Nicole Nicholsen

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Autism and Empathy website 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 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.

Cracks in the Edifice

To me, possessing a Theory of Mind means
that one is able to get inside someone else’s head — and dare I say,
heart — and understand what he or she might be thinking or feeling. This
practice can be evident in many applications, both practical and
creative. For example, my craft as a poet — especially one who frequently writes persona pieces in the voices of
other individuals — requires me to get inside someone else’s head in
order to write. The words, idioms, and imagery may have been generated
by me, but I do this whilst wearing the “skin” of someone else.
According to Dr. Baron-Cohen, I should not be able to do this at all,
due to an “impaired” Theory of Mind. But I do, and do so frequently. How
does one explain this?

It might be easy to explain me away as an anomaly: a possessor of Raven Medicine
(if you are into Native American Spirituality), or perhaps someone who
has learned how to do this by mimicry. However, I do not believe I am
alone in my capabilities to do this. Other autistics are stepping
forwarding and speaking about their own perspectives and experiences
empathy as well as their abilities to discern what others are thinking
or feeling: Cohen-Rottenberg debunked the idea on her Journeys with Autism blog and Yusuf Smith systematically took apart Dr. Baron-Cohen’s ideas on his blog.

Other autistic writers are questioning the very nature of empathy itself. Aspie Rhetor
discusses an article by Dennis Lynch, “Rhetorics of Proximity: Empathy
in Temple Grandin and Cornel West” which argues that true empathy
requires a “bodily displacement” — in other words, to walk in someone
else’s shoes, you literally must remove your feet from your
own. Aspie Rhetor also states earlier in her post that “empathy … can
only be remotely successful when engaged between people with similar
backgrounds, people who occupy similar social stations.” Considering
these points, one has to wonder if true empathy is ever possible: how
able or willing are we to remove ourselves from our own shoes and truly
understand the viewpoint of someone else, especially if they are
fundamentally different from us?

Culture Clash

Aspie Rhetor’s statements intrigued me
and I started to think about the issues of empathy and culture. The
reigning experts on autism may not be taking cultural differences into
account with the whole empathy question — and by culture, I do not
simply mean race (which is not a biological truth but a sociological and
cultural construct anyway), ethnicity, religion, etc. One must broaden
the connotation of the word “culture” when considering this question.

To begin, how do we define “culture”? The
World English Dictionary includes the following definitions in its
entry for that word:

“1. the total of the
inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the
shared bases of social action 2. the total range of activities and ideas
of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and
reinforced by members of the group: the Mayan culture”

If we accept this definition as valid,
then we must think beyond the general idea of culture and consider
non-traditional connotations of the word. Organizations have their own
distinct cultures — for example, I can identify and describe the
distinct culture of my place of employment. One could argue that each
family has a culture. Both entities fit the second definition’s
requirement of having “shared traditions, which are transmitted and
reinforced by members of the group.”

Now, let’s expand this out to the idea
outward and generalize it a bit more. What if neurotypicals could be
considered part of a wider “culture,” and autistics part of another?
While I realize I am stretching this a bit, I ask you to consider this
idea for a moment. As Aspie Rhetor and others have suggested,
neurotypicals may have schemas of what is considered “correct” empathy —
which is an inherited idea by other neurotypical individuals. Those who
do not display empathy according to these schemas may be labeled as
“lacking empathy.” However, I think of many people who have left
comments on my blog who have discussed their own experiences with
expressing and possessing empathy, as well as some of the writers on the
Autism and Empathy
website who describe not only their own empathetic reactions but those
of their autistic/Aspie children. Additionally, I think of Laura
Nadine’s video, “My Violin Cries
in which she talks about how she dealt with the loss of her violin
teacher and mentor, as well as this short video by AspergerSquare8, “Autistic Awareness – Empathy.” All of these individuals attest that at least some of the autistic population possesses empathy.

So, given the above, could it be that
what is often misconstrued as a “lack of empathy” is simply the failure
of one wider “culture” to understand another? In other words, could the
consistent claims of lack of empathy on the part of autistics be the
result of neurotypical researchers/scientists/psychologists/etc. judging
autistic empathy by neurotypical standards?

Wearing the Other’s Shoes

I recall when the movie Avatar
was released that there were many who were critical of the whole premise of the film, which chronicled the desire of a member of a
dominant culture wanting to become the “other”: a human becoming a Na’vi
and then eventually wanting to join them. Race relations were discussed
in light of the film, suggesting “White arrogance” and parallels to Dances with Wolves.
After hearing and reading some discussions, and reflecting on these
discussions, it is easy to wonder if it is ever possible to wear the
shoes of another … especially if it’s someone from a perceived “majority”
culture trying to understand someone from a perceived minority. By
extension, it’s also easy to wonder if most neurotypicals will be able
to understand or empathize with autistic people.

What I might term “dominant culture
arrogance” is present in many forms and in many civilizations. For
example, one might example caste relations in India and conclude that
some arrogance exists on the part of those in higher castes which would
stand in the way understanding or empathy — for example, a Brahmin
attempting to see the viewpoint of or empathizing with a Dalit. Or, if I
wish to avoid the “majority/minority” dialectic, I might suggest
another term: “cross-cultural arrogance.” In this case, it could be
defined as the tendency to consider one’s own culture/group/etc. to be
universal, natural, or even superior versus that of another. But in
either case, the arrogance would exist.

What would cause such arrogance? One
might conclude that this arrogance, along with prejudice and biases,
were inherited from parents of other family members; unless one choses
to reject them, they remain with an individual throughout adulthood.
Included with this arrogance would be a natural tendency to look down on
those from a different, or perceived “minority” culture (the “other”).

Additionally, another factor which could
stand in the way of empathy is simple ignorance — a lack of knowledge or
understanding about the other culture in question. This kind of
ignorance may be caused by a lack of exposure to the “other,” possible
due to a lack of opportunities (e.g. not actually knowing an autistic person, thus being ignorant of what one would be
like). What’s also interesting is that another cause of this kind of
ignorance would be the very prejudice and arrogance I spoke of earlier —
such characteristics would cause a person to not want to get to know the “other,” thus the ignorance continues.

The Requirements of Empathy and Understanding: Truth Versus Fiction

It is easy to wonder if one can truly
remove oneself from one’s own shoes to truly experience the world
through the eyes of another. This, I would think, would require one to
leave one’s own culture, upbringing, personal prejudices, mental
filters, and even perhaps one’s own identity behind to do this. For
many, this is certainly no small task — it is easier to empathize with
someone that you can easily identify with. Yusuf Smith
gives the example of the attitudes of French feminists towards Muslim
girls who wish to wear veils, stating, “they identify with the girls who
do not want to, and insist that their right not to wear the veil comes
before the right of those who insist on wearing it to receive an
education or, in some cases, employment.” In other words, this would be a
form of flawed empathy, and I would imagine it would be very hard for
those feminists to imagine themselves wanting to wear a veil. This would require those feminists to leave behind their own ideas, beliefs, and mental filters.

Similarly, it is easy for neurotypicals
to imagine a hellish, painful existence as an autistic, basing their
assumptions upon their own ideas/beliefs/prejudices. However, in his
article, “Don’t Mourn for Us”,
Jim Sinclair says that “the tragedy is not that we’re here, but that
your world has no place for us to be.” I know this is true from
personal experience, as my personal pain related to Asperger Syndrome
has nothing to do with the Asperger’s itself but more to do with its
encounters in a neurotypical world, which include emotionally painful
things such as misunderstandings and prejudice as well as physically
painful things such as sensory overload.

However, once prejudice and arrogance has
been removed and any “culture clash” I spoke of earlier has begun to
melt away, I believe that successful acts of understanding and empathy
can occur. First of all, we must remember that the human existence can
be summarized by basic needs and desires. I think of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
in which specific needs fall into five categories: physiological
(sleep, food, drink), security (financial stability, a safe
neighborhood), social needs (belonging, love), esteem needs
(self-esteem, personal worth), and self-actualization needs (personal
growth and fulfilling one’s potential). While some of these basic needs
might manifest differently with each individual, I would argue that
these categories are very basic and could encompass many different
specific needs and desires. Even beyond these five categories, it might
be possible to define the human experience with need and desire as two
distinct states of being: the joy, satisfaction, or feeling of security
in having one’s needs met versus the pain, sorrow, frustration, or
anxiety at either losing something that meets a need or not having a
need met at all. I think that the understanding of these two states —
the joy and the sorrow — is the basis of empathy, unclouded by
prejudice, unclouded by personal belief, and unclouded by specific
personal desires.

Second, since any act of empathy must
begin with the other person in mind, we must attempt to understand the
other person with whom we are attempting to empathize — in other words,
trying to find out what he/she wants or needs. This can be as simple as
asking a question. Depending on the situation, the question might be,
“do you need a hug?” Or, “how are you feeling?,” Or even more basic,
“What can I do to help?”

Beyond Theory of Mind

Given what I believe that acts of empathy
(at least expressed empathy) require, it would seem to me that
Baron-Cohen has incorrectly expressed his idea of what Theory of Mind
is. I believe that his “Theory of Mind” should actually read more like
this: it is the ability of a person to determine the contents of one’s
own mind as well as the ability to correctly assume — using
current beliefs, shared cultural artifacts, and basic cultural
assumptions — what the contents of another person’s mind would be. And
according to this definition, this means that anyone — not just
autistics — would be likely to have impaired Theory of Mind if they are
blinded by prejudice, ignorance, incorrect cultural assumptions, and
even a lack of respect for the other person.

As documented above, empathy does not
require that someone be skilled in this particular “Theory of Mind” and
simply requires a desire to understand, put away personal prejudices,
and reach out to the other is required. Judging from my own experiences,
as well as the experiences of other autistics, I am certain that
autistic people are capable of this kind of understanding and empathy.
The prevailing definition of “Theory of Mind” be reexamined and
considered. Its continued perpetuation will continue to be damaging to
autistic people and unfortunately continue to promote the “lack of
empathy” myth which continues to plague the autistic community.

A version of this essay was previously published at