The myth of an empathy deficit in autism is now so well ingrained, that for an autistic volunteer to report they do not lack empathy is either to question the views of the large majority of medical and scientific professionals, or even to deny their diagnosis. As such, they may report empathy deficits even when they frequently experience empathic feelings. The questions in such measures are also often vague and imprecise: it is unclear to whom, or to what group, you should compare yourself; and how to know whether you are quick to notice things. In addition, several questions rely on another’s perception of your competence. When these others are neurotypical individuals who often fail to recognise the emotional and mental states of autistic individuals (Edey et al., 2016; Sheppard, Pillai, Wong, Ropar, & Mitchell, 2016), it is clear to see how such measures may provide information which is of limited value.
there are also many theories about autism, including the notion that autistics lack empathy . . . When you have sensory dysfunction, you are overly tuned to the environment, which includes all the emotions of the people you are interacting with – even the unspoken emotions on their part. The result can be an emotional roller-coaster ride for me as I try to deal with all this bombardment of information in addition to their words. Neurotypical people may assume that we autistics are incapable of empathy, when in fact, we just happen to express it differently. Reactions by way of our facial expressions and body language may not match what society is used to and expects.
These accounts point to a potentially fruitful seam of research, investigating how the sensory profile of autistic people mediates their experience of their own and others’ emotions.
…flawed terminology, measurement and theory have all contributed to the mischaracterisation of autistic people as lacking empathy, to severely negative effect.
The myth of an empathy deficit in autism is now so well ingrained, that for an autistic volunteer to report they do not lack empathy is either to question the views of the large majority of medical and scientific professionals, or even to deny their diagnosis. As such, they may report empathy deficits even when they frequently experience empathic feelings.
Autistic people have described that they experience ‘…hyperarousal of the empathic system…’ (Elcheson et al., 2018, p. 189) or an ‘…intense, uncontrollable empathy…’ (Williams, 1998, p. 59).
Recent research has further indicated that autistic people may be more prone to object personification (White & Remington, 2019), suggesting that the autistic manifestation of empathy could not only be more intense but also more all-encompassing that the neurotypical model.
It turns out that allistic observers are at least as bad at reading autistic expressions as vice versa. Milton labels this the ‘double empathy problem’: any failure of autistic people to empathise effectively with the rest of the population is magnified by the routine failure of allistic people to understand what autistic people are actually feeling.
She-Ra & the Princesses of Power is good. It has a lot going for it. I appreciate the body diversity, neurodiversity, inclusivity, and emotional range. I lost count of how many times I choked up. I like shows for the writing, and I like She-Ra.
I’m still processing the autistic and ADHD coded Entrapta. Entrapta has elements of the “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”, “Attention Deficit… Ooh, Shiny!”, and “Hollywood Autism” tropes. Her Autistic/ADHD hyperfocus conveys incredible scientific talent that she pursues to the exclusion of ethics, evoking “The Madness Place”, “Neurodiversity Is Supernatural”, and “Science-Related Memetic Disorder”.
I relate to parts of her characterization, but she’s pretty heavy on “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”, complete with “Dumb Muscle” manipulation by other characters. She often exemplifies the clinically un-empathetic autistic stereotype. In the episode that introduces her, she suggests taking She-Ra apart to see what’s making her sick—with an enthusiastic grin on her face and a gleaming scalpel in hand.
Entrapta says to Glimmer with scalpel in hand: “I’d have to take her apart to be sure.”
Glimmer takes the scalpel from Entrapta and replies, “You’re not taking her apart. She is a person.”
Glimmer also has some autistic coding with her social anxiety and hyper-empathy. Between Glimmer and Entrapta, we can piece together some satisfying autism representation. The most autistic-coded princess being evil by lack of “theory of mind” is a bummer, though. Lack of empathy stereotypes harm us.
I’m looking forward to seeing how both characters develop. Representing Entrapta’s monotropism with its flow states and attention tunnels without using “Lack of Empathy” to sociopathically disaffected levels would be nice for Season 2. I want Entrapta to lean less heavily on the aforementioned tropes and grapple more with morality, manipulation, and pursuing obsession. I hope her emotional and compassionate empathy are revealed to the audience as she confronts her “Moral Event Horizon”.
I can see myself in both Glimmer and Entrapta, except for taking people apart for the sake of curiousity. Dial back on the “Mental Handicap, Moral Deficiency”. If she’s gonna break bad, give her some agency.
And this is where the neurotypical belief in theory of mind becomes a liability. Not just a liability – a disability.
Because not only are neurotypicals just as mind-blind to autistics as autistics are to neurotypicals, this self-centered belief in theory of mind makes it impossible to mutually negotiate an understanding of how perceptions might differ among individuals in order to arrive at a pragmatic representation that accounts for significant differences in the experiences of various individuals. It bars any discussion of opening up a space for autistics to participate in social communication by clarifying and mapping the ways in which their perceptions differ. Rather than recognize that the success rate of the neurotypical divining rod is based on mere statistical likelihood that the thoughts and feelings of neurotypicals will correlate, they declare it an ineffable gift, and use it to valorize their own abilities and pathologize those of autistics.
A belief in theory of mind makes it unnecessary for neurotypicals to engage in real perspective-taking, since they are able, instead, to fall back on projection. Differences that they discover in autistic thinking are dismissed as pathology, not as a failure in the neurotypical’s supposed skill in theory of mind or perspective-taking.
Ironically, constantly confronted with the differences in their own thinking and that of those around them, and needing to function in a world dominated by a different neurotype, autistics are engaged in learning genuine perspective-taking from the cradle on. The perceived failure in that perspective-taking is thus based on the fact that autistics do not rely on and cannot rely on neurological similarities to crib understanding by projecting their own thoughts and feelings onto others.
As such, autistics talk about themselves rather than others, a feature of autistic narrative that has been pathologized as “typically autistic” by researchers like Ute Frith. The fact that much of autistic writing is dedicated to deconstructing neurotypical fallacies about autistic thinking set in the world when they spoke about (or for) us, and to explaining differences in autistic thinking in order to broker mutual understanding remains unremarked upon, as it would have required adequate perspective-taking to have identified this.
Thus, if we were to summarize the effect of neurotypicals sitting in wells that are structured in much the same way, delimited in much the same way, oriented in the same general direction and located in the same geographic location, manifested as an unassailable belief in their natural gift of theory of mind, we would have to conclude that this belief in theory of mind severely impairs neurotypicals’ ability to perceive that there is sky or even the great sea outside the narrow limits of their purview. It also necessarily impacts their cognitive empathy vis-à-vis autistics and, sadly, their affective empathy as well.
This deficit in neurotypicals needs to be remediated if autistics are to have a chance to participate as equals, because the truth is, in this regard, autistics suffer and are excluded from social communication not because of our own disability, but because of neurotypical disability.
How autistic characters are used in “Lack of Empathy” tropes:
On the flip side, just because a character has empathy does not mean that they possess one ounce of compassion or sympathy, though the lack of either usually coincides with at least a diminished sense of empathy. For instance, someone with narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder should not be confused with someone with Asperger’s or another form of autism. Narcissists and sociopaths usually have perfect cognitive empathy, but utterly lack affective empathy necessary for genuine compassion. Those with Asperger’s or Autism sometimes have defective cognitive empathy, but normal or even hyper-effective emotional or compassionate empathy. In short: narcissists and sociopaths are generally superficially charming and polite, but their pretense of empathy is simply that, a mere ruse to attain a tangible end. Autistic people, on the other hand, more or less invert this: they’re perfectly capable of feeling other people’s triumphs and tribulations – often quite intensely – but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from their face or tone of voice, and that’s assuming they have learned to identify them.
Source: Lack of Empathy – TV Tropes
A great example of how to check that you are accommodating diverse learners was shared in the Panel at the end of the conference: Walk through your learning environment as different personas (think different ethnicities, students in wheelchairs, someone with ASD etc.) and see how inclusive it is. Do the spaces allow for you to move easily through, have a sense of belonging, provoke great thinking?
Even better than designing for is designing with. Neurodivergent & disabled students are great flow testers. They’ll thoroughly dogfood your school UX. There are great opportunities for project & passion-based learning in giving students agency to audit their context and design something better.
Parallel to the topic of who designs for children lies a bigger question: Do children need design at all? Or, rather, how might they be enabled to design the toys they need and experiences they desire for themselves? The act of making that designers find so satisfying is built into early childhood education, but as they grow, many children lose opportunities to create their own environment, bounded by a text-centric view of education and concerns for safety. Despite adults’ desire to create a safer, softer child-centric world, something got lost in translation. Jane Jacobs said, of the child in the designed-for-childhood environment: “Their homes and playgrounds, so orderly looking, so buffered from the muddled, messy intrusions of the great world, may accidentally be ideally planned for children to concentrate on television, but for too little else their hungry brains require.” Our built environment is making kids less healthy, less independent, and less imaginative. What those hungry brains require is freedom. Treating children as citizens, rather than as consumers, can break that pattern, creating a shared spatial economy centered on public education, recreation, and transportation safe and open for all. Tracing the design of childhood back to its nineteenth-century origins shows how we came to this place, but it also reveals the building blocks of resistance to fenced-in fun.
We cannot build an effective, an empathetic, a working User Experience unless we build a User Interface that kids won’t turn away from. And our schools are User Interfaces. Our schools are the “how” our children interact with education. Every door, wall, room, teacher, rule, chair, desk, window, digital device, book, hall pass are part of the User Interface, and that User Interface defines the User Experience.
And we cannot begin to understand the User Experience we need until we get fully into the heads of our users. That’s true in web and programming design, its true in retail and restaurant design, and its absolutely true as we design our schools. This understanding can have complex analytical paths – and those are important, and it has a committed caring component – but it also has an essential empathetic underpinning, and maybe you can begin working on that underpinning in a serious way before this next school year begins.
Source: SpeEdChange: Writing for Empathy
What historians do more than anything else is we teach a radical form of empathy, a radical way of understanding people as different as possible from the sort of society that we were raised in.
I updated “Wanted: hospitals and doctors’ offices that…” with selections on access intimacy from “The Doctor and Nurse Who “Got It” | Health as a Human Right” and “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link | Leaving Evidence”.
I also added the selection from “The Doctor and Nurse Who “Got It” | Health as a Human Right” to “Accessibility, Access Intimacy, and Forced Intimacy”.
This is the story about a doctor and nurse I once had and how they “got it.”
“Getting it” isn’t necessarily something that you can define. It’s ineffable. It’s more of a feeling than a specific action. For me, it’s a connection that runs deeper than the diagnosis, the medical terminology, the treatments proposed. It’s a sense of being listened to and really heard. It’s feeling of being truly cared for. It’s a sense of empathy or at least a willingness to immerse oneself in my world as a patient, to feel and see what I face. When I think of my doctor and nurse who “got it”, I remember the sense of safety and calm they offered me and knowing that I would be okay. To each patient surely it may mean something different. But for me “getting it” gives me the ability as a patient to breathe, and perchance even to live.
Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access. Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.
Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives. Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations. Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access. I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are. It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.
Mood: Education is pervasively and outrageously “mind blind” to neurodivergent people.
“Many Christian theologies emphasize the possibility of finding meaning in suffering, but the New Calvinism seems to promote a rather stoic and un-empathic attitude that valorizes suffering, particularly among women.… Calvinist beliefs were related to higher levels of domestic violence myth acceptance and lower levels of social justice commitment.”
I updated “The Double Empathy Problem: Developing Empathy and Reciprocity in Neurotypical Adults”, “I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.”, and “Autistic Empathy” with an embed of the video “Perspective-taking is two-sided: misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family members”.