Empathy, Morality, and Autism

While I generally disagree with those who claim that people with autism do not have empathy, when it comes to moral decision-making, empathy not only may not be necessary but, according to Jesse Prinz, may in fact get in the way.

I have read in various places that people on the spectrum tend to be very moral. At the same time, people have tended to think of empathy and morality as being closely related. How can one be highly moral and have low empathy? That was the conundrum those who argued that autistic have low empathy had to try to work out.

While I do not agree that people with autism lack empathy, I would agree that we/they have impaired empathy. Why that is is up for debate, though I’m of the opinion that a too-intense feeling drives us away from people, impairing its proper development. It may also be possible that we engage in some degree of avoidance so we are not overwhelmed by others’ feelings.

But if Jesse Prinz is right, we might have an explanation for why it is people on the spectrum tend to be extremely moral in their actions. If empathy is not getting in the way of our moral decision-making, that would make our decisions more moral.

Of course, this separation between empathy and moral decision-making is likely to be read as cold. But if the highly empathetic morality of the inquisitioners is any indication, perhaps we need more cold morality and less warm morality in the world.

Autism is Literally Not Self-Centered

fMRI scans show striking differences between people with autism and neurotypicals.

Most notably, neurotypicals’ “thoughts of social interaction clearly included activation indicating a representation of the “self,” manifested in the brain’s posterior midline regions. However, the self-related activation was near absent in the autism group.” That is to say, the autistics did not put themselves into the given scenario. Say “hug” to a neurotypical, and they will imagine themselves getting a hug from or hugging someone; say “hug” to an autistic, and they will think of the dictionary definition of the word or envision others hugging.

This actually goes along with much of what I have written about on this blog about people on the spectrum being more external-focused. We think more about objects and ideas rather than people, because we don’t think that much about ourselves. This also makes sense of the fact that solipsists are the mental opposites of autistics; solipsists cannot differentiate the world from themselves, while autistics radically differentiate the world from themselves. At its most extreme, the latter is outright debilitating. At the same time, solipsism at its most extreme is the person so hyper-empathetic that you cannot reason with them at all. Everything is based on their feelings, or nothing.

Thus, while many people accuse those on the high functioning end of the spectrum of being self-absorbed, we can see from this research that the opposite is literally true. We don’t think of ourselves at all. Or rarely. But because we don’t think of ourselves, we don’t think that much about others, either — at least, to the degree that one has to think of oneself to think of and about others. We are great with objects, and thus we tend to gravitate toward things like math, programming, engineering, and the sciences. Those of us interested in the social sciences tend to gravitate toward things like agent-based modeling.

Why this pattern of thinking comes about is what we need to try to understand.

Larger, More Active Amygdalas, Autism, and Altruism

Discover magazine reports that extreme altruists have more active and larger amygdalas. These people are more sensitive to “fearful faces.” This heightened empathy drives their altrusim.

We also happen to know that people with autism also have more active and larger amygdalas. While some researchers, like Simon Baron-Cohen argue that people with autism are less empathetic, the research reported by Discover would seem to argue that it is not that autistic people are less empathetic, but that they are more so — so much more so that avoiding faces becomes necessary to avoid being overwhelmed.

Does this imply autistic people are necessarily more altruistic? Not necessarily. At least, not from a neurotypical person’s perspective. I do suspect, though, that perhaps people on the spectrum are more likely to be effective altruists, an idea which I find extremely attractive. Why might I think that autistics might be more likely to be effective altruists? Because we tend to be more hyper-rational and research-oriented. Thus, if and when we are altruistic, we will be more likely to embrace the effective altruism approach.


Neurologically, we see both increased numbers of dendritic spines and increased excitatory activities. Now a gene linking the two has been found. It is, of course, only one of many genes that can result in autism, but every advance in knowledge is good.

A connection between number of spines (meaning, number of connections) and increased excitatory activity shouldn’t be all that surprising. The more links you have in a social network, the more active you are likely to be. Too many friends, and your life can become overwhelmed. It works the same with neural networks.

It is my hope that a way can be found to reduce severe cases’ problems without reducing benefits too much.

Two Interacting Neural Systems Affect If One Is Social or Antisocial

Scientists at Caltech have discovered that there are two systems of neurons that influence whether and at what time one is either social or antisocial. Specifically, the antisocial system induces self-grooming, or repetitive behaviors.

Each system inhibits the other, so that one switches from social behaviors to antisocial behaviors. Certainly we see most people switching between these two behaviors. However, people with autism seem to have the social system turned off most of the time.

As it turns out, the social system is also an inhibitory system. It inhibits neural activity. The antisocial system is an excitatory system. It increases neural activity. In other words, this discovery supports the Intense World Theory (IWT) of autism.

The IWT says excitatory neurons are working more strongly than are the inhibitory neurons. That is, positive feedback dominates. In very social people, inhibitory neurons dominate, meaning negative feedback, meaning equilibrium dominates.

Of course, these are likely not the only inhibitory and excitatory systems in the brain. And it is likely that there will be not only other alternating systems, but also co-dominant systems. But this research provides some pretty strong evidence for why it is that excitatory dominance would result in autism.

Autistic Characters on T.V.

Although the writers of the show deny it, everyone knows Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is on the autism spectrum–certainly Asperger’s, since he spoke early as a child. And Jim Parsons has admitted that he made the choice of performing the character as having Asperger’s. Whether the writers intended to do so or not, Sheldon is everyone’s favorite autistic character–so much so that the spinoff Young Sheldon debuted this year.

There are those who complain that on The Big Bang Theory everyone is laughing at the autistic character when everyone is complaining about or making fun of Sheldon. I don’t remember, but I suppose there were those who complained about everyone laughing at the gay characters on Will & Grace when it first debuted. Yet, the social consequences of that show for gay people cannot be understated. There is little doubt in my mind that it was responsible for the shift in support for gay marriage shifting from a clear minority position to a (just barely) majority position. Sympathetic portrayals of gay characters–and laughing at them doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with them–changed attitudes toward gays. And sympathetic portrayals of autistic people, whether in comedies or dramas, will change attitudes toward us as well.

Of course, it would help a lot if it were 100% clear Sheldon was on the spectrum. The show’s official denial that Sheldon is on the spectrum prevents people from forming the full empathetic tie and as a result we haven’t made the same kinds of gains as gays made through Will & Grace.

That’s why I have great hopes for The Good Doctor. I just saw the first two episodes, and from the perspective of someone on the spectrum who understand the transformative power of art–being a poet, playwright, and fiction writer myself, I am optimistic.

For one, I absolutely love how the show depicts most people’s attitudes toward someone with autism. Dr. Shaun Murphy is treated absolutely terribly by almost everyone. The president of the hospital believes in Shaun, but we do not yet understand why he believes in him to the degree he does. There’s a woman on the board who supports Shaun because she supports the president, but she otherwise seems neutral about him.The only other person who treats him well actually treats him with a great deal of pity. Pity is what you feel when you think yourself superior to another person (vs. sympathy or empathy, which are more egalitarian in nature). Pretty much everyone else either dismisses him at best or are horrified at the very though of Shaun being a doctor. The surgeon to whom he’s assigned refuses to allow him to do anything other than siphon. Almost everyone dehumanizes Shaun to a degree that, I hate to say, feels exactly right.

The show also attempts to help the audience understand Shaun’s thinking, using ghost images in the background and foreground. The funny thing is, I actually do have those experiences, of literally seeing things right in front of me and moving things around to figure them out. It’s why I did spectacularly well in organic chemistry–I could see the molecules in 3D and move them around in front of me to see how they were shaped, structured, and could interact and react. So, like Shaun, I’m a strongly visual thinker. But it also seems that Shaun is a pattern thinker as well–and also like me. My experience of pattern thinking is that a series of images comes rapid-fire, one after another, literally showing me the pattern through the series of images. Again, the show does a good job of showing that kind of thinking.

Another aspect of our thinking implied by the show is that our memories are highly contextual. Meaning, we can remember things well and quickly under just the right natural prompts, but not if we’re being pressured. Demand an answer, and I may not be able to draw the memory to the surface to answer you. At the very least, it might take a while. Also, depending on how complex the question is, it may take a while for the images to stop coming and for us to reformulate them into words to answer. Thus, the awkward pauses and long delays (seconds seem forever when you’re used to an immediate response). Again, from my perspective, the show does a good job of getting these things right and of creating scenarios that communicate those kinds experiences to a neurotypical audience.

Let’s face it, these shows are never going to make everyone happy. There are a variety of autistic experiences–some are more musical, some are more visual, some are more pattern thinkers, some are savants, most are not, most are high-functioning, some are not–so we shouldn’t dismiss what’s being depicted on the show just because it doesn’t perfectly match our own experiences. We should be surprised it that were in fact the case. More, the depiction of people different from us helps us to develop empathy for those others. And that can and should include depictions of other kinds of autistic experiences.

Speaking of savants, it is said in The Good Doctor that Shaun is a savant. But his depiction is, quite frankly, simply that of a rather run-of-the-mill high-functioning autistic. Due to his experiences, he became hyperfocused on anatomy and physiology and thus became a doctor. Becoming an expert in one’s obsessions is one of the primary traits of those with Asperger’s or who are otherwise high-functioning autistics. And the way his memory works seems rather run-of-the-mill autistic, as noted above. But then again, I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and I public peer reviewed papers on the different kinds of spontaneous orders, so what do I know about being run-of-the-mill? (Maybe more than most realize.)

To wrap up, let’s return to Sheldon Cooper. After all, there is a new show depicting the character: Young Sheldon. It’s pretty cute, and while there’s no mention of his being anywhere on the spectrum (there wouldn’t have been much awareness of it in 1989, when the show begins, since Asperger’s works weren’t translated into English until the mid 1990’s, meaning nobody could have diagnosed him with Asperger’s), it seems the writers are giving several nods in that direction. In one scene, there is a good depiction of Sheldon’s anxiety about being outside. In another, it is shown that Sheldon has perfect pitch. Why does that matter? Because there has been shown to be a strong correlation between having perfect pitch and autism traits. Some even claim a 100% correlation. If the latter is the case, then whether the writers intend Sheldon to be on the autism spectrum or not, Sheldon is on the spectrum.

Making Fog—And Other Connections

While other theories of autism explain it as a disability, the Intense World Theory of autism explains it as an intensification of the neurological processing. This approach also explains how it is that many people with autism have strong abilities as well.

Daniel’s strength certainly lies in his ability to make strong causal connection. For example, one morning, as I was taking Daniel and Dylan to the babysitter’s, Daniel noticed his breath in the cold air.

“I’m making fog.”

I told him that he was right. I also told him that fog was water in the air and that fog and clouds were the same thing.

“And when clouds come together, they make rain?” And he brought his hands together and intertwined his fingers.

He was, of course, right. When clouds become dense enough, rain drops form and fall. These are the kinds of observations Daniel makes all the time. He was able to make that leap of logic that most 5 year olds –- heck, far too many adults, let alone children –- cannot make.

Around that time,  Daniel also asked me, “What is air?” I told him that it’s what we breathe. He then asked me, “How do lungs work?” After I told him, he asked if the lungs looked like the heart. I want you to think about the implications of that connection he made.

Perhaps the most astounding one he ever made involved magnetism and electricity. Daniel had a fascination with power plants there for a while, and I showed him online about how generators work–that the water or steam produced by heating water with coal, wood, or fission spun a generator that produced electricity–and where the electricity went. I didn’t go into details about exactly how the generator produces electricity, only that spinning was involved. Later, when Daniel asked me how magnets work, I told him. I explained about how electrons are flowing through and around the magnet. He then said, “So, if you spin it, it will produce electricity?” And that is, of course, what is being spun in a generator to produce electricity. He was six at the time.

I wish I could remember them all.