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Friday, February 23, 2018

Autistic People Do Not Lack Empathy

In The Politics of Autism, I look at the daily struggles of autistic people, including stereotypes and myths.

Sometimes political writers use "autism" as shorthand for things that they dislike.  (Google the term "political autism" and you will see what I mean.)  Such a practice is intellectually lazy and deeply demaning to people with real autism.

James McWilliams at Pacific Standard:
It's not often that an historian speaking to a church group ignites a controversy. But Nancy MacLean, a Duke University history professor, did exactly that when, in a recorded speech about her new book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America, she suggested that libertarians—or at least a subset thereof—were on the autism spectrum.
Reason's Robby Soave called MacLean's comment "decidedly unempathetic" and rooted in "remarkably bad-faith assumptions," an assessment which seems about right.
Scorned as they may be, the libertarians rightfully alluded to the real issue at stake here: The comment may have mischaracterized libertarianism, but it totally distorted autism.
The outdated association of autism with a lack of empathy comes largely from a British professor of psychopathology, Simon Baron Cohen. He coined the term "mind blindness" to describe an autistic person's inability to see the world through the eyes of another individual. The most debilitating feature of mind blindness, according to Cohen, is difficulty in reading people's facial and body language, which non-autistic people do to achieve a basic—albeit shallow—empathy.
But there are different sorts of empathy. As more recent research shows, having difficulty with social interaction, which could be fostered by mind blindness, doesn't preclude deep, or what's often called "affective," empathy. In Psychology Today, the psychologist Steve Taylor, hypothesizes that while autistic people may indeed be challenged when it comes to shallow empathy, they are quite adept at practicing deep empathy, an emotional reaction whereby a person enters the "mind space" of another, senses their feelings, and feels their pain or pleasure. It is in this direction that the research is flowing.

MacLean, for her part, regrets her error. More so, according to an email she sent to me, she appreciates the chance to have been pointed in a more progressive direction, at least when it comes to autism research. About her remark, she writes, "It was a long night and rather than take the time to find the right way to express what I wanted to say, I reached for a reference that was inappropriate and just wrong." And, she promises, "Having sought deeper knowledge about autism I have already learned my error about empathy and solidarity. I will continue to learn more going forward."
All of us, libertarians included, might seek our deepest empathy and consider doing the same.