Affective and Cognitive Empathy in Autistics

The issues of empathy and autism are actually quite complex. There is research that suggests that autistics have affective empathy, but are lacking in cognitive empathy. Few realize that there are in fact two different kinds of empathy. In particular, it is noted that, “ASD had difficulties with tasks requiring cognitive perspective taking, but reported emotional experiences and victim empathy that were in line with comparison boys.” In comparison, psychopaths are deficient in affective empathy, but not social.

In other words, autistics seem to be deficient in social empathy because they are deficient in theory of mind. Given that I have argued that there are serious problems with the theory that autistics have deficient theory of mind, this would also suggest that there is a serious problem with the argument that we are lacking in cognitive empathy.

Why would the researchers find that ASD have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking? Perhaps because they themselves have difficulties with cognitive perspective taking when it comes to those with ASD. They no doubt had us try to “mind read” neurotypicals, only to find we had difficulty. Did they also have us try to “mind read” fellow autistics? I know that I do a better job of understanding the feelings, thoughts, and actions of fellow autistics than I do of neurotypicals.

If I were to judge neurotypicals by autistic standards, I would have to conclude that they don’t have cognitive empathy. They seem to have emotional/affective abilities, but not the ability to take our perspective. If they were able to do that, they wouldn’t have been making the mistake of accusing us of not having empathy or theory of mind.

When most people accuse us of not having empathy, they aren’t usually making these distinctions, though. Watching us, it may sometimes seem we don’t have empathy. Rather than having an obvious emotional response to a situation, we are often standing there, calmly taking in the situation, then calmly coming in to solve the problem. People too often interpret this lack of an “emotional” response–which all too often means, “You’re not panicking and making things worse, like I am”–as lack of empathy. We in turn look at the neurotypicals’ emotional responses as irrational, ineffective, and even making the situation worse.

Of course, in turn, there are a number of situations that greatly upset us that neurotypicals don’t remotely understand. Yet our emotional responses to our things are considered by neurotypicals to be “ridiculous” and a sign of our pathology. We get upset at different things, and are calm in the face of different things; that’s all. It’s not a sign of pathology for either of us that those differences exist.

There Is No “Autism Defense” for Crime

I hate to have to write about the school shooting in Florida, but when one of the attorneys for Nikolas Cruz says that “the defense team would be exploring mental health issues and “the possibility of autism.” ” then I have to say something. Especially in light of the comments made by Nancy MacLean.

If Cruz’s attorneys make the “autism defense,” there is nothing good that can come of that. Autism is not a defense for such an action, because autistic people are not any more prone to perpetuating this kind of violence than are neurotypicals. The problem is that because people believe that we do not have empathy (a notion Nancy MacLean perpetuated with her comments), it will be easy to get people to believe that we will therefore be more prone to doing things like shooting up schools. I would actually suggest that because we have a very strong moral core, we may in fact be less included to do so. In fact, if you consider how ill-treated we are by practically everyone and how confusing most people’s actions are, I would argue that we probably engage in far, far less violent behavior relative to neurotypicals who have been similarly treated their entire lives.

The fact of the matter is that autistic people can control their conscious actions just as much as any typical person. True, there are those who have meltdowns, particularly young autistics, but they are triggered, sudden, and suddenly over. They do not involve planning. In other words, while it may be possible that an autistic person could commit such an atrocity, they did not commit such an atrocity because they are autistic. We are responsible for these kinds of conscious actions.

None of this precludes other issues with Cruz. He may have other mental illnesses. But quite frankly, unless he was hallucinating, he would still be completely responsible for his actions with the overwhelming majority of mental illnesses. Even psychopaths who literally have no moral core to guide their actions are nevertheless responsible for those actions.  No one would dream of using psychopathy as a defense, and rightly so.

There are all sorts of issues that need to be raised with school shootings, not the least of which is why schools are not dealing with mental health issues in the schools, other than putting the “worst” ones in the behavior units. Also, why is it that people are being made to feel the need to violently lash out, with the schools as their targets? What is going on in our education system that is making people feel so powerless that they feel the need to wield the ultimate kind of power: deadly force? What is happening in our schools to make our children feel this way?

We need to raise a voice of protest against the use of the “autism defense.” Yes, we need to insist that, if an autistic person commits a crime, neither they nor their attorneys can use autism as an excuse. If we want people to accept the fact that we are merely neurologically different, but that different in no way means “worse,” then we have to stand up against every slur, every instant of prejudiced language, every attempt to argue that it’s an excuse for truly criminal behavior. Yes, there are a variety of behaviors we on the spectrum cannot help, but those involve saying the wrong things or stimming, not criminal plots.

High-Level Discrimination and Prejudice

On Feb. 10, I posted a piece criticizing Nancy MacLean, Duke University history professor and author of the National Book Award-nominated Democracy in Chains for her anti-autistic statements. To say that my post has taken off–particularly, but not exclusively, in conservative and libertarian outlets–would be an understatement. There are many who are using this for purely political purposes, but as far as I’m concerned, if we can get more people aware of the issues we on the autism spectrum face, it’s all to the good.

For me, Nancy MacLean’s comments are hardly unique to her; if anything, they are quite typical of altogether too many people. In my experience, most especially among academics like her, who can tolerate anything other than different ways of thinking. And autism is certainly a different way of thinking. While one would expect universities to be a place where different ways of thinking would be encouraged, the fact is that all too often autistics in particular are punished by the dominant culture in our universities.

I’ve experienced the explicit discrimination against autism in our universities first-hand. I made the mistake of disclosing to the administrators at the University of North Texas at Dallas, which led to an effort by the administration to not renew my Lecturer contract. I next made the mistake of disclosing to my students at Southern Methodist University, leading to students actually complaining that I was autistic and “acted weird,” a complaint I had never had prior to disclosing my autism to them, with the result that I was not brought back in the spring as an adjunct.

There is a strong prejudice against autistic people. We are treated as damaged–including by so-called supporters who promulgate anti-vaccination nonsense because of nonexistent connections between vaccines and autism–rather than as people who have different ways of thinking. Yes, there are extreme versions of autism that result in a number of serious physical and communication problems, but while these are in many ways the most visible, the “milder” versions such as my son and me are in fact the more common by a long shot. We are people who want to work, but who face extremely high unemployment rates (I’ve seen numbers from 20% to 80%) precisely because of the kinds of prejudices promulgated by even the most educated among us (perhaps by them most of all). Worse, despite these high unemployment rates, primarily due to explicit discrimination against autism, we all too often cannot even get disability.

I hope this issue continues to have legs. I do not want autism to continue to be the last acceptable form of discrimination. But as long as people like Nancy MacLean continue to spread negative stereotypes of autism, it will continue to be acceptable.

The “Double Empathy Problem”

When you learn to cite sources, you are told that you give a direct quote when you could not say it better yourself. The same is true of blogging. If you cannot say it better yourself, make a link.

The author says there is a “double empathy problem” between autistics and neurotypicals. I’ve talked about that in relation to theory of mind. Clearly we have come to the same fundamental conclusions–in no small part, because we have taken similar approaches, such as by thinking of neurotypical thinking in pathological terms.

I’ve discussed these issues here and here and here and here and here.

Autism, Artificial Neural Nets, and Language

It would benefit people to learn how artificial neural nets (ANNs) work in order to better understand the autistic brain. One of the things I’ve noticed in my readings on autism is that the way autistic people learn strongly resembles the way one trains up ANNs. It takes many iterations of a perception for the autistic person to develop the concept, whereas with neurotypicals only one or two will do.

Neurotypical people learn language in a more language instinct-driven fashion. A word needs be repeated only a few times, and the person has it. But if you tried to train an ANN, you would find that you would need to train it up many more times, and more than that, the first thing it would do is simply repeat back exactly what you said to it. That is, it would engage in echolalia.

Language is thus structured differently in the autistic brain than in the neurotypical brain. The neurotypical brain has a deep grammar on which the details of a given language are hung. If autistic brains lack in certain kinds of instincts, like the language instinct, but still have enough complex network structure to build language, then we would expect less-than-typical structures in speaking. The unusual intonations of many autistic people likely derive from this fact as well, since every sentence is being constructed in a more mechanical way–giving us something like the voice of an ANN that learned language–rather than in the easier way generated by an instinct.

So language, in those who can learn it, is one of those many social behaviors neurotypical children learn automatically, but which requires direct instruction for autistic children.

Duke Historian Nancy MacLean Identifies Autism as the Source of a “Malevolent” Ideology

Duke historian Nancy MacLean, while speaking at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in NYC on February 7, 2018, says she thinks that the villain of her book Democracy in Chains was a villain precisely because he may have been, in her opinion, autistic. And people who have what she considers an evil ideology have tended to be autistic. She is talking about James Buchanan, who won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on Public Choice Theory. See the 1 hour mark:

There is a young man who asks her a question about where James Buchanan’s ideas and ideology come from, whether from “personal greed” or “malevolence.” MacLean responds:

Such a profound question, and I have to say as an author I have struggled with this, and I could explain it in different ways. I didn’t put this in the book, but I’ll say it here [stifled laugh]. It’s striking to me how many of the architects of this cause seem to be on the autism spectrum, you know, people who don’t feel solidarity or empathy with others, and who have kind of difficult human relationships sometime.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not at all objecting to being grouped in with the likes of a Nobel Prize-winning economist. The point isn’t the comparison to the person at all. The objection is that to MacLean’s mind James Buchanan’s ideology is not just wrong, but downright evil. And why is it evil? And why is it “malevolent”? Because it’s what autistic people believe! Only autistic people could believe in an ideology with which Nancy MacLean disagrees.

In case you’re wondering, James Buchanan was a classical liberal. That is, he believed in small government, free markets, and that people should be generally left alone. MacLean interprets this as being evidence of Buchanan being autistic (she doesn’t directly say it, but certainly implies it–which is her M.O. in her book, by the way). She accuses us of not feeling solidarity with other people and of not feeling empathy. Naturally, those of us on the spectrum know that we are certainly empathetic, as I myself have discussed several times–in some cases and ways, more so than others. I know that I have the ideology I do precisely because of my strong concern for the poor.

Is this the only time? Not at all. In Democracy In Chains itself, she notes that economist Tyler Cowan, because he is on the autism spectrum, “was not inclined to sentimentality or solidarity” (202). Clearly this is congruent with her comments about Buchanan.

We on the spectrum ought to be outraged that a Duke University historian is going around telling people that the reason someone has an ideology that she herself considers malevolent is because the person is autistic. Meaning, people with autism, in her opinion, create malevolent, unempathetic, antisocial ideologies. I’ve discussed how ableist people like MacLean use autism as a slur, but I don’t think we’ve ever been accused of being the source of malevolent ideologies before.

If I lived anywhere near Duke University, I would be outside the History Department tomorrow protesting her. I can only hope the students of Duke, the residents of Durham, NC, and anyone who comes to learn about any of her speaking gigs begin protesting her. It’s time we insisted that we not be slandered by anyone, including Duke University historians.


Update: This blog post has been cited in Reason and DC Weekly and Latest Autism News (they are the same piece, in different outlets). And Latest Autism News also has its own piece on it, citing this blog. This blog post has also been reposted on the History News Network. And I have an interview here.

Oppositional-Defiance Disorder, ADHD, and Autism

Anyone who has a child with ADHD should read Diane M. Kennedy’s The ADHD /Autism Connection. This is perhaps especially true if your child has been diagnosed with both ADHD and ODD (Oppositional-Defiance Disorder), since if you combine the behaviors of ADHD and ODD, you get the behaviors of someone with Asperger’s.

Of those with ADHD, 50-65% are also diagnosed with ODD. This would mean that if 3-7% of children have ADHD, and about half of those have ODD, and if children with that combination really have Asperger’s, then around 4%of the general population (including those officially diagnosed with Asperger’s) have Asperger’s.

For those not familiar with ODD, Kennedy lists the behaviors as “stubbornness, defiance, arguing, ignoring rules, hostile behaviors, temper tantrums, and an unwillingness to compromise” (55).

She also quotes the DSM-IV-TR as defining ODD as

a recurrent pattern of negative, defiant, disobedient and hostile behavior toward authority figures that persists for at least 6 months and is characterized  by the frequent occurrence of at least four of the following behaviors: losing temper . . . arguing with adults . . . actively defying or refusing to comply with the requests or rules of adults . . . deliberately doing things that will annoy other people . . . being touchy or easily annoyed by others . . . being angry and resentful . . . or being spiteful or vindictive. (cit. pg. 55)

Let’s face it. I’ve been accused of being stubborn, my parents complained that I was always argumentative and that I liked to aggravate people, and I’m easily annoyed by what I perceived to be peoples’ endless idiocies. I fight against being angry and resentful. Fortunately, I have never been spiteful or vindictive. But given the fact that I exhibit all the rest, I would be diagnosed as having ODD — except that I have Asperger’s, and these behaviors are already included in my syndrome.

Kennedy also cites Lorna Wing on the ways we with autism use language, with Wing saying we have a “tendency to talk on . . . or to ask repetitive questions regardless of the answers, or most irritating of all, to engage in arguments that are endless because the child always finds a new objection to whatever is suggested” (cit. 50). Kennedy also points out that these are typical of children with ADHD as well.

Now, I want you to think about some of the things listed. What kind of world would be live in if we didn’t have people who questioned authority, argued, defied rules, asked repetitive questions, and always found new objections to whatever answers are given? This sounds like the definition of every philosopher, entrepreneur, inventor, scientist, and artist who ever existed. Meaning, these “irritating” features are what are necessary for there to have been any kinds of advancements beyond that of the chimpanzee troopes.

So we again see a list of traits that are presented as negative, but are in fact positive from a social standpoint, since without them there could not have been complex human societies. To have complex order, you have to have not just order, but a little bit of disorder as well.