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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

My Letter to the Newspaper Autistics are not Pychopaths

Recently I wrote a letter to the newspaper. I felt compelled to write because I needed to correct some statements by a regular writer to the newspaper's opinion page, had made about people with autism/Asperger's. The lady in question often wrote quite nice articles about the helpful practice of mindfulness, which actually I liked to read, however, this time she wrote about people with autism and made the comparison of autism to psychopaths , ' the neurologically disordered' she called us.  Here is my letter:

The Broken- Hearted
 Machine - charcoal sketch by S. Tihanyi
(all copyrights are held by the artist)

An Autistic’s Reply to Mindful Comments by (Name Protected)

"Please allow me a little space in your newspaper to respond to some of the recent comments made by (name protected), about people on the autism spectrum. I give the lady the benefit of the doubt and believe she is compassionate and well-meaning but not aware that some of the facts she, holds are not totally accurate and that their proliferation creates needless fear, stereotyping, avoidance and bullying for autistic people by society. This can cause them shame, lack of self-esteem and depression. I do not intend to bash the lady, but as a high functioning autistic, feel I must set the truth straight, I am also backed up by facts from the very experts she quoted in her article. She states that autistic people, just like everyone else, can have low, medium or high IQ’s and the deficits and gains of both for IQ runs parallel.  Very good. Marriage with a partner on the spectrum can be work and a lot of learning, for both. Yes of course this is correct. The problem is not about their lack of capacity, will or lack of love or caring, its communication. I felt the article was fair but parts were vague and open to misunderstanding, especially the part about the perceived autistic lack of empathy and the comparison to psychopathy. This part troubled me a lot.

I quote the article: “The lack of empathy comes with some neurological disorders, not just autism- the psychopath will derive some pleasure from your pain, but the autistic will wonder what you are complaining about”, Their “(empathy) “needs to be worked on in their youth so that they can learn to reciprocate even if it’s just learnt behavior and does not come from the heart”.

I take issue with this line as it could give the reader the impression that autistics are ingenuous, false, heartless or lacking the capacity for feelings. This terrible perspective has been used to justified all sorts of bullying, discrimination and abuse upon autistic children and adults, whether intentional not, because people believe we don’t have feelings like others. It’s wrong. This misconception came about from early clinical research over the use of the clinical word ‘empathy’. It has been noted by autism experts and attempts have been made to address it over the years but the damage from a misconception around the clinical word “empathy” still lingers, even among some health professionals.

‘Empathy has nothing do to with how the person feels, i.e. whether they feel bad for someone when they are hurting (as in sympathy), love or care about them (unconditional love and altruism). It has to do with understanding the emotional state of another person (cognitive), and responding appropriately.  The ability to recognize the emotional state in another person relies on good communication. Autistics and non-autistics communicate differently. As someone on the autistic spectrum, I can tell you that my difficulties in social situations, have absolutely nothing to do with empathy – chosen or automatic. I quote from an online blog: "When I know someone else is suffering, I can’t help but feel empathy for them. It hurts me inside sometimes so intensely, I am very sensitive, if anything, often, I seem to have more empathy than the average person. Consider this please, if someone told you, in Russian, “I’m sad because my mother died yesterday”, you’ll only feel empathy for their sadness if you understand Russian. If you don’t know Russian, his statement will have no meaning to you and you won’t realize he’s talking about a sad event. For autistic people, nonverbal communication is like a foreign language, and we often don’t understand what it’s conveying. If I don’t realize someone is sad, I won’t show empathy for their sadness. But as soon as they tell me, in a way I understand, I’m sympathetic and feel for them, just as anyone else would. (Whether I’ll know what to do to comfort them is another matter)"
Certainly most parents of autistic kids object strongly to the portrayal of autistics as unfeeling, unloving, and unlovable as well. “Empathy" could be teased into two parts: 1) Awareness-empathy, i.e awareness of other's emotions and well-being, and 2) Caring-empathy, i.e. caring about other people's emotions and well-being. I also quote expert Dr Tony Attwood, who states:

 I think it is important to explain the misinterpretation of other people’s suggestions of a lack of empathy for people with Asperger’s syndrome. I think there are two factors here, one is that the person with Asperger’s syndrome may not be able to read the subtle signals in another person in facial expression, body language and gesture that would normally be associated with a response of compassion or affection. Thus, if the person with Asperger’s syndrome does not respond with a hug or words of compassion the neurotypical defaults to paranoia and then assumes that the person with Asperger’s syndrome lacks care and empathy. It is not that the person lacks care and empathy it is more that they didn’t/could'nt read the signals or body language. Once the signals are recognized, the person with Asperger’s syndrome can be remarkably kind and supportive.

One of autisms biggest researchers, Dr Simon Baron -Cohen has also attempted to address this misconception that people have, of autism’s lack of empathy being the same as the psychopathic/sociopathic lack of empathy: He says, “I want to return to the subject but with more information on WHY there is a misunderstanding about autistic and sociopathic persons and why popular culture tends to screw up portrayals of both. The key difference seems to be that in psychopaths the 'cognitive' component of empathy is intact but the 'affective' component is not. In autism, both components may be impaired, or just the cognitive component. But their strong systemizing leads them, through powerful logic, to develop a moral code based on 'fairness' and 'justice'. Psychopaths lack the moral compass that most people develop using their empathy, and lack the moral compass that people with autism develop using their strong systemizing. People with autism spectrum conditions often end up as 'super-moral', developing a set of rules they expect people to live up to consistently (such as honesty, fairness, duty), arriving at the conclusion that one should 'treat others as you would have others treat you' because it is the most logical approach. He also adds: In my experience whilst even adults with Asperger Syndrome may have difficulties figuring out why someone else’s remark was considered funny, or why their own remark was considered rude, or may judge others as liars when they simply are inconsistent in not doing what they said they would do, they may nevertheless have a highly developed emotional empathy, caring about how someone feels and not wanting to hurt them. If they do hurt them, it is often unintentional and they feel mortified when it is pointed out, and want to rectify this. In this respect, they do have some of the components of empathy.

Many people with autism also form very strong emotional relationships with their pets, worrying about their welfare, and find that whilst they struggle to ‘read’ human behavior and human intentions, they can read the arguably more predictable behavior of a pet. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the difficulties with the cognitive element of empathy by no means leave people with autism devoid of a moral code, and their strong systemizing can mean that they often end up with a more principled moral code than many people without autism. Thank you."