The “Empathy Deficit” fallacy

At the risk of falling to the theory of self-reference, I’ve always been skeptical that people with autism lack empathy. I’ve just never seen that deficit in Sam, nor in any other people with autism or Asperger’s that I’ve met.

I got to thinking about that after reading this piece in the Boston Globe, which goes to some length to describe how our kids apparently are lacking it.

Empathy, by definition, means some kind of emotional response to the pain or suffering of another. Babies and children don’t always demonstrate their empathy the way adults do — that’s part of our socialization — but they feel it just the same.

My guess is that some of us not on the spectrum look for empathy to be demonstrated in a tangible way. Then when we don’t see it, we say “a-ha, that person with autism lacks empathy.”

The Boston Globe article even spelled that out with a list of tasks an empathetic person is more likely to do. Most of them, I could imagine Sam doing, but not always for purely empathetic reasons.

For example, “return incorrect change to a cashier” could also be following the rules and keeping things correct.

The next two, “let someone else ahead of them in line” and “carry a stranger’s belongings” requires a person to break a social rule about getting into another person’s personal space. Sam does this all the time at Albertsons because he is a courtesy clerk and it’s expected of him. I’ve seen it generalize.

“Give money to a homeless person,” “volunteer,” “donate to a charity,” check, check and check. In fact, we talk about picking our charitable causes with purpose.

“Look after a friend’s pet or plant,” been there, done that.

“Live on a vegetarian die.” Sorry, we’re in Texas and he’s meat-eater. But butchering day comes with much reverence. We all know where our food comes from.

Sometimes I think we overreact to perceived deficits.

Sam doesn’t hug me. I don’t ask for it. Here’s why. The few times we do hug, there is so much human connection, I can almost feel the nuclear fission begin. Better not to disturb the universe like that.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.