repeatedly explaining things like: After a number of years, I've come to understand that neither of these co-workers are being deliberately assholish. They are legitimately not "getting" any of the cues at moments like the ones described above, and they are both angry and confused and saddened at how some coworkers think poorly of them. But each time something like this happens, someone has to either fix the splatters, demand they apologize, or go through the process of and painstaking socratic dialogues: 'If you were a person who had an idea, and you had not yet discovered a problem with it, how would you feel if someone said...'

It's really painful watching the craters they dig themselves into, and strangely fascinating that they absolutely hate each other. Not because they're rude, but because they insist that the other is "always wrong." In many situations, I've found myself just disengaging rather than getting embroiled in the constant stream of conflicts. What can I do? That's not a rhetorical question. I am sympathetic don't have the energy to engage with people at that level of intensity all the time.
posted by verb at 5:16 PM on July 2, 2011 [8 favorites]


Verb, the kind of thing you're describing isn't caused by someone being on the autistic spectrum, although that might be part of it. A prick is a prick, and a prick's behaviour doesn't need excusing based on some notion of disability. Autism does not prevent intelligent people from regulating their behaviour or learning from their experiences. My stab in the dark is that the people you are describing are simply allowed to do what they want in the setting you see them in, and so have no reason to change behaviours they find comfortable and beneficial.
posted by howfar at 5:29 PM on July 2, 2011 [4 favorites]


Verb, the kind of thing you're describing isn't caused by someone being on the autistic spectrum, although that might be part of it. A prick is a prick, and a prick's behaviour doesn't need excusing based on some notion of disability. Autism does not prevent intelligent people from regulating their behaviour or learning from their experiences.

No, it doesn't prevent them from regulating their behavior or learning from their experiences, but it sure seems to prevent them (at least in the various scrapes and scuffles I've been part of the clean-up-crew on) from figuring out when they should regulate their behavior, and extrapolating the learning from one very specific experience to a similar but slightly different social experience.

Approaching those times as "Teachable Moments," and explaining to them exactly what happened and why it happened and offering heuristics for recognizing it in the future yields great results, and at least one of them is usually horrified when he realizes that offense was caused (and believes that it was 'legitimate' -- see the 'this idea is stupid, and I should not have to lie and pretend that it is not' scenario).

Where is that line drawn? When does one say, "You're not just having difficulty figuring things out, you're being an asshole?" How to respond when someone legitimately seems not to understand why that is the case, and is genuinely happy to change the specific, fine-grain behavioral issue that was the problem in each specific situation, if you invest the time in building the case for it?
posted by verb at 5:46 PM on July 2, 2011


Meh. Apologies for turning the thread into a mini-AskMe; it was really intended as a vaguer discussion about the difficulties on both sides: both dealing with the confusion of the external cues, and dealing with the hugely complex problem of interaction across the confusion boundary. If it would be better suited elsewhere or is a derail, feel free to nuke it, mods.
posted by verb at 5:52 PM on July 2, 2011


When does one say, "You're not just having difficulty figuring things out, you're being an asshole?"

I think you say it when they're being an asshole. The problem is working out when. I'll try to draw a comparison, but I can't promise it'll work. I'm dyspraxic in a mainly ideational form. I find it extremely difficult to make plans for physical movement, spacial organisation and the like. I can do it, but it's a hell of a lot of work. One of the effects of this is that I am, left to myself, extremely (read "unbelievably") untidy. This is obviously an obnoxious behaviour when you live with other people.

I'm married, and in order to have a decent relationship with my wife, one of the things that I have to do is make sure I keep things fairly tidy. This is difficult, and can be aggravating and tiring, but I'm not being a great guy when I do it, or "overcoming my disability", I'm just doing one of the things that the social situation requires of me. It's harder for me than most people, and it can take me a lot of time and effort to accomplish what appears to be a fairly simple task. But if I didn't do it, and made my wife miserable because I didn't, I'd be a prick.

If I fuck up and make a mess, it's understandable and even sometimes excusable. If I don't do my best to tidy up after, and try to keep things tidy, it really isn't.

It's not a very neat parallel, but the point I'm searching for is that someone finding things hard and making mistakes is the sort of thing we should tolerate, while a failure to engage with those mistakes and address why they happened is much less acceptable. The type of behaviour you're describing seems to be much more of the second sort.
posted by howfar at 6:06 PM on July 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm on the spectrum and trust me, I've got plenty of affective empathy. Way too much empathy at various points, and it's almost never the USEFUL kind. Because I have to intellectualize every perception of emotions (I've got fairly decent at it over the years at least) there's a significant lag in realizing when I've done something that made someone else sad or unhappy. So I'll be driving home after work and realize that I said something that in retrospect was obviously interpreted as dismissive and lowered someone else's mood and respect for me. As soon as I figure it out I'm semi-paralyzed as my brain runs through the exact emotions that I'm guessing they went through, with no way for me to stop it. Then I need to do SOMETHING to alleviate the emotions I feel.

By now I've gotten decent at figuring out when to do awkward-but-usually-helpful apologies and letting it go until I get distracted by something else I did wrong, but I constantly have to deal with my brain exploding when somewhat bad things happen to people I care about. I'll fully admit to being a bit of an asshole in ADDITION to being on the spectrum (I blame my New York upbringing on that) but that has more to do with other aspects of my personality.
posted by JZig at 6:19 PM on July 2, 2011 [9 favorites]


JZig, thanks for that explanation. It really helps to understand how the process works for you (and at least some others who are in the same place). I've had those "Oh, no, I just realized what I did earlier today" moments, and they're really difficult: I'm sorry that you have to deal with more of those.
posted by verb at 6:32 PM on July 2, 2011


I was diagnosed as autistic when I was about seven years old, and yes, I can confirm that if anything, I was too empathetic. I was absolutely despondent for a very long time as a kid once after I saw a lady give my little brother a dirty look because he was laughing too dorkily at a cartoon. I was horrified and devastated at how cruel the world was, and forty years later, I still kind of am, and if I think about it too much, I still get choked up about some random lady giving my brother the stinkeye.

People with diagnosed pathologies, though, are not entirely defined by their pathologies, so I really don't know what's autism and what's just me. However, in my case, my empathy issues are simply that I lack some of the natural ability to read others' emotions. I can do it, but it's mostly learned, so it's almost as though reading others' emotional states is a second language to me. I am pretty fluent, just not native. However, I will say that, much like a non-native speaker, I am also often better able to articulate these things because I do have to think about and understand them intellectually. I am pretty talented at social diplomacies, I think, in that I can often explain social dynamics and others' emotional responses to people who are in the heat of an argument. (I mean, I'm not out breaking up street fights, but I've had a lot of success helping people understand what's causing some odd social fracture in my close circles of friends and family, and I even have a little reputation as an explainer of stuff people do.)

Ultimately, the only real obvious empathy deficits I have are that I sometimes am a little inappropriately analytical, and my affect can be either a little flat or a little exaggerated, especially if I'm tired or if I've had a few beers or something. Those are just outward manifestations, though. It doesn't mean I do not empathize with or care about other people. I do. A lot.

And all too often, I have seen people either diagnose themselves or others with autism or Aspergers, based on some simple, assholean behaviors. And it's insulting. It really is. It's a nice excuse, I suppose, but it's facile, and it's almost always just straight up wrong. Having some deficit of mirror neurons or whatever it is does not make you an obstinate shit, and it doesn't mean you're completely incapable of parsing human interactions. It just means you have to work a little harder at it than the average person, and most of us do. People who don't work at that, no matter what their position on the spectrum, are just assholes.

And ultimately, after many years of forced self loathing, I've realized that I actually don't want to not be 'autistic.' I don't need to be reformed. I don't need to become less autistic. Y'all all need to become moreso, because half of the time, people act like a bunch of egotistic, irrational howler monkeys.

So take that, neurotypicals!
posted by ernielundquist at 6:44 PM on July 2, 2011 [18 favorites]


I have seen people either diagnose themselves or others with autism or Aspergers, based on some simple, assholean behaviors. And it's insulting. It really is.... It just means you have to work a little harder at it than the average person, and most of us do. People who don't work at that, no matter what their position on the spectrum, are just assholes.

...

And ultimately, after many years of forced self loathing, I've realized that I actually don't want to not be 'autistic.' I don't need to be reformed. I don't need to become less autistic. Y'all all need to become moreso, because half of the time, people act like a bunch of egotistic, irrational howler monkeys.

So take that, neurotypicals!



I... yeah, the transition between those two sentences kind of lost me. You started by saying, "Lots of times, assholes just use 'I'm an aspie' as an excuse," and ended with "Screw you, everyone who's not on the autistic spectrum: YOU'RE the problem."

To use your earlier analogy, it's like saying that the native speakers in a country are the problem, and they need to stop being native speakers, so non-native speakers won't face as many difficulties.
posted by verb at 7:43 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Closer to the original point of the article, though, it is really troubling to see people talk about the idea of "lack of empathy" with regard to the autistic spectrum. There's obviously a difference between difficulty perceiving signals, and empathy: I would assume that it's a bit like conflating visual impairment with illiteracy.
posted by verb at 7:48 PM on July 2, 2011


yeah it's not like they have feelings
posted by LogicalDash at 7:56 PM on July 2, 2011


My Aspie son has always been terribly concerned about injustice. He is the one who tries to make outcast kids feel better, and he doles out plenty of exuberant hugs to unsuspecting classmates. He's 16, and while he doesn't have alot of friends, he would be a staunch ally to anyone he thought was being treated unfairly.
posted by Biblio at 7:58 PM on July 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


To use your earlier analogy, it's like saying that the native speakers in a country are the problem, and they need to stop being native speakers, so non-native speakers won't face as many difficulties.

Yes, that last part was supposed to be a joke.

I don't actually think that all neurotypical people are irrational howler monkeys, and I assumed that, after what I'd said, it'd be obvious that I wasn't entirely serious and was just attempting to lighten the mood to make it clear that I wasn't actually as overwrought as it probably seemed.

I'm not even saying that I face an inordinate amount of difficulty navigating the social landscape. I really don't, ultimately. I have made a lot of money being 'autistic.' I have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, good friends, and a remarkably happy home life.

My point is that I'm not necessarily at a disadvantage, and that often, I'm actually better at interpreting and navigating social interactions than more neurotypical people because I do have a little more analytical approach. And it is more than a little insulting when someone makes a casual, armchair diagnosis of autism to explain insensitivity or arrogance, either on their part or others'.

And I really have to wonder, if they're so empathetic and I'm such a horrible, unfeeling robot, why is it that I so often understand them so much better than they understand me? I've met them much more than halfway.
posted by ernielundquist at 8:14 PM on July 2, 2011


Yes, that last part was supposed to be a joke.

OK. Now I feel dumb. Thanks for clarifying. ;-)

And just to clarify, I want to make it very clear that I wasn't trying to come at the conversation with a tone of, "I work with some assholes -- I'll bet they're autistic!" I hadn't connected any dots until one of them started lobbying for a workplace support group for people with Asperger disorder. You're right, though, that his self-identification does not necessarily mean that it is fact.
posted by verb at 8:30 PM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, I feel bad now, verb. I really didn't intend to target you with that initial post, although in retrospect, I can see it looked like I was doing that.

To put things in context, I work with those same guys you do, basically, and as a lady in IT, I frequently have had men try to excuse their stupid and boorish behavior as self-diagnosed 'autism spectrum' manifestations, not realizing that I'm actually a straight-up, professionally diagnosed autistic person. It's a pretty trendy thing for tech people to say these days.

I understand that my specific manifestation is not universal, and that I don't always entirely grok other people on the spectrum, but I've seen a lot of people try to explain away unacceptable behaviors as Aspie, like it's a get out of jail free card or something.

True and recent story: One of my few areas of expertise is in computational linguistics, articulating low-level relational linguistic rules for artificial language processing. Not long ago, I was trying to explain some basic, concrete linguitic concepts to a programmer, and he told me that he didn't understand that woo-woo magic stuff because he is a super-logical autistic robot.

Which, yeah. My job is explaining those rules to computers. Actual super-logical robots. That guy's not autistic, he's histrionic or something. Or maybe just a garden variety asshole.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:43 PM on July 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


FYI, it's possible to be autistic and an asshole.
It's really painful watching the craters they dig themselves into, and strangely fascinating that they absolutely hate each other. Not because they're rude, but because they insist that the other is "always wrong."
Well, that's more assholey/pigheaded than Aspie, imho.
When someone tells you that you are offending others, yelling that this statement has hurt YOUR your feelings and leaving work does not make the person reconsider their position.
As a resident of the Autism spectrum, I can try and guess their thought processes in this situation. It's along the lines of:

"He just told me I was wrong to call out a stupid idea. But the idea was stupid. Why should I be responsible for other people being offended? That's not my fault. Anyway, they're wrong for being offended. I don't understand why they persist in feeling that way. Why won't anyone let me express what I think is right?" and from there, they double down and try to beat other people's reaction into what they think the reaction should be. They're frustrated, but instead of trying to change their behavior, they assume everyone else is wrong.

At least, that's my thought process occasionally. It's not fun. Especially when people get angry, you get angry, and any of the more cerebral mechanisms you have for comporting yourself acceptably are blasted away.

But here's the thing: if I were in this situation, and in your shoes, verb, I'd probably have a similar reaction as you, if not stronger: because, hey, I'm Aspie and I've gotten pretty good at being diplomatic (why can't they get it through their thick skulls! I did, eventually; why can't they make an effort yadda yadda...). And of course it's easier to see other Aspies' social mistakes than my own.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:36 PM on July 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Heh. Wouldn't it be great to have a diagnosis of a straight-up, professionally diagnosed asshole?

That would clear a lot of things up, and make the world a better place for NTs and ASDs alike.
posted by empatterson at 12:07 AM on July 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


Is there a diagnosis for people who are just... clueless? Blissfully ignorant?
posted by P.o.B. at 12:23 AM on July 3, 2011


Maybe "Asshole Spectrum Disorder"?

Antisexgnosia Crapsex: "I told you, I refuse to improve, it's part of my condition!"
posted by BungaDunga at 12:24 AM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


i dunno PoB
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 1:48 AM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


A double-bind:

People with Asperger's are often asked to prove, in a logical manner, their ability to 'empathize'...while at the same time empathy is assumed to be something emotional - 'non-logical' - and the very act of logical explication strips the speaker of any claim to empathy.
posted by jet_manifesto at 5:23 AM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't it be great to have a diagnosis of a straight-up, professionally diagnosed asshole?

FYI - Borderline Personality Disorder was the professional shorthand when I worked the Psych floor.
posted by dragonsi55 at 6:30 AM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


"He just told me I was wrong to call out a stupid idea. But the idea was stupid. Why should I be responsible for other people being offended? That's not my fault. Anyway, they're wrong for being offended. I don't understand why they persist in feeling that way. Why won't anyone let me express what I think is right?" and from there, they double down and try to beat other people's reaction into what they think the reaction should be. They're frustrated, but instead of trying to change their behavior, they assume everyone else is wrong.

And let me take it a level deeper, from a personal angle: when I see a stupid idea, all I can see is the stupid idea, the thing that must be driven out lest it ruin the work/project/whatever. I have absolutely no concept of the idea as being attached to the person who voiced it. When I say the idea is stupid, that's what I mean -- but NTs rarely, if ever, have the ability to see the idea as separate from themselves. So if you call the idea they voiced 'stupid', then you've called them stupid which is not what happened but it's impossible to convince an NT of that. So, my thought process adds, "My god, they are bound and determined to be offended! It's like they can't continue to live without being offended. That's ridiculous! How can we ever get anything done if they insist on letting their emotions drive every interaction??"

Withdrawal from social/professional interactions often is not only preferable but required, just to get through the day. The times when I choose to tough it out during these scenarios are extremely exhausting and rarely productive. In a one-on-one situation, I have more space and time to try and figure out what the person might be feeling. But at work? Forget it. It's like being trapped in an endless death metal concert: pure, mind-obliterating noise.
posted by gsh at 7:08 AM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I have learnt how to be diplomatic, but not until i have professionally isolated people. I remember working on a queer arts festival one year, and seeing a logo that I hated, and instead of working thru why I hated it, and considering all of the options, I just ripped it apart. I was carefully taught to split what people do with who people are, so i didn't say anything against Christie, but the level of cruelty about the logo was apparently excessive. (and I am sure it was)

Aesthetic taste is one of those swampier areas, and this was the same time that I was obsessed with Paper Rad, and so my suggestions were untenable, but it took me years to figure this out.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:26 AM on July 3, 2011


"He just told me I was wrong to call out a stupid idea. But the idea was stupid. Why should I be responsible for other people being offended? That's not my fault. Anyway, they're wrong for being offended. I don't understand why they persist in feeling that way. Why won't anyone let me express what I think is right?" and from there, they double down and try to beat other people's reaction into what they think the reaction should be. They're frustrated, but instead of trying to change their behavior, they assume everyone else is wrong.

OMG, this was me as a kid. This is why I had no friends. But the overwhelming sense that I was *right* and everyone else was wrong and illogical kept me trapped for a very long time. I had to recognize that just because I thought social rules were stupid and irrational, it didn't mean they weren't rules and that I was the one who was going to continuously be hurt and left out and called selfish if I didn't figure out how to deal with them.

Until adolescence, I was sort of so entranced by ideas and learning that I just ignored my social problems: then I turned my mind to it with the same relentlessness that I approached other intellectual problems and basically got a lot better at making and keeping friends. To the point where many people simply refuse to believe me now when I say I would have been diagnosable as a child. I don't know if you can "outgrow" Asperger's—and I still definitely have tendencies even if they aren't always visible to others—but it seems to me that some people can learn a lot of work-arounds. But I think my focus on empathy— and the myths about Asperger's being associated with no empathy— complicate this.

I guess the question of Assberger v. Asshole behavior lies in the same murky region as Addict v. Asshole behavior: i.e., when is your will actually free and when is it constrained severely by aspects of the "disorder" or "syndrome."
posted by Maias at 7:32 AM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I've been on the recieving end of the "no empathy" line before. It's like... correct response, no, empathy yes.

Indeed, I find one of the problems I have is empathy applied to the wrong situation. A very vivid example in my life is the film clips they showed in my high school history class when we covered WWII. Specifically a WWII battle of Britain film of a real life fight between anti-aircraft guns and a German bomber. Over top of it was a lively announcer explaining like a sporting match (...moves to the left! Moving out of range. Yes, got him!"), the original narration from the news-clip. And I was horrified. We'd just watched someone's death and I was powerless to help in any way.

Thus, misplaced empathy. Nobody else was bothered but it bugs me to this day.
posted by Phalene at 9:44 AM on July 3, 2011


For me, I just couldn't figure out why other people thought that the things I wanted to talk about made me a weirdo. I mean, come on, ancient egyptian embalming techniques, multiple personality disorder, spontaneous human combustion, vampire legends of eastern europe, the witch trials of Salem - that stuff is fascinating!! It took me years to realize that while that stuff might be interesting to me, to most people those topics are kinda creepy and morbid; especially when the person going on about it is a 9 year-old girl. And always trying to turn the conversation back to those topics when the other person is trying to change the subject makes you seem even more off-putting and weird. Possessing the virtue of being acutely empathetic to other people's pain gets lost in the midst of all of that.

It's something I still have a problem with, but I've learned how to turn it into a joke "Oh look at me, another awkward silence. That's my job, conversation killer!" or "Have I made everyone feel uncomfortable? Then my work here is done!". It helps ease the tension a bit. Also, having established a reputation amongst my friends of being the person you can talk about anything without fear of judgement seems to have made this quirk of mine much more forgivable in the eyes of my friends.
posted by echolalia67 at 10:17 AM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of myself at 13. I had scored some absurdly high number on the verbal part of the PSAT (hyperlexia) and qualified for a gifted children's writer program. We wrote essays and short stories and critiqued each other's work. I was a fan of 19th century literature (whether written in the 19th c. or modern historical fiction) and had absorbed a sophisticated, by modern standards hypercorrect style. I was a SNOOT, in David Foster Wallace's terms. I might as well have been a fan of William Safire.

I pointed out improper use of English in my classmates' writing. I learned afterwards that some of them had cried and that my parents had been contacted (though I was not asked to withdraw). This was 1984, before AS was routinely diagnosed.

I call myself Bad Grammar in part because I'm a fan of Geoff Ryman and probably queer (though that part of my life is completely stalled) but also to punish myself for this episode.

This episode is something that I have afterwards regretted. I have made many AS-type social mistakes in my life, and felt empathy -- afterwards. Now I have trained myself to act slowly and filter my impulses, reflecting on how others might react. I also read the Dear Abby's and Ethicist-type advice columns regularly, trying to build up a heuristic of how other people behave. I'm still thrown for a loop by people who do not act rationally or who attempt to wind me up.
posted by bad grammar at 10:54 AM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I mean, come on, ancient egyptian embalming techniques, multiple personality disorder, spontaneous human combustion, vampire legends of eastern europe, the witch trials of Salem - that stuff is fascinating!!

WWII battle of Britain film of a real life fight between anti-aircraft guns and a German bomber. Over top of it was a lively announcer explaining like a sporting match (...moves to the left! Moving out of range. Yes, got him!"), the original narration from the news-clip. And I was horrified. We'd just watched someone's death and I was powerless to help in any way.

How can we ever get anything done if they insist on letting their emotions drive every interaction??"


OK, the fact that those three examples are considered "abnormal" or "inappropriate" just shows how completely fucked up and scarily narrow "the norm" is. It seems as if the offended person or the person saying "wow, you're a weirdo because you don't react in the 2 ways considered socially acceptable" is never the asshole, only the neuro-less-samey person.

Egyptial burial techniques etc. are fascinating topics, and people should be interested in discussion them, in some contexts. Shit, that's all we do around MeFi.

People should watch film of actual acts of war and, at least on some level, be horrified on behalf of the folks who were killed rather than being excited about the "action."

More and more, as "the norm" skews farther and farther away from rationality and critical thinking into some narcissistic nightmare of 24/7 FEELING and ME, our culture seems to be populated with people who are practically incapable of interacting in anything but a hyperemotional judgy manner.

The fact is, we're all on the spectrum -- the wide and varied continuum of human neuro and behavioral variation -- and could stand to be nicer to everybody else.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:01 AM on July 3, 2011 [9 favorites]


Thus, misplaced empathy. Nobody else was bothered but it bugs me to this day.

Seems perfectly placed to me (if you were, for example, feeling that about the airplane itself, that'd be misplaced), just stronger and maybe more idiosyncratic and longer lasting than "normal". Which is pretty much in line with Aspieness in general.

I pointed out improper use of English in my classmates' writing. I learned afterwards that some of them had cried and that my parents had been contacted

Oh gods, that was me. Totally did that to someone when I was around that age, and... he was not happy. To my credit, worked out (...eventually) that I should be much more careful when critiquing people's grammar. I make it a bit of a joke, "Sure, I'll edit your paper... fair warning, I have a pretty strong sense of what things should sound like. Your paper will probably come back with a shit-ton of red ink. It's not personal, feel free to ignore the corrections that don't work for you."

I still have a strong vicarious embarrassment reflex. "Oh god, s/he has a wrong impression; I can't bear to disabuse them, but I can see their disabusement coming like a freight train, OH THERE IT IS, errrrrk." I end up having to walk away briefly or distract myself. I think it's probably because I get really thrown for a loop if I get corrected about something I've thought is true, and something in my brain assumes everyone else reacts the same way.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:19 AM on July 3, 2011


nebulawindphone, that reminds me of Mark Rippetoe's claim the best strength coaches/teachers are people who were never inherently gifted or great at lifting but tried their damnedest to get there, even if they failed to ultimately succeed at it.
posted by ifjuly at 12:27 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow, it is great reading some of the responses here. I am somewhere along the spectrum and can pass as neurotypical but is has always been difficult meeting new people and establishing relationships.

I am very skilled at reading body language and picking up on non-verbal cues so that I am often able to point out to other people what just happened in a meeting, for example.

But in one-on-one situations with people that I have just met or am beginning to know it is like this ability slows down (probably b/c of anxiety) and it takes me a long time to be comfortable with someone. And even if I am reading all the social cues I still might have difficulty expressing myself b/c I do not feel comfortable.

All of which is to say it is difficult to express how painful it can be to be in a social setting and pick up on all of the different dynamics at play and yet feel unable to express yourself adequately. Or to pick up on someone else relating to you as if you have missed something that happened at a party, for example, when you have taken everything in and are aware of what happened. Painful.
posted by mlis at 12:45 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


What's interesting is that for neurotypicals as well, stress reduces ability to read others. Understanding how stress affects brain function explains a lot about why things are the way they are: high stress reduces empathy and intelligence; calm increases empathy and creative thinking.

fear and stress over a certain point literally turn off "higher thinking" areas of the cortex and this can diminish things like emotion recognition, etc. this makes sense for fight or flight: the lower brain regions act quicker. but it means we get dumber and meaner these days exactly when we need to be smartest and kindest.
posted by Maias at 1:19 PM on July 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Metatalk
posted by malibustacey9999 at 2:38 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd guess I would have been diagnosed with regressive autism if I'd been born in the last decade or so.

My parents used to claim I was walking and talking at six months, but then got really sick, spent much of the next two months or so in various hospitals and 'forgot'. They said I couldn't keep anything down, had terrible diarrhea, and had repeated fevers so high doctors advised my mother on at least three occasions that I would certainly die and that she shouldn't kill herself trying to keep me alive. But she persisted, and with the assistance of many tubsful of ice and two years of absolutely nothing but rice and goat's milk, I did survive.

I used to laugh at all this and tell them to quit exaggerating, but when my father died a couple of years after my mother succumbed to bladder cancer, I found a brief chronology in my mother's hand on folded sheets from a yellow legal pad detailing a number of fevers shooting rapidly up to 106F and then gradually peaking at 107F before finally subsiding, and including the interesting information that infections in my left ear were so bad they could only be treated with X-rays.

When I began talking again, they said, it was out of the blue and in complete sentences. I couldn't count to 20 at the end of first grade, couldn't read a word til the end of second and have a burning memory of being unable to recite the alphabet when challenged to do so by a classmate midway through the third. Incidentally, I have an almost absolute incapacity to grasp the rules of formal grammar.

My experience has always been that I have more empathy than other people but that it's very differently attuned. I see most of what passes for empathy as a mere exchange of social signals involving little real feeling. My empathy also wells up out of the ground as opposed to descending from on high, in that I empathize with human beings as part of my empathy for animals and other living things-- not necessarily to the complete exclusion of mechanisms. I live in an animate world.

In combination with my impulsivity and what my mate describes as a default conviction of personal sovereign entitlement, this last has led to lots of trouble. For example, I was on a bus once, sitting across the aisle from a blind woman with a guide dog, a golden retriever. She was muttering angrily under her breath continuously, and then hauling hard on her dog's leash every twenty seconds or so, choking it pretty severely and almost lifting its front feet off the ground once or twice. The dog would turn its head and look up at her in fear and confusion every time, with its tongue between its teeth a little and showing the whites of its eyes.

I was aghast, but when I looked around, nobody else even seemed to notice. After about the fifteenth iteration and with sweat from my forehead running down my nose, I lost control and burst out with "can't you find some other way to vent your spleen than choking that poor defenseless dog? If you do that one more time, I'm calling the foundation and telling them they should take back their dog." At which she doubled over and just started sobbing.

This, the other passengers did notice. Only once have I been the target of as many murderous glares from a bunch of strangers, and that was the day I (a visiting white teenager) boarded a bus in the Filmore district of San Francisco, all unaware that Martin Luther King had been assassinated just an hour before.

I really wonder what might not have happened if one other person on that bus had been as hot-headed as I am, but the worst is wondering what happened to that dog when she got it home, of course.
posted by jamjam at 2:46 PM on July 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm late to this thread due to slow internet at my travel location, but being on the spectrum I'd like to point to the above thread and say "What they said!" ten times over. Thanks, folks!
posted by DreamerFi at 3:31 PM on July 3, 2011


Could the apparent contradiction between "too much" empathy and "too little" empathy be characterized as a difficulty with self-other "boundaries" that vary according to factors such as anxiety (or, more specifically, attempts to defend against anxiety)?
posted by DMelanogaster at 3:56 PM on July 3, 2011


Reading this thread is like finding a whole bunch of long-lost twins (well, multiplets, I guess). I've long suspected I'm borderline Asperger's but since I never sought diagnosis, I avoid saying this because it's often a get-out-of-jail-free card for assholes. If I'm being an asshole there's no excuse, I should get called out for it, and I should learn from the experience. Put that analytical brain to use, y'know?

But I still find it hard to grok other people on the fly and have a tough time making friends. It takes me so long to work out a person's MO, I play it safe for a long time and keep my mouth shut, thus minimizing opportunities for sticking my foot in it (see username). I'm quite a chatterbox at heart but only a few people will ever see it. Hi, Hubby!

Reading AskMe human relations questions is really eye-opening for me. It's sometimes like a trip through the looking glass, where stuff that seems simple and obvious to neurotypicals is all "Huh?" to me and vice versa. And because I've had to learn how to cope with a neurotypical world, it irks me a bit when NTs won't go a little out of their way to accept us weirdos. Majority Privilege, I guess.

And I wanted to second FelliniBlank up there about our culture sliding more and more towards narcissistic emotion and away from reason. It's like we're turning into a panopticon made of mirrors, where we see ourselves everywhere on Facebook and Flickr and Twitter and blogs - not only our own but friends' pages too. And everyone is screeching for attention and the only way to get some attention for ourselves is to screech even louder. Ugh. I think it's bad for our society and I think non-NTs who don't like to screech are getting more marginalized by it - if you don't screech you drop off the radar altogether.
posted by Quietgal at 4:11 PM on July 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


I am no doubt somewhere on the scale, but never diagnosed. And I agree that empathy is not the way to define anything on the autism spectrum.

More, it seems like it is an oversensitivity, and the ultimate reactions and defenses from that oversensitivity. It seems like people on the AS develop the ability to read people long before they develop the ability to process those "reads" or even have a concept of the ego of themselves or other people. They just know that everyone is always lying to them, and to everyone else, and that hurts. And a developmental short circuit develops, where it becomes impossible to develop a concept of other people's egos, because they can see through the social bullshit, and see the stress that develops in someone when questioned on the lies, and really just not want to have any part of it. (On a sub-conscious level.)

People on the AS don't lack empathy, they lack bullshit empathy. Where getting all worked up about something isn't a genuine emotion, but a sort of tit-for-tat passion play they put on for each other.

It takes me so long to work out a person's MO, I play it safe for a long time and keep my mouth shut, thus minimizing opportunities for sticking my foot in it (see username).

This is a good example of this. People on the AS know that most people are not being genuine in their interactions, and indeed do have an MO. The normals can deal with this just fine, because they are wrapped up in their own egos enough that they never notice. People on the AS know the other shoe is about to drop...
posted by gjc at 6:09 PM on July 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


The other option is that it really isn't just one "spectrum", simply that the symptoms seem to align.
posted by gjc at 6:11 PM on July 3, 2011


Never liked the "spectrum" metaphor much; strikes me as misleadingly one-dimensional. I much prefer the fruit salad model. Some people have more grapes, others have more honeydew melon.

Speaking as an assumed neurotypical, it's my considered opinion that most of us are built on a pretty solid foundation of bananas.
posted by flabdablet at 6:39 PM on July 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


People on the AS know that most people are not being genuine in their interactions, and indeed do have an MO. The normals can deal with this just fine, because they are wrapped up in their own egos enough that they never notice. People on the AS know the other shoe is about to drop...

Um, no. In my experience, those not on the spectrum don't have much trouble detecting when an interaction is "genuine" or not - we can mostly tell just fine. But we're able to speedily deduce when it's easier (less time-consuming, less likely to lead to otherwise uneccesary (to us) drama, etc.) to just go along and be like "Wow, that's awful that someone dinged your car in the parking lot!" or whatever. Calling someone out on what you perceive to be their bullshit or insincerity is not always productive. And in talking about one's own strengths, it is not necessary to denigrate what you perceive to be the weakness of others who are not like you.

I really wonder what might not have happened if one other person on that bus had been as hot-headed as I am, but the worst is wondering what happened to that dog when she got it home, of course.


It's interesting to read this story from the perspective of someone who's not on the spectrum (though I am an experienced MUNI rider - the 9 Head Wound is my usual bus), and to imagine what I might have done.

For one: I would not have taken my fellow passengers' refusal to make eye contact and apparent deaf-dumb-and-blindness as an inability to notice what the woman was doing to her dog. I would have assumed that they were deeply uncomfortable and terribly uncertain about what, if any, action to take. If I had done something - and I've done potentially massively stupid things on impulse (e.g. stepping between two people I did not know who were getting into a physical fight; yelling at a guy who had just taken another person's cell phone and was about to walk off with it, etc. so, you know, I have my own issues with impulse control sometimes) - I like to think that I'd find some way of defusing this woman's aggravation. Because she's not some random sighted jerk being mean to her ordinary dog: she's blind, and if she's got a guide dog, she's gone through a ton of screening and training with that dog.

I can hardly imagine a more stressful thing than being on MUNI when you're blind. She's was clearly wrong to take out her anger on the dog. But sometimes a little conversation - "I can see you're really upset about something, and that seems to be upsetting your dog, too. Can I help in some way - let you know when your stop is coming up?" - can settle things down more effectively.

But hell, I have no idea what I would have done. When I yelled at the guy who was taking another passenger's phone (on the 9!), I was standing up and saying very loudly "Give him back his phone! Right now!" before I knew that I was going to do that. I was all of a sudden just doing it. There was probably a better way to handle that, too, but I didn't think of it at the time.
posted by rtha at 9:04 PM on July 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was first starting out as a kid-therapist, I got sort of involuntarily thrown into doing work with neuroatypical kids. I knew what autism and Asperger's were all about because I had read plenty of textbooks, but there is so much to learn in the experience of actually being with a kid who has these struggles.

One girl I worked with for a very long time was so veritably overflowing with empathy that she couldn't sit in classes that discussed the Holocaust once she reached high school. She would tell me about these intrusive thoughts about her Jewish friend being in a concentration camp, and not being able to stop crying because she just couldn't disengage from the knowledge that horrific things happened to millions of people just like her friend. She has a wealth of empathy for others, just lacked the skills to communicate it the way other people were used to seeing it.

She was also in a social skills group of mine, and she was very passionate about supporting the other group members and giving them advice; she and this one other girl with significant symptoms became close friends, and they were wonderful together, except that Girl 1 would hear about Girl 2 being bullied at school, and Girl 2 would ask Girl 1 to call up the bully and yell at her, and Girl 1 would gladly do it because she cared so much for Girl 2. So of course the bullying would get worse for Girl 2, because neither of them could really grasp how unhelpful it was to engage back like that in the bullying, but Girl 1 stood by her friend so steadfastly. And for Girl 2, it looked on the outside (to her parents, teachers, etc.) like she was manipulating Girl 1 into doing something for 2's own gain, but really, 2 was lacking in the skills to ask for help and friendship in the way other people were used to seeing it.

I understand "the spectrum" now as another, just as normal, flavor of the human experience.
posted by so_gracefully at 8:08 AM on July 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


"Um, no. In my experience, those not on the spectrum don't have much trouble detecting when an interaction is "genuine" or not "

I think Aspies and NTs can have very different criteria as to what constitutes honesty and genuineness. There's a line in Adam that resonated with me: "Liars is all you gonna run across in this world. A mans gotta learn the difference between just plain liars and liars worth lovin. "

On a gut level I really do feel this way. You speak of "going along" with bullshit for the sake of expediency. I do this myself, but not instinctively and not without discomfort. I feel dishonest just nodding along when I don't understand or believe what I'm hearing, let alone actually saying things to conceal my skepticism. But people seem to do this reflexively, without consciously realizing that they are dissembling themselves. Even a white lie is disingenuous and IMO often harmful.

I've not sought diagnosis and think of myself more as BAP. But the mismatch between cognitive and affective empathy and its relationship to asperger qualities rings very true to me. I used to think of myself as an extremely empathetic person, to a fault. I tear up at the drop of a hat often at inappropriate times and seemingly trivial stimuli. But I scored rock bottom on this empathy test, and on grilling my friends and relations about it received a consistent response. I'm very empathetic with people when I can relate to their experience but I'm also incredibly callous when I don't. I've been actively working on the cognitive empathy deficit (something mefi's articulate beanplating can be very helpful with).

I too find the spectrum metaphor inadequate. It seems to me more that we are all of us on a spectrum, NTs heavily weighting the other end. Or rather that we are on a variety of spectra and it is only a confluence of attributes, perhaps combined with an unaccomodating environment that make viewing these qualities with a disability paradigm useful. I like flabdablet's fruit salad metaphor because I think the criteria so broad as to encompass a multitude of personality types, including exceptionally functional individuals and those coping with different disabilities such as prosopagnosia. A quote from Oliver Sacks: "I think that a significant part of what is variously called my shyness, my reclusiveness, my social ineptitude, my eccentricity, even my Asperger's syndrome, is a consequence and a mild misinterpretation of my difficulty recognizing faces."
posted by Manjusri at 1:02 PM on July 4, 2011


I can hardly imagine a more stressful thing than being on MUNI when you're blind.

I appreciate your thoughtful and interesting comment, rtha, and I hope you'll pardon me for choosing this sentence to pick at a bit.

I believed I could imagine a more stressful thing than being blind on the MUNI: being the service dog that blind person was choking over and over again--a service dog who had been trained with great rigor never to defend itself, and to put the welfare of its master first no matter what.

Also, I'd tend to think a person who'd been blind for some time might have learned that a crowded bus is one of the better places to be sightless out in the world, with so many well-meaning strangers determined to smooth the way for you however they can.

As I initially looked around at the other passengers, I was well aware that theirs was a studied obliviousness; I gazed at a few of the nearer bys and they wouldn't meet my eyes, but they squirmed.

I didn't know what to do, either. I was hoping she'd stop. But she actually seemed to gain momentum, and I started to think this was habitual, not a temporary result of some recent trauma; worse, I thought a shadow of glee crossed her face as she jerked the leash.

I don't regret my harshness per se. I think the sort of feckless passivity displayed by the other passengers, repeated over time and across circumstances, is exactly what had allowed this apparently empathy-impoverished blind woman to develop such a cruel habit in the first place.

I do deeply regret making it much more likely she would mistreat the dog even more severely when she got it alone.
posted by jamjam at 4:40 PM on July 4, 2011


Yeah, you have to make the call you make when you're making it (and sometimes, it makes it for you!), and learn from it what you can. I do hope she was just having a bad day (bad hour, whatever), and maybe you calling her out on her treatment of her dog was exactly the thing to yank her out of doing what she was doing. I'm glad you said something, even if - with the awesome benefit of hindsight, of course! - I think I would have done something different. Still, even doing the "wrong" thing is usually better than doing nothing when someone more vulnerable is being put at risk or being actively harmed.

(It was a good sentence to pick at - I waffled about it a bit, and decided it was a useful if not entirely accurate bit of shorthand. I'll try not to be so lazy in the future.)
posted by rtha at 6:27 PM on July 4, 2011


re: "I'm not an aspie, I'm just an asshole, but at least I can do something about that"

Why is being an asshole a conscious decision and being an aspie an immutable characteristic? maybe some people are unconsciously assholes with no hope of change. Why do some extreme personality characteristics get the free pass and others get contempt?
posted by tehloki at 9:59 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know if I'm an Aspie or not. Some of the Aspie traits seem very much like me; some not at all. But I really love this article, and I really appreciate the conversation that's ensued.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 4:55 AM on July 9, 2011


I idly clicked a link, found this thread and holy cow! I'm so much like you all! I clicked Manjusri's Empathy Quotient test and scored 17 out of 80! (below 30 being probable Aspergers)

Although I had plenty of friends in my younger days I started noticing that, at about 40, it became increasingly harder to make or keep friends. Now at 54 I seem to repel everyone I meet even when I think I'm being pleasant and attentive.

Oddly, the EQ test says I have little empathy but I totally relate to GJC's description of oversensitivity. The older I get the more my emotions overwhelm me....I now cry at the slightest happy thing yet not very often at sad things. Sad things bring out my overwhelming need to help people, which freaks people out far too often. I just want to help and people think I'm a weirdo, which I really don't understand.

And JimJam, I'm glad you said something to the blind woman. I do that kind of thing as well, get some shocked and evil looks for it occasionally, then usually justify my actions as being a martyr for the betterment of humankind. I definitely have an overactive sense of justice that often gets me in trouble. And this blog tonight is starting to alert me to why I get in trouble.

Now I'm not sure what to do or where to find help. I'm open to your suggestions.
posted by timotato at 8:32 PM on July 17, 2011


"Um, no. In my experience, those not on the spectrum don't have much trouble detecting when an interaction is "genuine" or not "

The first time I saw a non-autistic being played by a psychopath my jaw hit the floor. "Can she not see this? Are they both messing with me? Why is she feeling things in response to him not feeling things?" I had no context for understanding it whatsoever.

Now the best metaphor I have is this: non-autistics see things through a film camera. Watch how their eyes move, tracking a little box in front of them, ignoring anything off-camera. They have no conscious access to meta information about actors and tropes but it does get into their heads (via their eyes and ears, obviously; the information isn't hiding, it's just not part of the story), so if you talk about it they experience cognitive dissonance and tell you to shush. Also they struggle with new information that doesn't fit the story, so it really is like they're watching a film. Most of my stress comes from imagining scenarios that will make sense in a linear narrative, just so I can do something simple like get them to listen to a piece of music that will make them happy.

Will they rub their eyes and look around when the film ends?
posted by fraac at 6:04 AM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's ironic to me that in a thread about how you can't tell what someone is feeling on the inside based on how they appear on the outside, you have done exactly that.
posted by rtha at 8:48 AM on July 21, 2011


fraac, I know your intentions are good, and it's awesome that you've made some attempt to understand non-neurotypical thought, but that interpretation is a little strange and a tetch insulting.

I think the major mistake you're making is that you're talking about a very large, very diverse group of people as some sort of monolithic Other. Autism is a complex and multifaceted syndrome, or constellation of characteristics. Every manifestation is different, and if you're interacting significantly with an autistic person outside of a clinical setting, they are probably high functioning enough that they could actually tell you what their experiences are. So the interpretation is a little patronizing.

Another very common misunderstanding I think you're falling prey to a bit is the belief that autistic people are somehow mentally unable to process social cues, as though they have some instant deficit even when it comes to understanding information related to social interactions. This is an understandable mistake, and I think this is at the core of the common confusion between people on the autism spectrum and assholes. People on the autism spectrum often have some deficit in their innate understanding of social cues and may sometimes misunderstand or miss entirely some social construct; whereas assholes just don't care. Autistic people, however, are capable of learning and understanding those cues either through extended observation or training, just like people learning a second language. And, as in the case of people learning a second language, they are often better able to articulate those cues, because they've learned them rather than just knowing them. (Anecdote: A friend was teaching an ESL class, and one of his students asked him if something was a count noun. He didn't even know what the term meant, but all of his students did. That's because he'd never had to think about it as a native speaker. It just came naturally to him.) So they absolutely can and do have meta information, and are possibly even more conscious and able to articulate it than others.

As far as the film camera analogy and the linear narrative part, I have no idea where that might have come from. I can't say that it's not true for any autistic person. I don't know that. I do know that I've never heard of anything like that, and I can assure you it's not universal.

Ultimately, if you're actually interested in how 'they' think, maybe you should ask them rather than making paternalistic analogies and assigning motivations. "They" are human beings and not just mindless embodiments of some pathology. Many of "them" are perfectly capable of explaining things to you.
posted by ernielundquist at 10:58 AM on July 21, 2011


I think you missed 'non-'. The film camera metaphor hit me for two reasons mostly: the adherence to a storyline and the eye movement (autistics look around, their search patterns cover the entire search space: Michelle Dawson discusses it here, and you've probably observed the differences yourself). Non-autistic eye movement is determined by their place in the social hierarchy (can link to papers here, or again if you're an observer you've already noticed).

Autistics can get a glimpse into the non-autistic reality of rationalised invisible social hierarchies by taking oxytocin (or mdma). I believe that's all 'empathy' is when mentioned by a non-autistic: the unconcious, instinctive knowing of your place, and knowing who around you is 'in' and who is 'out'. This sounds crazy until you try oxytocin as an autistic or oxytocin inhibitors as a non-autistic (has anyone actually done this? It only occurred to me recently), or perception-altering substances generally, and you learn how much of your subjective reality is rationalised instinct.
posted by fraac at 4:12 AM on July 22, 2011


That spelling mistake will make the soles of my feet burn all day.
posted by fraac at 4:17 AM on July 22, 2011


"It's ironic to me that in a thread about how you can't tell what someone is feeling on the inside based on how they appear on the outside, you have done exactly that."

You can always tell what people are feeling, and autistics can tell better than anyone. People are information leaky. I thought the thread was about how some people find it harder to insincerely offer a "there there, pet, you're better off without him" either because they lack contextual understanding or they have ethical issues with lying.
posted by fraac at 4:48 AM on July 22, 2011


You can always tell what people are feeling, and autistics can tell better than anyone.

This is such a vast generalization that I find it hard to believe that there's actual Science! to it. I believe that some people on the spectrum are better than reading other peoples' emotions better than some other people on the spectrum, and better than some people who are neurotypical/nonaustistic. Likewise for neurotypical/nonautistic people. That some people have a larger number of eye movements/take in more visual information doesn't mean that they interpret the emotional content of that information correctly, or that they aren't just as subject to the tendency to project their own feelings onto that content as non-autistic people. If you have links, I would appreciate reading them. (On preview, that last sentence comes off as kind of snarky, but I'm genuinely interested.)

I swear there was a post here on this test ("Reading the Mind in the Eyes") but I can't find it.
posted by rtha at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2011


Well, it seems to me that the whole autistic communication problem is about lacking shared context, and there isn't any innate disability in perception. So autistic people learn about nonautistic context at very different rates and in differently shaped chunks depending on their needs (psychologically speaking), and that explains the whole spectrum. I agree that they're equally prone to project or misinterpret. The information is available (see Ekman? stuff in that area) and autistics acquire all of it, but then anything can happen in interpretation.

What interests me is where do nonautistics suppress (at first I wrote 'discard') the information that, for example, they're being manipulated? You don't play along politely with a psychopath, but part of you does know. Socialised autistics know it's highly rude to point out the charade but I'm darned if I know how to give you the information in a way you can use.

I scored 35/36 on the Reading the Mind in The Eyes test. I have a psychological need for socialisation, I'm a master of verbal play, but I struggle to read between the lines because it depends upon a shared context that I lack. Differing intentions, is the thing.
posted by fraac at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2011


Also, I think the deficits in affective empathy are because autistics generally know the difference between what people need and what they want. Most crying people just want attention but if they actually needed something I bet even 'low functioning' autistics would be first on the scene. I think gjc put it brilliantly: "People on the AS don't lack empathy, they lack bullshit empathy. Where getting all worked up about something isn't a genuine emotion, but a sort of tit-for-tat passion play they put on for each other."

Doesn't the difference between 'playing along' and 'getting played' fascinate anyone else? Imagine, as I sometimes do, that there is no difference. What freaky little artificial reality bubbles are we talking about here? Truly fascinating.
posted by fraac at 8:12 AM on July 22, 2011


Also, I think the deficits in affective empathy are because autistics generally know the difference between what people need and what they want.

Again, I don't think this is as simple as you lay out, because as you said, autistic people can be as prone to projection and misinterpretation as anyone. Someone on the spectrum who sees an encounter as manipulative or a display or emotion as not genuine isn't automatically correct in their interpretation simply because they're on the spectrum.

In your getting-played-by-a-psycho scenario: If that were me "getting played," it might look to an outsider like I'm getting played, when actually what I'm doing is attempting to not escalate a situation with someone I think is CRAZY. That's a good go-along-to-get-along-to-get-out situation right there.
posted by rtha at 8:38 AM on July 22, 2011


No, that isn't what's happening. It looks exactly the same as the routine acting you do with each other but the intentions of the psychopath are to gain control of you, but you aren't allowed access to that information because it's off-camera. And a lot of the time the person will have an emotional response to unemotional acting by the psychopath - which is, as I said, the weirdest thing to watch for autistics who, I assure you, understand genuine emotions but can be baffled by fake ones requiring intricate contextual knowledge.

I like psychopaths a lot because they don't put pressure on me to react (all acting, no feeling). I assumed that was why nonautistics liked them too but it's far more complicated, and I have no idea on what level you allow yourselves to be manipulated.
posted by fraac at 9:03 AM on July 22, 2011


"but it's far more complicated"

Or, more likely, simple in a way I haven't figured out yet.
posted by fraac at 9:05 AM on July 22, 2011


No, that isn't what's happening. It looks exactly the same as the routine acting you do with each other but the intentions of the psychopath are to gain control of you, but you aren't allowed access to that information because it's off-camera.

I'm sorry, but you cannot make this assertion so flatly, since there is no way for you to know in any objective sense what is happening inside my head when it appears that I am being played and don't know it. Your perception != (my) reality.
posted by rtha at 9:09 AM on July 22, 2011


If it were you and you were attempting to play the psychopath I would see that because you would show no genuine emotions and afterwards the story would play out quite differently. You wouldn't grin and tell people "He's a great guy!" Unless you were really machiavellian and hoped to expand the psychopath's bubble of influence for your own benefit. I'd like to meet you, in that case.

The next time you played with the psychopath, would you 'not escalate' things by continuing to play along, going further each time? To me that looks like escalating things. If it didn't look like escalation you would start each successive interaction with the same null vibe (socialised autistics can look like this). The story would be different so I'd always know. If the story is the same, is there really a difference? If there is a difference between playing along and getting played, where is it? That is precisely my question. I tend to favour a behaviourist view but I appreciate any insights you have.
posted by fraac at 9:45 AM on July 22, 2011


If I'm understanding you correctly, this is a scene you have personally witnessed, both as it was happening and the aftermath thereof.

Which, okay, you're speaking from your own experience. But to generalize from that to "autistics dance like *this*; non-autistics dance like *that*" is inadviseable. Not all people on the spectrum have the same levels of observational ability or bullshit detector talent - it's a spectrum, you know? Likewise, not every person who is not on the spectrum is some blindly oblivious mark waiting to be had by your neighborhood sociopath.
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2011


I've seen it lots of times, my best friends are psychopaths. I've always known in advance who would get played (the psychopaths don't know, of course, because nonautistic so no off-camera information). I find it interesting to imagine the subjective experience of nonautistics who get played. I've seen them when their reality bubble bursts; they have what I believe is called a 'dissociative episode'. I think in those moments they might experience total enlightenment if only they could let go of their fear. Another reason I like psychopaths: they're always provoking interesting reactions.

Note that it's fair to generalise if a thing is generally true. I try to qualify any assertions so as to be precise.
posted by fraac at 10:37 AM on July 22, 2011


Good Christ, I feel dumb. Played, even. *golf clap*
posted by rtha at 10:54 AM on July 22, 2011


:-\
posted by fraac at 12:06 PM on July 22, 2011


Simon Baron-Cohen's latest book "Zero Degrees of Empathy" ("The Science of Evil" in America) is fascinating on this subject (though note that when psychologists write books it's often to advance ideas that mightn't get past peer review). He links autistics, psychopaths, narcissists and borderline personality disordereds as people lacking 'empathy'. His definitions are constantly shifting, his model gets tortured beyond usefulness, but I think he's onto something by connecting those disparate pathologies...

However, I suggest you won't find a pattern until you look at the converse - the people who aren't autistic, psychopathic, narcissistic or bpd. I suggest that 'empathy' in the common parlance is the what lets the 80% of people who fail the Milgram experiment commit genocides. They're just following orders. They're just playing along. They're just being 'empathetic'.
posted by fraac at 3:43 AM on July 23, 2011


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