Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all as well as you can be. Are you ready to think about your feelings? Specifically, your feelings about other people’s feelings? Yes, it’s that old autistic chestnut, empathy, I’m referring to. We’ll get into it shortly…
I can’t believe my week of leave from the day job is almost over. Several days have passed, and I’m left thinking, where did that time go? Fortunately, I have got plenty of things done, and had some nice days, too. I’ve turned 58 years old, this week, and I had a lovely day on my birthday, as my son and his girlfriend made a fuss of me. I also had a day putting together a few new bits of Ikea furniture to finish kitting out my flat. One of those new pieces was a small, modest desk.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a desk to write at. Without one, my fiction output has plummeted. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. In theory, you can type on a laptop on your lap just as easily as at a desk, but there’s something about being at a desk that helps me focus when writing fiction. I love writing fiction, and find it hugely fulfilling. But I never find it easy. The typing is easy, sure, but conceptually, chipping a story out of the rough clay of an idea, getting to know the characters as if they are real people, learning to inhabit the dreamworld of the story, that’s hard work.
Uncovering the characters that make up the story is the toughest part of writing. Regular feedback from my readers is that the characters in my stories seem like real people. I take great pride in this aspect of my work. It’s often said that fiction helps us make sense of the real world. Reality is filled with chaos and chance, but the human mind always looks to find order in that chaos; a signal in the noise. Story brings order to the chaos; we’ve known that at least since Aristotle wrote about catharsis. A good story provides the reader with catharsis in the same way a good joke provides a hilarious punchline; it’s about timing and structure. The structure of a story is the characters.
Characters are fictional representations of people. To make characters realistic, you have to represent in words their interactions, their thought processes, and of course, their emotional states. This requires a kind of broadcast-empathy. Instead of experiencing empathy as a receiver, the way we think we normally experience it in our daily lives, writing involves creating emotional states of characters, and broadcasting them, via words, to the reader. The act of reading allows the reader to experience empathy with the characters… if the writer is any good. If the reader cannot empathise with the characters, this is usually a sign of bad writing. The exception is self-consciously experimental or “clever” fiction that eschews traditional characterisation, but which might have its own kind of artistic merit. But for most fiction, the transmission of empathy is vital. And empathy is something of a big deal when it comes to autism…
I’ve written about empathy and autism before, in one of my earliest blog posts. That one was about empathy in the context of maintaining relationships. I had a look back at that post recently, and it was obvious how early I was in my arc of understanding autism and myself. It seems clear, to me at least, how badly I was still struggling with the effects of autistic burnout, and coming to terms with my autism diagnosis, when I wrote those early blog posts. If you want to have a look at what I wrote about empathy back then, you can read it by clicking here. But I feel the time is right to revisit the subject of empathy and autism, so come with me…
One of the most pervasive myths about autistic people is our alleged deficiency of emotional functioning. It’s a ridiculous myth because you only have to spend a little time with any autistic person to see how we love and hate, or experience joy and sorrow, like any human being. But empathy isn’t about having emotional states; it’s about sharing the emotional states of others. It should be obvious then, that to share the emotional state of another person, one must have an emotional experience of one’s own as a comparison point. To put it another way, having a real emotional experience of life is a necessary condition for empathy, but not a sufficient condition.
It stands to reason, therefore, that if the general public accept the myth that autistic people have deficient emotional states, they will also believe that we lack empathy.
Lack of empathy is a scary concept for most people. We associate empathy with sympathy, kindness, and altruism. If a person lacks empathy, they are assumed to be cruel, unfeeling, and dangerous. Psychopaths lack empathy, and popular culture associates psychopathy with serial killers and other people of monstrous intent. So we can see how the myth of autistic people lacking empathy can deepen the lack of social acceptance we face, not to mention the constant buzz of social fear of autism – the fear that keeps autism researchers and therapists in jobs. But where does this notion come from, that autistic people lack empathy, and is it justified?
Simon Baron-Cohen, widely regarded as a world expert on autism, but who is in fact an enemy of autistic people, has caused much of the problem. In his book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, 2011, Baron-Cohen hypothesised that autistic people are deficient in cognitive and affective empathy. How many times have Baron-Cohen’s assertions about autism been refuted by other people in the field? Too many for me to bother with right now. But being the “expert” he is, his work gets exposure, and like all complex issues reported in the media it gets diluted into soundbites. Thus, popular culture reports, autistic people lack empathy, and the public, conflating empathy with general emotional function, assume we don’t feel love or sympathy, and are incapable of kindness, and all the rest of that bullshit.
It’s this kind of social myth-building about autism that leads us to situations such as the BBC airing a documentary in which TV personality Paddy McGuinness chokes back tears while explaining his fear that his autistic children will never experience love. That scene is what a large proportion of the viewing public will have taken away. But, I ask again, is there any justification for this idea that autistic people lack empathy? Well, it gets messy, and there is plenty to unpack before we can get to the bottom of it…
Let me state a few things up front: Firstly, there are different types of empathy. Secondly, like any function of emotional states, all humans of all neurotypes probably function at different levels of empathy – we are all unique individuals. Next, as stated above, emotional functioning is a necessary condition for empathic functioning. Furthermore, alexithymia is a thing. Finally, despite many attempts to prove otherwise, none of us are mind-readers. Let’s start putting these pieces together, and see if we can make sense of it all…
We’ll start with alexithymia. This is the term given to a difficulty in understanding emotional states. It’s usually used in reference to one’s own emotional states, although technically, it could refer to an inability to understand the emotional states of others. I use the world technically with some reservations, as the only thing anyone really seems to agree on about alexithymia is that it is a real phenomenon. Whether it is a psychological disorder or a simple variation in the emotional function of human beings is up for grabs.
People who experience alexithymia, when aware of it, tend to find it troubling. This is understandable, as so many aspects of our lives depend on emotional functioning. Certainly, among non-autistic people, there seems to be a general tendency to rely more on emotional reasoning (and heuristic thinking), whereas there appears to be a tendency to think more logically (and non-heuristically) in autistic people. But all neurotypes rely on emotional functioning to some degree; it’s an essential part of being human. Many autistic people report alexithymia as part of their autistic makeup. But why? Is it a measurable, physical difference in neural architecture, or is something else at work?
When you start reading up on alexithymia, you soon discover that a lot of the theory on it moves from the issue of understanding of emotional states into other areas of psychology and psychiatry, not all of which are particularly helpful to the core issue of understanding emotional states. To avoid chasing white rabbits down suspicious holes, let’s just say here that alexithymia is a thing, and it seems particularly common in autistic people.
If an autistic person is struggling to understand their own emotional states, it does not follow that those emotional states do not exist. Conflation of alexithymia with deficient emotional function is an error of logic. We can, however, see that in the context of autism being studied, described, and diagnosed purely at a behavioural level, that someone with an ideological approach to autism, such as Baron-Cohen, can misinterpret the behaviour of difficulty in describing emotional states, as a deficiency in the emotional states themselves.
What does it mean to experience alexithymia? At one level, there is definite internal confusion as to what one’s emotional state is; what one is feeling. At another level, there is difficulty in explaining one’s emotional state; finding the right words to express what one feels. These two aspects are not the same thing. Most people would assume that if you don’t understand your own emotional state, then of course you’ll struggle to find words to describe it. But it can work the other way. Psychology has shown time and again that the language we use can shape what we think and feel. If I don’t know to attach the word anger to a state I am experiencing which is indeed anger, it doesn’t mean I’m not actually angry. But is it really that simple? Is alexithymia simply about attaching the “correct” label to an emotional experience? If so, how could so many autistic people who experience alexithymia be getting it wrong?
If we struggle to find the words that accurately label our emotional states, then as beings who interact largely via one kind of language or another, it’s no leap at all to see that we might be confused about our own emotional states. With that in mind, let’s put it in the context of another subject close to the hearts of many autistic people: The double empathy problem…
The double empathy problem, as put forward by the excellent Damian Milton, explains the way in which communication of all types and general understanding between autistic and non-autistic people can and does go awry. Autistic people often say they find neurotypical communication and social interactions difficult to understand. Neurotypical interactions often seem vague, full of ever-shifting hints, nudges, winks, contradictions, and in-comments. This can lead to horrendous confusion for autistic people, and that is bound to extend to confusion about other people’s emotional states.
Neurotypical behaviours that may confuse autistic people about emotional states might include, but are in no way limited to: Crying with laughter; laughing when outraged, smiling when vengeful, cracking bittersweet jokes about the deceased at a funeral, and so on. I would suggest that many autistic people, sooner or later, pick up on and interpret the more obvious examples, such as those I’ve just listed. But some of the more subtle inflections of neurotypical behaviour will continue to cause us problems, particularly when that behaviour is intentionally devious. Many autistic people report being manipulated and exploited by neurotypicals. This is a definite vulnerability for autistic people.
Whether an autistic person knows from an early age they are autistic or not, they will experience living with the double empathy problem. Communication and interaction will be affected by the innate differences between neurotypes. I’m not quite bold enough to say this is the whole story behind alexithymia, but it seems blindingly obvious that it will play a massive part.
We understand all things partly through communication. Communication – all the many kinds of language (spoken, written, sign language, body language, etc) – is how we learn from each other and interact with each other. We autistic people are not robots. We have internal emotional states in the same way any other human does. We just might not be tied into the same communication mode of those states as non-autistic people, leading to confusion both for ourselves and others.
Are the confusion and vulnerability autistic people often experience when confronted with neurotypical behaviour a deficiency of empathy? Well, we need to take a detour into the definitions of empathy, now…
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There is a problem when referring to definitions of any term. Quite often, certain words have a variety of technical or jargonist meanings, and then other meanings in the vernacular. And then some words, like empathy, have definitions that overlap the two areas. Common usage of the word empathy is usually along the lines of understanding another person’s emotional state in such a way that you share in how they are feeling; you feel the way that person feels. Basic dictionaries tend to follow this type of definition. A great example comes from the online Cambridge dictionary: The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. The reason I like this definition so much is that it combines the common conception of empathy (the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences) with a qualifier that is often overlooked (by imagining what it would be like…). I’m going to come back to this shortly. But first…
A psychologist or psychiatrist might use technical language to refer to different types of empathy; commonly, affective empathy, cognitive empathy, and somatic empathy. Let’s tackle them in reverse order.
Somatic empathy is probably not what most people think of when they think of empathy. It involves a physical reaction to someone else’s state, the rather obvious example being sympathetic labour pains – when someone feels physical pain in response to a pregnant person going through labour. For the purposes of our exploration of emotional empathy, I think we can ignore somatic empathy.
Cognitive empathy is essentially an intellectual understanding of another person’s emotional state. With cognitive empathy, you recognise if another person is upset, for example. This is very much subject to error for people of all neurotypes. How often do we see someone mistaking another person’s tears as sadness when they are tears of joy, for example? Cognitive empathy is not foolproof when it comes to identifying another’s emotional state, but when we recognise (or think we recognise) someone’s emotional state, we are deploying cognitive empathy. Simply knowing that other people have emotions is an aspect of cognitive empathy, and as much as Simon Baron-Cohen might insist otherwise, being autistic does not mean an absence of cognitive empathy. Furthermore, an absence of cognitive empathy does not mean autism.
Affective empathy is probably the closest to what most people mean when they talk about empathy. It means you experience a corresponding emotional state triggered by your perception of another person’s emotional state. This is why it is sometimes referred to as sharing another person’s emotions. With affective empathy, someone else is experiencing joy, so you feel joyful… you share in their joy. The same for anger, grief, and so on. But this definition flags up a problem with our use of language, which I’m coming to.
This commonly recognised type of empathy (affective empathy) is seen as a highly desirable human trait. As mentioned earlier, people tend to associate empathy with sympathy, kindness, and altruism. It’s understood that a person with “healthy” levels of empathy would be less likely to hurt another person, because they would share in that person’s pain. Causing harm to another person is an unpleasantness to be avoided if your empathy is fully functional.
Despite all the myths about autistic people lacking empathy, many autistic people report experiencing extremely high levels of affective empathy, being very deeply emotionally moved by the emotional states of other people. This is fascinating. Affective empathy, being the closest to what almost all people mean when they say empathy is commonly something autistic people experience intensely. But cognitive empathy, which, as explained above, is inherently unreliable, could well be the area in which neurotypical people might point to autistic people as deficient… but the truth is more likely that this alleged deficiency is just an aspect of the double empathy problem! Let me be clear: If we say that neurotypical people feel autistic people are somewhat lacking in cognitive empathy, it would be equally true to say autistic people feel neurotypical people are lacking in cognitive empathy. This is what the double empathy problem explains; it’s a neurotype difference rather than a deficiency on either side.
Finally, there’s something else we need to consider, a big mistake that almost everyone makes when thinking about empathy…
This notion that empathy is sharing another person’s emotional state is, I’m afraid, nonsense. And it’s nonsense for everyone, autistic and neurotypical alike. I said at the start of this discussion that none of us are mind readers. There is absolutely no realistic mechanism by which one person can be absolutely certain of the emotional state of another person. When you judge the emotional state of another person, you are actually judging their behaviour, and extrapolating a supposed mental and emotional state. People will no doubt accuse me of reductionism, pedantry, radical solipsism, or plain misunderstanding on this front. They would be wrong.
Every time you make a judgement of a person’s emotional state, you are creating your interpretation. There is no magic signal that beams another person’s emotions into your brain. Empathy is not, as I framed it when talking about my writing, above, a matter of receiving someone else’s emotions, much less sharing them. Empathy is a creative act, the scaffolding of which is our observation and interpretation of another person’s behaviour.
The differences in communication modes between autistic and non-autistic people, as explained by Damian Milton’s double empathy problem, go a long way to explaining why neurotypical people perpetuate the myth of an autistic lack of empathy, while autistic people just carry on being their empathic selves.
How does all this sit with me and my attempts to write realistic characters in my fiction? Most of the characters I write are certainly not autistic, but I am autistic. And yet I’m repeatedly told my characters are so realistic. I suffer from the same effects of the double empathy problem as every other autistic person, so how am I getting it right in my writing?
I often find I struggle to understand non-autistic people in the moment. Their interaction styles keep me baffled and off-balance. But I’ve had to learn to deal with it, and a lifetime of masking helped me to get some kind of grip on neurotypical behaviours, although I messed it up often enough, too. But as I’ve got older, I’ve found that if I’m I’m given enough time, I can pretty effectively work out neurotypical behaviours. But that’s the problem; I need time – more time than in-the-moment conversations, small talk, disagreements and debates, etc, allow me. But at my desk, spending long hours concentrating and puzzling over my fictional creations, I can pretty much nail it.
Interestingly, the first time I wrote an autistic character, I didn’t initially realise I was writing an autistic character! There’s a story behind that story, which was my novel, Aberrations. Anyone interested can read the background of how that autistic character came to be in the author’s note at the end of the novel. Aberrations is available in paperback and on Kindle, and you can find it by clicking here.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.