“The Empathy Question Revisted” Published on Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

Thinking Person's Guide to Autism

Hello WWA readers!

I’ve posted this on my Facebook page and have tweeted it on Twitter, but in case you haven’t seen this yet, the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism republished one of my WWA posts, “The Empathy Question, Revisited” on their blog on May 24. Go check it out. 🙂


The Connecticut School Shooting, Autism, and a Breaking Glass Heart

When I first heard on Friday about the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, I had no words in me at all. It was like someone had just punched me in the gut and I could only think about the senselessness of this violent act and how the victims of the families must feel. After I stopped crying, one of my first acts was to write this poem, “Candles“. If I can’t speak, I might write. Having few to no candles in the house but a few words bouncing around inside me, this was the best I could do to remember the victims.

Over the weekend, my fiance and I happened upon a video by a prominent YouTube personality about the shooting. He expressed, of course, his grief and anger but then later in the video suggested something I would call “lunatic profiling”. I found myself saying, “No, no, no! That is not the way to solve the problem!” I also felt that if such a suggestion were taken seriously, it could lead to people deemed “odd” or “eccentric” or even autistic people being targeted. And I said so in a video I posted on YouTube in which I read the poem.

This morning, I check the news and find speculation that the shooter had Asperger Syndrome. Oh boy. Where do I even begin?

First, I must say that while the effort has been a nearly Herculean battle within myself, I am trying to think more positively these days. However, it is very hard not to be concerned when I see the words “autism” and “mass murder” in the same headlines. So far, the worst I’ve encountered when self-disclosing about my Asperger’s has been gentle and curious ignorance and mostly, it has taken the form of comments such as “you look so normal” and “you seem to be handling it well”. I think many of us would prefer acceptance and understanding or even gentle and curious ignorance to fear-based, dangerous associations between autism and evil or autism and violence. This is why I couldn’t ignore the headlines.

I recognize that in the grief and shock that many people feel after such an event, they want answers. But they need to be the right answers. And any solutions being considered to rectify the problem of mass shootings and gun violence need to be tempered not only with rational and clear thinking, but with the preservation of civil liberties and the avoidance of unfairly stigmatizing an entire group of people based on myths, misunderstanding, and prejudice. I am deeply concerned that without the voice of autistics and with fear-mongering and lack of understanding of autistic people, assumptions will be made that we are a bunch of violent, unfeeling psychopaths when nothing could be further from the truth.

Many autistics are already speaking out about these issues. Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has already aided to dispel the myth that we lack empathy with her website, AutismandEmpathy.com. Other autistics have written very articulate and well-thought posts to contribute to the discussion of where (if at all) autism fits in with this shooting and John Elder Robison has contributed his own thoughts as well. I won’t add much more to the discussion except for a few things:

  1. I must stress, as others already have done, that our particular condition involves difficulties with communication, sensory processing, and other neurological issues — not empathy or feeling. I know I have difficulty sometimes identifying my emotions and expressing them, and sometimes I do feel overwhelmed. I find myself angry, sometimes, like the next person and managing these emotions can be a challenge. However, this is not automatically a recipe for violence. Also, some of the hallmarks of Asperger’s, such as difficulty with social connections or the so-called “flat affect” are externals and to judge our capacity for feeling or empathy by these is a serious mistake. For example: though I am female, my lack of tears has more to do with my preference or even comfort level with expressing emotions in public. I prefer to cry behind closed doors, in front of my fiance, because I feel so vulnerable if it happens in front of strangers.
  2. Most of us have better things to do than to kill other living creatures, human or otherwise, and would never dream of inflicting this kind of harm. As for me, I’m too busy writing, or trying to do my best work at my day job, or trying to create, or have fun, or manage communication, or stop being apprehensive in social situations, or maintain a healthy relationship with my fiance, or ponder the nature of God, or…or…well, I think you get the point.
  3. Many of us in the autism community are saddened and grieve for the lives lost in tragedies such as this. My own glass heart is breaking for those who died and for their families. I wish for such a day when, as the Old Testament writer and prophet Isaiah put it, the “wolf…shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together” or as he writes earlier in the same book, when the human race “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

It is my sincere hope that everyone affected by the shooting find comfort, and that we pursue solutions to the problem with clear and rational thinking. I also pray that there is greater understanding of autism spectrum conditions and that opportunities for education arise rather than assumptions, prejudice, and fear of autistic people.


Aspie Poem: Code

Dear H: for those of us to whom words
sometimes do not easily run, saunter, or even
amble: we speak in code. We think in code. We
construct our languages painstakingly
like little Tolkiens, separated by time, distance, and space:
but the Hobbits and the Elves ain’t got
nothing on us. We have the dexterity
of pictures, objects, or even
moving film to send messages to world,

Continue reading

The Empathy Question, Revisited: Theory of Mind, Culture, and Understanding

The recent opening of Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s new Autism and Empathy website has started me thinking about the whole empathy question in regards to autistic people again. In my first post about autistics and empathy, I mentioned Theory of Mind issues as one of the possible reasons why there is a perception that autistic people lack empathy. With what I had read about Theory of Mind at the time, I’m now reexamining the concept and wondering if I had gotten it slightly wrong, especially in light of the recent challenges that other autistic writers have made to the prevailing ideas about autistics and Theory of Mind.

The Sally-Anne Test

The Sally-Anne Test

The prevailing idea about autistics and Theory of Mind goes something like this: having good Theory of Mind means that a person is able to determine the contents of both one’s own mind and the minds of others; conversely, autistic people are unable to determine or reflect on the contents of other people’s minds. In short, the idea is that autistic people are unable to understand other people’s minds and know that others think differently than they do. This idea was put forth in Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2001 paper on the subject, and I’m sorry that I didn’t unpack it a little further before writing my first post about empathy and autistics. Now that I have, I again have to say: what a load of bullshit.

Continue reading

More Myth-Busting: New Autism and Empathy Website

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg of Journeys With Autism has created the new Autism and Empathy website to “undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long”. She and other writers featured on the site will be speaking about autism and empathy from personal perspectives as well as exploring the question in terms of the medical and scientific.

I encourage you to check out the site. She has already posted an excellent article which breaks down empathy in terms of its three types: cognitive, emotional, and expressed empathy. My poem, “Color (A Modest Plea)” also now appears there as well.


Unique Challenges for the Aspie Woman, Part 2: Functioning in a Love Relationship

I consult the dictionary of human behavior every day.
I had to load it into my brain and make it learn
that you open doors with hello and
that you close them with goodbye. I had to learn
the mechanics of when to smile, when to laugh.
(From my poem, “You Don’t See It”)

As a woman, I have been aware (painfully at times) of the expectations that Western society and culture has placed upon us, both past and present. I mentioned some of these expectations in my last post when I talked about Aspie women and our unique challenges navigating the social matrix. Some of those expectations are also applied, along with a few others, to women in the realm of romantic relationships. This week,I will discuss those expectations and the challenges that Aspie women might have meeting them when involved in a close relationship.

Continue reading