Okay, this is a year old and all, but I only found it today. Apparently, according to someone who has letters after his name and is thus more important than I am, Teaching empathy to someone with autism/Asperger’s is almost like teaching a pig to sing – it is a waste of time and annoys the pig (at least most of the time).
There’s a pretty basic question of definitions here. There are a couple different things that people sometimes mean by “empathy”. One is the general sense of thinking about how other people feel, which is also called “sympathy”. Another is relatively direct experience of other people’s emotional states. If you see someone you hate looking sad, you may experience schadenfreude, but you’ll also probably feel sad — because your brain tends to hand you emotional experiences it has detected. Most autistic people don’t have that (although I know a few who do), but many are at the very least aware of other people’s emotions; in fact, some autistics find social interactions troublesome precisely because they are so consistently overwhelmed by other people’s constant broadcast of emotional states.
But the fact is, this piece doesn’t make any sense using such a precise definition; time and again, the author stresses examples that show clearly that he’s talking about the more colloquial sense of “empathy” where we are talking only about some degree of awareness or concern about other people’s states. He is talking about “feelings of empathy and compassion”, which he graciously allows we might be able to “at least approximate”.
At which point, is is pretty hard to understand how on earth someone could come up with this glorious paean to completely missing the point and libeling a large group of people in a way that practically has to be malicious.
His stories of teaching “Frankie” to express empathy highlight the essential disconnect. Mr. Sanders appears to be unable to distinguish between experience and expression. He talks about circumstances where Frankie should be “expressing” empathy. Well. Hang on. Why should you express something you don’t feel? And what makes you so sure that he doesn’t ever feel things he doesn’t express? I frequently decline to express emotions for any of many reasons. I am aware that sometimes they’re socially expected, but I have been blessed with the option of deciding whether or not I want to do things that are socially expected.
The notion that autistics are incapable of empathy (in the general sense) is frankly idiotic. Temple Grandin’s amazing success relies in no small part on her ability to correctly consider and anticipate the feelings of others — something she does quite well.
What really comes through about this is that, while Mr. Sanders bemoans Frankie’s lack of empathy, the only person we see showing absolute disregard for the feelings and experiences of others is Sanders himself, who appears to have never considered the possibility that people might have internal lives or experiences which they do not always broadcast in the usual way. Relying so heavily on his much-vaunted social instincts, he fails to make even a tiny effort to understand people when their emotional states are not handed to him nicely packaged with a bow on them. The idea of thinking about how people feel, rather than relying on automatically knowing, has been rejected out of hand; why on earth would you think that someone else’s emotional state could be significant, if you don’t have that immediate and direct reminder?
And therein lies his confusion; since he would never put any effort into understanding people if it were not automatic, he can’t imagine that autistic people might have put in that effort. Where others might talk about how and why to evaluate other people’s emotions, focusing on principles rather than rote memorization, he abdicates all responsibility for doing the challenging thing, and relies on rote memorization, and vigilance for “teaching moments”. So he demands adherence to a script without any logical structure or basis to it, then castigates his victim, who “began to respond to situations in which he should show some empathy but in a very scripted way.” Well, if you didn’t want a “very scripted” response, maybe the thing to do would be to talk about theories and general patterns, rather than focusing entirely on specific instances?
But of course, he can’t; being non-autistic, he is of course incapable of abstract or symbolic thought. (What, you say? That’s not actually true? I’m overgeneralizing from a shallow stereotype? I learned it from you, Mr. Sanders. I learned it from you.)
So, on behalf of the millions of autistics out there, let me come forward and thank Mr. Sanders for his diligent effort to preserve harmful stereotypes in the most condescending and insulting way available, while demonstrating near-total incompetence.
And also, Mr. Sanders, thank you for demonstrating that “people with autism” is a fairly reliable cue that the speaker does not actually consider autistics to be people. See, if you were talking about a person, not a “person with autism”, and you were unsure of whether they were feeling something, you would always have the option of asking. That it didn’t occur to you that this could be a possibility really highlights the failure to consider your victim to be a person.
p.s.: The above thanks are actually not intended sincerely. Unfortunately, since autistics cannot use or understand sarcasm, I probably can’t communicate that. If someone non-autistic could repeat that to the guy for me, but totally not mean it, that would be helpful.