Sunday, 6 April 2014

A Little Bit of Empathy

The debate on Autism has traditionally centred to a large degree on Empathy. At the core of understanding of the was that suffers lacked empathy - there was a substantial amount of baggage that would come along with accepting a fact like that.

The interpretation is rather crude, to a large degree inaccurate and puts narrow constraints around what empathy is, various types of empathy and how empathy may be presented. It situations where it has been demonstrated that people with autistic disorders can show very clear empathy, it is often argued that there is a difference between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy.

This difference has let to the association (or lack of ) between autism and the Theory of Mind / mind-blindness. This is an area where empirical research has come to the fore, pioneered to a large degree by Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge. The research has developed many incredibly simple first and second order false belief tests such as the Sally-Anne or Smarties tests.

The roots that ToM has in Neuroscience as well as Philosophy make it more palatable, yet the implications in autism raise important social questions for the role of autism suffers in cognition experience and participatory sense making. Froeze and Di Paolo in their Cell to Society paper state

“There are situations in which cognitive agents can interact ... but in which the other agent is simply treated as part of the physical environment. A well known example would be the cognitive domain of a severely autistic person who is embedded within the social world of others, but who does not perceive others as such. In such cases there are certainly mutual interactions between cognitive agents, and these interactions can give rise to autonomous structures that enable and constrain individual behaviour (multi-agent systems), but there is no sociality in the joint sense-making”

I'm not sure how radical this statement is in reality but it makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable. Autism is defined on a spectrum – where on that spectrum does one suddenly become a “part of the physical environment”. In addition many researchers believe that language is the key to Theory of Mind. Where does this leave deaf people? Deaf people have also been noted to have issues with false belief tests and have developed compensatory strategies for this, but is there a place on their defining spectrum where we should recognise them as part of the physical environment.

An after all if we are to take the strict definition of the Theory of Mind, aren't there times when we all fail to grasp the point of view of others. A quick trip to the book shop will reveal shelves full of self-help titles claiming the ability to educate us on how the mind of the opposite sex works. None of us are mind readers. We all lack empathy from time to time and can be encouraged to do so to a greater degree by deep-rooted motivational factors – greed, ego, security for ourselves and family.

Interestingly Baron Cohen has bought Empathy to the forefront once again with the Empathy-Systemizing theory, which will no doubt continue to harshly associate sufferers of the disorder with negative emotional connotations.


  1. There was an article I read ages ago that held the view that a lack of what people normally consider empathetic tendencies was a further evolution of human cognitive capabilities, and while I don't really buy into their views, it was nice to see a perspective on autism that doesn't automatically assume that these people are missing some essential parts and interprets their differences as differences, and not defects.

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