You Want Empathy? I’ll Give You Empathy!

We all remember that I teach at a state university in an economically blighted area of the US, right? And that our students get offered full-time jobs that pay $11,000 per year after they graduate? And that our students work 2 – 3 part-time jobs while going to college, right?

A student of mine writes:

The government of our country is oppressive towards the rich people. It treats them unfailry by asking them to pay more than their fair share in taxes.

And you say empathy is dead in this country.

P.S. I have just been visited by a horrible suspicion. Is it possible that the student thinks I’m rich and is trying to get me to like them in this inventive manner?

Those Unfeeling Autistics

Rachel at Journeys With Autism provides a brilliant analysis of how the tests that supposedly demonstrate low empathy in autistics are completely misguided:

Because the people writing the test are non-autistic, they have no idea of the methods that I use to work around the problem of being unable to read “normal” social cues. In instances in which I cannot intuitively tell when someone wants to enter a conversation, I tend to consciously look for people who aren’t able to get a word in edgewise, and I attempt to make room for them. In terms of perspective taking, this approach shows a significant level of cognitive empathy: I observe process, I see who is being excluded, and I identify with the experience of exclusion to such a degree that I attempt to ease the discomfort of other people. The fact that the authors of the test do not understand my adaptive mechanisms is quite problematic, because while my inability to tell when “normal” people want to enter a conversation would contribute to a low score, my adaptive mechanisms reflect a high level of cognitive empathy that the test does not pick up.

This is exactly how I act in social situations, too. I’m always extremely sensitive to people who experience discomfort in social situations and do all I can to ease it both on a verbal and on a non-verbal level. This is, partly, what makes me so popular with students. I can identify those of them who feel shy and uncomfortable and always try to help them by restraining those who attempt to hijack the discussion and push out the less socially adept of the group.

The idea that all NT people are a lot more empathetic while the autistics are much less so is wrong. Rachel points out that, as an autistic, she is a lot less likely to have an NT person adequately judge her responses:

For example, when I am in a store in which very loud music is playing, I have never had the experience of a non-autistic person being able to read my discomfort or note my awkwardness. Not once. Not ever. And yet, for me (and for a great many other autistic people), being in a store with very loud music is the hell-realm, and the question of whether to stay or go, whether to ask the store manager to turn down the music or not, whether to cry with frustration or put my fingers in my ears, places me in an extremely awkward position. My experience surpasses “normal” social awkwardness and “normal” social discomfort by several orders of magnitude, and yet non-autistic people fail to intuitively recognize that I’m having any kind of aversive experience at all.

Yet, we keep hearing that neurotypicals are so much better than we are at  “tuning in to how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively.”

I highly recommend this entire long essay because it does a fantastic job of exploring where these pernicious myths about autistics come from.