a conversation about autism and empathy with andrew solomon

The following was Diary’s Facebook status on Saturday night.

While eating dinner tonight, I choked on a small piece of meat. It was nothing serious, and I was able to dislodge it with a few hard coughs, but it was enough to steal my breath for a moment. As I worked to regain my composure, Brooke put both of her hands on my right shoulder. She said nothing, but looked directly at me. I was so taken aback by the intensity of the full-on eye contact and the gentle tenderness of her touch that I was forced to slow down. She stood there, stock still and silent, until my breathing returned to a normal pace, then kissed my arm ever so lightly before sitting back down in her chair. This was all the more remarkable given that Brooke is terrified of coughing. Her typical reactions to it include covering her ears and shrieking.

Over the past week, I’ve been having an ongoing debate with a friend about autism and empathy. He contends that while autistic people may well show emotional empathy, they tend to lack “cognitive empathy,” which he described as an inability to intuitively understand the internal emotional lives of others. I’ve tried seventeen ways to Sunday to explain why our experience, along with the experience of scores upon scores of autistic children and adults with whom we’ve interacted, belies his thesis. The crux of my argument comes from moments like this one. Moments in which my daughter, who, yes, has extraordinary trouble *verbally* identifying and *describing* (in our language) the emotion that she sees in faces or translating other nonverbal cues into expressions of empathy that non autistic people are able to recognize as such, acts in a way that can leave no doubt that she “innately understands the internal emotional lives of others.” Her response to my distress may not have been the one that a neurotypical person would have had. She didn’t say, “Are you ok?” nor pat me on the back. She didn’t say, “Don’t worry, Mama, everything’s going to be all right.” Instead, she showed me, in her own beautiful way, that she was there with me, and would be as long as I needed her. If that’s not empathy, I don’t know what is.


{Image is a photo of Brooke nuzzling our dog, Winston, included here for no other reason than that this is always about real people.}


A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Solomon wrote an article for the New Yorker called The Reckoning: The Father of the Sandy Hook Killer Searches for Answers. The article detailed his exclusive interviews with Peter Lanza, Adam Lanza’s father.

In the days following its release, the article was everywhere. There was not a homepage on the Internet that didn’t link to it, from the New York Times to Fox News to Buzzfeed. The controversy was, of course, immediate. From whether or not Peter Lanza should have been speaking to the press at all to Andrew’s handling of the material, everyone had an opinion and was going to express it.

Andrew was on the Today Show. He was on NPR. There weren’t a lot of places that he wasn’t. He was, after all, the face of our only real link to Adam Lanza. To clues as to how to recognize a child’s descent into the unfathomable. In every interview that I saw, he was treated as an expert on just about everything in the article from mental illness to autism.

Although I was extremely grateful to Andrew, and Peter for that matter, for emphasizing again and again that Adam’s autism was, by absolutely no means, the cause of his horrific actions, there was something else that was bothering me. I might well have waited to talk about it over coffee sometime, but given Andrew’s profile and the perception of him as an expert on a topic close to my heart, I couldn’t wait.

You may remember that I met Andrew not long after his incredible Ted talk had gone viral. I had the opportunity to hear him speak, by which time we’d already begun a correspondence. He spoke about his books, Far From the Tree, the introduction to which, which could probably stand alone as a book, I adored, and The Noonday Demon, detailing his lifelong struggle with clinical depression.

While I didn’t agree with everything that Andrew said, I liked him. A lot. He’s frighteningly bright. That was clear from moment one. And as much as I love a sharp mind, I was particularly drawn to him because I instantly recognized a kindred spirit – one who analyzes social constructs that society tends to take for granted, and then loves, respects, and revels in the words that he uses to describe what he’s found. He’s also funny. And you know I can’t resist funny.

So when the article came out and I began to see him, well, everywhere, I reached out. First to congratulate him on the interview, and then to tell him that there was something that he was saying that didn’t quite jive with everything I knew as the mom of an autistic child. What follows, printed here with Andrew’s generous permission, is our conversation. It is unedited, but for one reference to a Diary reader’s comment, that, while already on the blog, I don’t feel comfortable publicly debating. Oh, and two words in the very last email I wrote last night because I was exhausted and wrote “I can’t talk you how much …,” meaning “can’t tell you” and well, you get the idea. #MamaNeedsSleep Anyway, here goes.


I’d love to talk about the following sometime. It’s a dangerous misperception that autistics lack empathy.

“I can’t let it go in part because perseverating on stuff like this is what I do, but mostly because, at its core, this is an issue of my daughter’s very humanity. Because truly, if we are able to convince ourselves that if autistic people are unable to DEMONSTRATE empathy to us in a way in which it is recognizable as such TO US, well, then they must be devoid of empathy, then we have effectively dehumanized autistic people. Go us.

And it’s funny really (in a not funny at all kind of way) that we talk so much about the inflexibility, the rigidity of those on the autism spectrum when really, isn’t it US, the so-called neurotypical population, who are stuck in this frightfully narrow rut of perception? Isn’t it us who insist that Autistics conform to our version of .. well, everything? Isn’t it us who are really so rigid in our thinking as to be capable of believing that other ways of processing / thinking / communicating / experiencing are wholly invalid? That’s pretty remarkable (and, in its practical application, horrifying) stuff, isn’t it?”

From Expression is not Existence and Other Big Truths 



Not all autistic people lack empathy–but what we mostly mean when we talk about empathy is, as in the piece, the problem of emotional empathy.  Autistic people are fine on that–they feel sad when they see that others are sad, etc.  What is not always present is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand intuitively the emotional lives of others, or to read non-verbal emotional cues such as facial expressions.  While I wouldn’t say that everyone with autism lacks cognitive empathy, I think many autistic people do.  But once they can understand what someone else is feeling, they feel it, and are capable, obviously, of enormous kindness.

xx, A

Ok, so with this [quote from the article] as our starting point  ..

“Both autism and psychopathy entail a lack of empathy. Psychologists, though, distinguish between the “cognitive empathy” deficits of autism (difficulty understanding what emotions are, trouble interpreting other people’s nonverbal signs) and the “emotional empathy” deficits of psychopathy (lack of concern about hurting other people, an inability to share their feelings). The subgroup of people with neither kind of empathy appears to be small, but such people may act out their malice in ways that can feel both guileless and brutal.

While I very much appreciate the fact that you didn’t end with the first sentence, despite the ensuing attempt to clarify it, I still find the entire premise intensely problematic. This misperception that “autism entails a lack of empathy” is something that I’ve spent years fighting. What I won’t argue is that autistics often lack the specific expressions of empathy that neurotypicals are programmed to expect and understand, but that’s very different from a lack of existence. Forgive me if I repeat that in various ways throughout the following, but, well .. yeah.

I, along with many others, have written at length about Markram’s Intense World Theory and how it lends itself far better to describing the experience of being autistic rather than to the neurotypical observation of the experience of being autistic. I hope the latter part of that sentence makes sense; it’s the crux of all of this.

In an interview with John Scott Holman for Wrong Planet, the Markrams described IWT as follows: The Intense World Theory states that autism is the consequence of a supercharged brain that makes the world painfully intense and that the symptoms are largely because autistics are forced to develop strategies to actively avoid the intensity and pain. Autistics see, hear, feel, think, and remember too much, too deep, and process information too completely. The theory predicts that the autistic child is retreating into a controllable and predictable bubble to protect themselves from the intensity and pain. The theory originated from neuroscientific discoveries on an animal model of autism and was extended by accounting for previous research on autism in humans. It is a unifying theory because it takes into account and explains the many different results and interpretations from a spectrum of studies on autism.

Yesterday, I posted a quote on Diary’s facebook page. It said, “I’ve talked at length about the fact that Brooke has made it very clear that she does not lack emotional empathy. She has made it equally clear that she doesn’t lack environmental awareness, despite the arguable periodic evidence to the contrary. Rather, she experiences a dramatic surfeit of both. And often, hyper-focusing on one thing to the apparent exclusion of everything else or giving the appearance of tuning out entirely are the only life rafts that can save her from drowning in the roiling ocean of sensory overload.”

And then another (the one I sent  you) …

“I can’t let it go in part because perseverating on stuff like this is what I do, but mostly because, at its core, this is an issue of my daughter’s very humanity. Because truly, if we are able to convince ourselves that if autistic people are unable to DEMONSTRATE empathy to us in a way in which it is recognizable as such TO US, well, then they must be devoid of empathy, then we have effectively dehumanized autistic people. Go us.

And it’s funny really (in a not funny at all kind of way) that we talk so much about the inflexibility, the rigidity of those on the autism spectrum when really, isn’t it US, the so-called neurotypical population, who are stuck in this frightfully narrow rut of perception? Isn’t it us who insist that Autistics conform to our version of .. well, everything? Isn’t it us who are really so rigid in our thinking as to be capable of believing that other ways of processing / thinking / communicating / experiencing are wholly invalid? That’s pretty remarkable (and, in its practical application, horrifying) stuff, isn’t it?”

You see, for me, the problem with statements like, “Autism entails a lack of empathy,” is that … well, God, there are tons of problems with them, including the grave danger into which we put people when we so easily dismiss their possession of a trait that stands at the core of what makes us human. But so too, I can’t let them stand without examination because they simply don’t jive with my experience with my child nor the literally hundreds of conversations that I’ve had over the years with autistic people and their parents. Once we are able to shed our own narrow requirements of how empathy should be felt and expressed, we see that it’s not absent at all (often quite the contrary as its presence is characterized by its over-abundance), But instead experienced and conveyed very differently than our own.

When you say, ”What is not always present is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand intuitively the emotional lives of others, or to read non-verbal emotional cues such as facial expressions,” I don’t disagree completely. But, well, I don’t agree either. You see, while the reading of facial expressions and body language is absolutely, incontrovertibly problematic for many, intuitively understanding the emotional lives of others is very often startlingly present. I can’t tell you how many stories I have collected over the years of autistic people who do not tend to display any understanding of emotion suddenly and wholly unexpectedly hugging a parent who is sad or bringing a favorite toy to another child who is crying. I can tell you personal stories for days about nonspeaking autistic people intuitively knowing that someone was hurting (or angry or scared or happy) and acting accordingly. For Brooke, and scores of others with whom I’ve spoken at length, the intuitive understanding of others’ emotions is so strong that it’s physically painful. But her outward reaction might be quite far afield from that which we would expect. She might shriek as though she’s been stabbed. She might cry. She might even, and often does, laugh. To a neurotypical person, there’s no surer sign of a lack of empathy than a person laughing in the face of another’s pain. To understand Brooke, however, is to recognize that laugh as a sign of panic, and an emotional escape hatch for emotions that are too intense to process. Again, it comes down to perception vs experience, which are not only different, but, in this case, diametrically opposed.

I think it’s important to remember that, at its core, autism is a communication disorder. So when we talk about “understanding the emotional lives of others,” we have to remember that a lack of ability to communicate emotional understanding (in a way that NTs are able to effectively receive the information) is not, in and of itself, a lack of understanding. I know how problematic this is for scientists (and journalists!) whose job it is to seek proof, but it’s vital to accept that we can’t assume that something doesn’t exist because we haven’t yet to figure out how to prove that it does.

You say, “But once they can understand what someone else is feeling, they feel it, and are capable, obviously, of enormous kindness.” I fear that behind this is the assumption that understanding what someone else is feeling means being able to label it and that enormous kindness is only valid when it is expressed in a way that we recognize. Years ago, I began to cry while in the car with Brooke. She grabbed the nearest thing to her – a child’s board book – and dragged it across my sunburned face. It hurt like hell, but it was one of the most genuinely kind acts I’d ever seen. She was, as she said later, “Getting the yuckies out of my eyes” for me – she was wiping my tears. She was, in her own way, showing me that she saw that I was sad and was offering comfort. Years later, when she saw me crying in her sister’s room, she ran in, sat on my lap, and began to sing. This is what I wrote at the time:

“Those of us considered neuro-typical – what do we do in that situation? We wait. We watch. We look for clues. We assess. We ask inane questions. “Are you ok?” (Obviously not, no.) We dance around each other. “Is there anything I can do?” (A tissue, I suppose.) We wait for our cue to enter from stage right. Maybe she needs a moment. When she stops crying, I’ll go talk to her.

Brooke does not.

She doesn’t stop to process, to wonder, to hem, to haw, to ask, “Is this the right thing to do?” She isn’t hampered by convention nor bullshit social construct. She saw her Mama hurting and she reacted in the best way that she knew how. She came to tell me that everything was OK.”

I would argue that if I’d tried to explain to Brooke why I was crying, I’d have gotten nowhere. If you’d asked her what I was feeling at the time, she’d have had no way to describe it. But she knew, intuitively, that I was hurting and she reached out with a glorious automaticity that most of us lack.

So while I do agree that there is a difference on some level between affective, intuitive empathy and cognitive empathy, I think that story shows why the way in which they are being defined and delineated doesn’t really work. And moreover, I think that we are making very, very dangerous leaps in assuming that either or both are deficient based upon an apparent lack of expression, when it might just be our own deficiency that makes us blind to their existence.

If you have any patience left for this, I’d offer up the following. It’s a snippet of a conversation that I had with a reader in the comments of a post on Diary. It’s long, but I think it’s really instructive. If you need to save it for another time, I completely understand. I can only imagine how you’ve managed the time to read this far. Either way, I thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for continuing the conversation. It means the world to me that you’d take the time to listen and consider all of this. I am grateful for nothing more than an open mind.

[quote purposefully omitted]

Dear Jess,

Warning: I’ve had more than 2000 e-mails since the piece ran, and I’m drowning.  So I’ve read yours but not the whole exchange at the bottom, which I hope to get to later on.

If you read writing BY autistic people, they often describe the difficulty of interpreting facial expressions and say it’s nearly impossible for them.  They describe difficulty in recognizing the emotional interior lives of others.  I didn’t say that they don’t have empathy; I said many people with autism don’t have this very specific thing that is cognitive empathy—which is totally different from emotional empathy.  And you’re writing about issues of emotional empathy here.  I never said autistic people lack empathy in the broader sense.  But as you point out, autism is a communication disorder, and the difficult applies both to expressive and receptive communication.  And that’s where cognitive empathy is an issue.

Once an autistic person understands what someone else is feeling, he or she is likely to feel enormous empathy.  But figuring out what the other person is feeling is often challenging at first.  Because receptive communication, especially non-verbal, is very hard for many people on the spectrum, especially Aspies.

I think you’ve misunderstood what I said.  And I think this happens a lot—that there is so much unjust critique of autistic people that often when someone is writing descriptively, what they write is extrapolated and taken to be insulting.

I have close friends who are autistic; they are wonderful people.  But if you read the memoirs of autistic people, they talk about how learning to perceive the emotions of others through cues is like learning Japanese or something.  It’s a difficult skill they must acquire consciously.




Thank you so much for responding. I can only imagine the deluge of emotional responses that you’ve been sifting through since the article ran, and I very much appreciate you taking the time.

I’ll start by saying that I’ve made it my life’s work to “read writing BY autistic people” and to talk with them at length about the issues that they face in order to better understand my daughter’s experience. Many of those to whom I have spoken over the years have talked not about being hampered by an inability to “recognize the emotional interior lives of others,” but to describe it or to act on it in a way that is expected. For instance, my friend, M talks a lot about his frustration with the fact that no matter how he’s feeling, his body doesn’t outwardly reflect it, making him *appear* to be cold and aloof when he is really quite the opposite. His voice, he says, tends to lack affect, making it very difficult for him to convey what he is feeling and therefore, leading people to believe that he is not reacting empathetically. Their perception is not based upon what he’s experiencing, but on his inability to show his feelings in a way that is recognizable to them.

While I absolutely get – and, as I said previously, completely agree – that many folks on the spectrum do not innately process facial expressions and other non-verbal  expressions of emotion, based upon the way you defined it in your prior email, that’s only part of cognitive empathy. You described it as “the abilty to understand intuitively the emotional lives of others or to read nonverbal cues such as facial expressions.” The former might be one part of the latter, but it is certainly not all-encompassing. If it were, how would we explain so many of our kids intuitively reacting to other’s emotions? Does reacting intuitively not demand understanding intuitively? Clearly, reading facial expressions isn’t the only way to “read” emotion.

You say, “But once they can understand what someone else is feeling, they feel it, and are capable, obviously, of enormous kindness.” According to this line of thinking, emotional empathy can only come once cognitive empathy has been achieved. This is, I think, the heart of my discomfort. Again, if we examine the concept of cognitive understanding of another’s emotional state, “proof” that it exists is wholly dependent upon an ability to communicate using the emotional language of neurotypicality. How else does one “prove” a cognitive understanding of another person’s emotional state? And why, really, do we need to separate empathy at all?

My daughter reacts viscerally to other’s emotions. When someone is sad, she is too. And she often finds a way, as unconventional as it may be, to comfort them. When they’re scared, so is she. But she will try to find a way, in her own way, to soothe them. When they’re angry, she’s terrified. But ask her to identify emotions, even on exaggerated cartoon faces, and she’s lost. Again, I’d ask, Does reacting intuitively not demand understanding intuitively? I don’t see how the two could possibly be separated. She’s clearly getting the information about other’s interior emotional states from somewhere, even if it’s not the tilt of their eyebrows or the set of their mouths.

While I agree that those of us who care deeply for autistic people are more sensitive to perceived slights, I’m very comfortable in saying that that’s not the case here. I don’t find your writing insulting at all, but I do find it somewhat misleading and definitely worrisome in terms of the perception that it creates. No one else has access to this story. As such, you have become a proxy for Peter and are perceived by the mainstream as a trusted voice on autism and mental illness. That said, I am very, very grateful that you took such pains to remind your readers that autism does not presage premeditated violence and that, to the contrary, autistic people are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence. That’s gone disastrously wrong in the past, and I am thrilled to see the myth exposed as such more and more. But at the same time, I wanted to make sure that as you go on all of these talk shows and are interviewed as an expert witness, so to speak, that you keep in mind just how much we rely on our own (NT)perceptions to explain others’  and how dangerous our assumptions about how other’s cognitive / emotional processes can be.

Again, I thank you for taking the time to read and consider all of this.




I wish I had the leeway to devote more time to this and could write at the length you do about it.  I sadly can’t do so right now.  But I would observe that seeing someone in physical duress and reacting (as your daughter did when you were choking) is different from understanding someone’s nuanced emotional pain.  Many autistic people struggle to understand, for example, ambivalence, or nostalgia—which are harder than simply understanding when someone is overjoyed or despairing (much less choking).  I would add that autism is a very wide category that encompasses millions of people with variant forms of the condition, and that what is true for one person is not true for another.  I would never presume to judge what your daughter feels or how her mind works.  But I can comment on the minds of autistic people I have come to know.
I have often had conversations with autistic people who have said, “Really?  You were upset when X happened?”  And I have said, “Yes, I was very upset by that.”  And they have said, “I didn’t know.  I’m sorry.”  The basic outline of this exchange will be familiar to many people who have spent extended time with autistic people, and it reflects the challenge of cognitive empathy.  The “I’m sorry” reflects the presence of emotional empathy.  I would love to say that everyone is just as you describe Brooke and is full of deep perceptions about other people and simply can’t express them in ways that make sense to us, but that would be a lie.  Many people with autism do not immediately pick up on what others are feeling.  It’s not what they can express; it’s what they can comprehend.  These same individuals may have abilities that non-autistic people lack, but autism is a challenge.
What of this?
As an adolescent, Temple Grandin said to her mother, “I can’t love.”
And additionally, I have heard autistic people say, as Adam Lanza said, that they do not understand what friendship is or why people need to have friends.  I’d quote this from my book:
Fred Volkmar, head of the Child Study Center at Yale, tells of one of his patients, a 25-year-old math genius who had thrived largely because of his mother’s exquisite care, who said to her, “Why do you need a mother?  Why do you have to have a family?  I don’t understand.”  His mother later said, “He thinks of everything very intellectually.  But he doesn’t understand how it makes me feel.”
I don’t think the young man in question was cruel; he did not wish to hurt his mother.  But he genuinely didn’t see how his words would affect her.  Lack of cognitive empathy.  Lack of a theory of mind.  Lack of a sense of what her emotions were.
It’s one of a thousand stories I could dig up along these exact lines.
And as I’ve said, it’s not an insult, and to treat it as such is, in my view, to cheat autistic people of their experience, which should be seen starkly and clearly.  As you know, I have clinical depression, and there are aspects of it that are not as I’d wish, but I don’t want to deny the selfishness into which depressives descend (for example), because I think insight into the condition is everyone’s best friend.
xx Andrew

That is where the conversation left off last night. I’ve not yet had the chance to respond to Andrew’s last note because, contrary to popular belief, I do actually sleep. A little. All that I wrote back so far was this ..

Thank you so much. This is such a hugely important topic and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to explore it and using the opportunity to think critically about the way that we have long perceived and contextualized others’ emotional expressions.


It’s easy to get wrapped up in “expert” status — as a journalist, a doctor, a researcher, a therapist. It’s easy to parrot numbers and statistics and dusty theories that have become part of the current Zeitgeist without real examination. I am immensely grateful when someone in Andrew’s position is willing to keep an open mind, to continue to examine even his own assumptions and conclusions, and, above all, who remembers that all of this, at the end of the day, is about people – like Brooke.

One step, one conversation, one heart at a time, we progress.

Thank you, A.

57 thoughts on “a conversation about autism and empathy with andrew solomon

  1. I’ve said it on your Facebook post and I’ll repeat it here: Brooke is genuinely, intuitively empathetic. I’m not. (Even though my partner thinks I’m very caring). But that’s OK. Brooke and I are different. I struggle with empathy, like most people do. We’re different from Brooke. I don’t think the capacity for empathy is linked to autism or neurotypicality. Across the spectrum of humanity, I see people who struggle with empathy, and people for whom it comes naturally. Brooke is on the latter end. I’m not. And that’s OK. It doesn’t make me more or less autistic than her. Just less empathetic.

    That’s why I feel uncomfortable when both sides of the debate claim that “this is how autistic people do empathy”. I don’t agree at all with pathologing lack of empathy as something only autistic people have, because SO MANY neurotypical people show a distinct lack of empathy as well. On the other hand, I’m not comfortable with autistic people saying that we all “feel too much” and just lack ways to express it adequately. Because I don’t feel too much. I don’t have that instinctive empathy that Brooke has. I’m not “highly sensitive” to other people’s emotions at all. I don’t notice them.

    Yes, autistic people are unfairly judged on how they express their empathy, and you’ve addressed that brilliantly and eloquently. I think we both agree that this doesn’t automatically make us any less capable of feeling empathy. Feeling and expressing are two different things.

    Still, I recognise myself more in Andrew’s description of empathy than in yours. Does that mean that he is right and you’re wrong? No, absolutely not. It means that the autistic experience with empathy is just as varied and diverse as neurotypical empathy. Some people are brilliant at it, some people suck at it. It’s all part and parcel of being human. And Brooke, I might add, is brilliant. 🙂

    • Argh. I should re-read before hitting post. “I struggle with empathy, like most people do” needs more clarification: I don’t think most people are very empathetic. They usually manage to show empathy only for experiences that they themselves have experience of and had an emotional reaction to. They identify with the other person based on their own experiences. That’s why there’s so many misunderstandings about racism and sexism and the like. People who’ve never been bullied don’t get how “just don’t let it get to you” is not the right answer. People who’ve never had to explain their sexual preference to anyone don’t get how equality is such a big deal. Etc., etc.

      And also the typo “pathologing” should read “pathologising”. Obviously.

      • Ok, I admit it, I stared at pathologing trying, more than anything to figure out how to pronounce it. Lol. Thank you, again, for sharing your experience and perspective. It is so appreciated.

  2. Hi, I think this is obviously very complicated and since it’s a spectrum it varies from person to person. Here is my two cents. I think (and this has bothered me for a while) whenever you hashtag #autismhasnoempathymyarse or whatever you put, you are doing the same thing. You are aaying because your girl might show signs of empathy you are saying they all do. That may not be your intention, but in my opinion that is what you are writing and it is just as incorrect as saying no one with autism has empathy.

  3. So, this discussion about empathy and the different types of empathy…it always makes me uncomfortable.

    The problem is the overall trajectory of our understanding of autism and empathy. It used to be, “Autistics lack empathy.” We know that to be false…so now people say, “Autistics have empathy…but…” and they proceed to create new categories and divisions.

    That “but” is crucial, because it basically makes any form of autistic empathy a 2nd class empathy. It’s a power move, as all such divisions are…it belittles autistics, while putting neurotypical empathy on a pedestal.

    I don’t believe in 2nd class empathy. I don’t believe one is better than another. I believe people who makes these condescending divisions are carrying on the old “autistics lack empathy” stereotype, keeping it alive…but they’re just hiding their discrimination behind new terminology.

    F**k that. Because, again: I don’t believe in 2nd class empathy. Putting camoflage on an old, dangerous stereotype doesn’t change it’s nature…it just makes those who spread it dishonest. These divisions need to be called out for what they are and rejected.

  4. So I know that personally with me I am very sensitive to if something is off with someone. I can tell almost instantly that something is wrong, especially with people I know well. Bit I can’t tell what is wrong, if they are tired or sad or mad, even with people like boyfriend, who I know extremely well. Because I am inherently fearful, my tendency is to believe they are mad at me, and that scares me and makes me want to hide. When something is wrong with people, I can feel it. But I can’t identify it. I know something is wrong, and I want desperately to fix it and make them feel better. But I can’t even identify feelings in me, if I mama sad or jealous or angry or related most of the time. I can tell good and bad. I want to fix the bad. And it is extremely dodo cult and frustrating when I know something is wrong and can feel it and have no words for what is wrong, even though I know there mare words for emotions, and I even know what the words are,but I have no way to map them onto the experiences except through careful classification of outside behavior, which is so difficult when I am hurting or when someone else is hurting, because the hurt is overwhelming. And I want to fix it and I don’t know how.

  5. I find this discussion to be amazing. My daughter is 7. She has sensory processing disorder and apraxia. We don’t have a spectrum disorder diagnosis, but I have often wondered if it will come. So many of your stories warm my heart and I see my Tori in them. She did not walk or talk until she was about 2 1/2. Facial expressions came later. I have traveled these lines of thinking not knowing for expanses of time if she understood, felt, recognized…each I come to recognize in her although many looking differently than most expect. She has amazing intuition of when others need to make a connection that most of my family would miss…especially with strangers. Her reactions are not what most would expect: she laughs at the wrong time, cries intensely when her feelings are hurt and may not shed a tear when she falls or injures herself. She loves with her whole heart.

  6. I don’t know if I’m off-base with my train of thought below, so I apologize if I am. When I read blogs by autistic adults, when I watch my son, the empathy is there. What’s NOT there is the pretense. And there may be a disconnect for autistic people between a-b-c in terms of if something doesn’t bother one person, it’s not “top of mind” that it bothers another. But since when is that an “autistic thing”?

    It’s as though a lot of NT’s (professionals and non) want to pretend that it doesn’t happen with us. But perhaps it’s the whole “when I see the things I’m uncomfortable with in myself in YOU, I get mad at YOU” situation. We KNOW, deep down inside, that we aren’t all empathetic. All NT’s are NOT sensitive, not caring, not forward thinking, don’t consider other people’s feelings all the time, In my own experience, my own mother (who is narcissistic) didn’t give a rat’s patootie about the mpact of her behavior on ANYONE else’s life. On the other hand, my autistic son will comfort strangers, honestly and from the heart, if they are sad.

    I don’t want to generalize too much, but it seems like most autistic people do not have a “bull$#it filter” built in. They don’t generally engage in the posturing, pretending, etc. that NT’s do. They might not “get it” right away re. the “why” of someone being upset, but when they do, the empathy is real. I don’t think they can pretend to empathize, which is one of the reasons I guess that NT’s get all cranky. Generally, autistic people don’t ACT like they are SUPPOSED to – key word – A-C-T.

    We NT’s might see that someone’s upset, and we react from the heart when we care. BUT sometimes we won’t actually really care, BUT we can PRETEND to empathize appropriately because we have the built-in wiring/rule-book or we’ve picked up the “appropriate” reactions through osmisis. We can fake it. Autistic people can’t (generally). And that makes US uncomfortable, I think, and we try to make a bigger chasm about empathy than there actually is. If every NT had the amount of empathy we keep blathering about, there would be NO bullying – but that is VERY much not the case.

    Empathy is a spectrum for EVERYONE, and NT’s need to stop fooling themselves that we all have it in the same amount. We don’t. I know from personal experience we don’t. So hopefully someone will do a study and knock the collective “experts” off their high horse on this issue.

    Sorry about the rant, but the whole thing bugs me like it bugs Jess (she just writes about it better 😉

  7. When I was a teenager, I thought I couldn’t love, either.

    The reality was that I had never been given a chance, in so many ways, and was berated so often for getting something wrong when I tried to react that I couldn’t ever trust myself to do the right thing in response to someone else’s emotional state, so I just stopped.

    Which I *usually* could intuitively feel, but mostly couldn’t name or identify due to alexithymia. That’s not lack of empathy, EITHER cognitive or emotional. That’s alexithymia.

    Something else that Solomon really needs to look into, when he reads the writing of autistic people, is that it’s not uncommon for autistic people to report that we can “read” each other better than we can read non-autistic people–in things like body language, sarcasm, etc., leading some of us to believe that in fact it’s not that we’re globally impaired in reading things like body language, tone, and emotional expression, but that we have an entirely distinct physical “language” of those things…or more likely many different ones…which work between people who share closely related “dialects.” Non-autistic people do not have the standard, correct mode of expression or emotional connection–they have the most common one. (This is an effect that might never come to light for someone who’s been almost entirely isolated from other autistic people or from autistic people most similar to themselves.)

    He deeply and desperately needs to read some writing by Amanda Baggs on the kinds of non-verbal communication that can take place between autistic and disabled people who “speak” the same kinds of physical languages. (She has a couple relevant pieces in the Loud Hands Anthology.)

    I would also note, finally, that albeit that autistics may have a poor track record of correctly reading and responding to non-autistic people’s emotional states, neurotypicals have an ABYSMAL record of correctly reading autistic emotional expression and internal experience, as evidenced by the decades-long campaign of abuse, ostracism, and misinformation against us.

    So I’d ask where is the real lack of empathy?

    Jess, I thank you for your patience here–I’m pretty much out of it when it comes to Mr. Solomon talking about autism, and that’s a pity, as I enjoy so much of his other writing.

    • this broke my heart and mended it all at once. the thought of not being able to love according to the rules is just .. but the joy of native language and recognition … yup, broken, mended .. love.

    • Uh, actually they CAN read us ‘just fine’ – albeit in the context of a predator reading prey. In terms of a truly “two way” dialog – you’re absolutely right: Nts cannot read autists.

      The more unpleasant matter is ‘do they WANT to (read autists). Going by the evidence of the ‘rule’ of behavior, the answer – save in a very narrow sense – is an emphatic ‘NO’.

      Autist are commonly seen as ‘prey items’, hence the abusive tendencies of NT’s. I can really relate to what Amanda Baggs (spelling?) has written on the subject. I’m glad I’ve not endured THAT much.

      My PTSD is bad enough as it is.

  8. Couldn’t it be that there are autistic people who have overwhelming amounts of both emotional and cognitive empathy, and some that have an overabundance of one but not both, and some that have both or one but lack the ability to express their empathy in NT ways, and some (very few) that lack both altogether–just as there are some (very few) NTs who lack both altogether?

    We want to GROUP and LABEL people. Human nature, I think. But, perhaps in this case, as in so many cases, our grouping is not one that actually works.

    My answer to so very many questions, in academia and in real life, is this: “It’s much more complicated than that.”

  9. Pingback: Inventing Empathy (the autism spectrum and empathy types)

  10. “I don’t believe in 2nd class empathy”

    I don’t believe either. The problem with Solomon is that he expects us to express what he calls “cognitive empathy” in a neurotypical way. I can’t, since I am definitely not neurotypical. It is not a deficit in cognitive empathy, it is a difficulty in expressing things in the same way the neuromajority does.

    • well put. another problem is that solomon is taking personal opinions that he has formed and presenting them to the public as fact. if he wants to believe in these empathy labels, casually apply them like that…okay, fine. but to then present this info as “true” to the general public, especially given the fact that he has a huge megaphone…it’s misleading, just spreads bad info. he’s not an autism expert, he’s not a mental health professional, he’s not on the spectrum…he should stick to the journalism, leave autism issues to those most qualified to address them. however, he does say, “some of my best friends are autistics”…so there’s that, right? no, i’m kidding. that was probably the worst part of the whole exchange. i nearly facepalmed my face off after reading that little gem.

  11. I think one of the saddest parts of the autism and empathy discussion in general for me is how much the discussion itself dehumanizes an entire group of people. It seems to force a dichotomy in which an autistic person is left to either fight to prove they do not fit this stereotype or be shamed to admit that they do. While the rest of us are allowed to be multi-layered and complicated human beings who get to have all kinds of reasons to explain the ways in which we perceive and respond to other people’s emotions.
    I sincerely hope that Mr. Solomon can come to understand how much more complex this issue is than he appears to see it now. That for all of us, including those on the autism spectrum, reducing this to ‘lacks empathy’ or the newest iteration making the rounds ‘lacks cognitive empathy’ is so reductive of the very wide array of individual experience and has caused a great deal of harm and misunderstanding for those at whom this stereotype has been aimed.
    Much like I hope none of my straight friends will take what they know of my experience as a lesbian to be the proof for or against the accuracy of stereotypes about LGBT people, it is my hope that Mr. Solomon can dig deeper than the friends and acquaintances he has who seem to fit his ideas and make room for the reality that like the rest of us the autistic experience of perceiving and responding to other people’s emotions is simply not going to fall under one unifying theory.

  12. Often, conversations about autism make me uncomfortable. It’s sometimes difficult to breathe when reading theories and explanations from people that aren’t autistic, discussing facets of autism, often as if the autistic person isn’t fully human at all. Often, conversations like this are just another painful reminder of the challenges and discrimination my children will face. I know it’s an important conversation to have, and necessary. But it’s so hard for the constant reminder that my kids are assumed to not be whole. It’s devastating as a mother to have people make (false) assumptions about my kids, or to be shocked when they find out that my children can, in fact express empathy, just in a different way. And as awful it is for me to realize this, it must be so much more so for my children to live with these assumptions every day. Conversations like this are important, and I’m thankful you’re presenting this in such a respectful way. And with all due respect, I’m even more thankful for the autistic voices filling this comments section.

  13. Just a thought – could autism exist as a personality indicator right along side other personality indicators like introversion and extroversion and the whole slew of other ones that exist? Because if you had a highly extroverted autistic person who got most of their energy from being around people, they would have more opportunities and motivation to practise empathic skills, difficult though they might find them. If you had a highly introverted autistic person who was fulfilled by being alone or with small select groups, they might have less motivation to practise the same skills even if both people had the same ability to materialize those skills.

    Instead of looking at a linear spectrum (ranging from neurotypical to autistic/empathetic to non empathetic) what if it’s a multi-dimensional spectrum? I wonder if breaking down the issue into one that is too granular (all empathetic vs. all not) is actually hurting the discussion.

  14. My daughter hasn’t been able to really tell us yet how she experiences emotions of others but through all my observations I believe she truly “feels” other’s emotions and they become her own. She has a very hard time with people crying because it will make her sad and start to cry and she can’t control it. I believe that makes her feel very uncomfortable and so she tries to avoid situations where people are crying. She is in fact so sensitive that sad music will easily bring her to tears. I believe, again as best I can determine, that she is much more sensitive and in tune with the emotions of others because it’s beyond empathy, it’s her actually feeling what others feel. Her reaction to others crying can seem cruel, she yells at them to stop if she can before the emotion overtakes her but I believe that is because it’s so overwhelming for her not to be able to control how other’s emotions effect her. It creates A LOT of anxiety for her. I hope as she gets older she’ll be able to tell me if I’m right.

  15. I am Autistic and I don’t pretend to know what is it like to be someone who is not me. I don’t say things like “People without Autism are unable to process the truth; I know this because they so frequently fail to tell the truth, in comparison to my normative standards of wishing.” How people are able to express themselves in the context of their society is not a perfect rendition of their inner lives. This should really be self-evident. However, it is not, and I am using a great deal of cognitive and emotional empathy to work it out ;).

    But here is the thing. In order to be able to construct emotional sentences that said what I wanted them to say, I had to learn to map feelings-language onto what I experienced and observed, in a reliable way. This is because I am natively alexithymic, which means that I had to learn the art of finding words for emotional content. It did not ever mean that I had no feelings, nor did it mean I did not care about or notice the feelings of others. Theatre training helped me bridge this linguistic gap, and I’m writing a book about this now.

    Some people with autism, like Temple Grandin, may mistakenly say things approximating: “I have a particular sort of experience and therefore everyone in the class of people I consider to be like myself must also have the same experience as me.”

    Some people without autism, like Andrew Solomon, may mistakenly say things approximating: “Temple Grandin has a particular sort of experience and therefore everyone in the class of people I consider to be like her must also have the same experience as her.”

    Both of these types of statements are errors in logic as well as empathy. If there were a difference between cognitive and emotional empathy in real life–a claim of which I remain skeptical–I think the errors in empathetic logic would accrue here to both species.

    Thanks for calling this to my attention, Jess. You are a paragon of actual empathy.


      • I agree.

        I am still learning that not everyone can read my thoughts. It’d be easier if they could, because the words wouldn’t have to find their way to my tongue. I am also ever so grateful, too, that people cannot read my thoughts, because it’d be embarrassing, damaging, and, some, damming.

        I also know that not everyone on the spectrum is me. One autistic is one autistic. I may share common experiences, but I’m still me. A person with her own thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

        My mom always told me there’s three truths: yours, mine, and the Truth.

  16. I just want to give Peter a hug. To tell him he’s not hated for his son’s unspeakable act. The grief and hurt and anger and confusion and other emotions that I cannot identify (simply because I’m not in his shoes in that I don’t have any children, one of whom has committed an unspeakable act) must be longer than the universe and back squared. I’m autistic and very rarely give hugs, especially to complete strangers.

    Empathy is empathy. It’s like apples: there are many different types, but, when it’s all said and done, all the apples will be found in the produce section. I prefer Gala and Fuji apples (I hate mushy apples – I need that crunch). Some recipes call for Braeburn, others Granny Smith. The one exception here is that empathy isn’t a preference – for some, it’s a learned behavior, for mother’s, it’s automatic like breathing (here, I’m guessing – I’ve spent a large time with emotions and studying them). Some are simply born without empathy and have no capacity tor learning empathy. It’s not a matter of too big emotions or communicating.

    We don’t know why Adam did what he did, and I’m not excusing his behavior. He must have had a well thought out plan, warped in his own reality as his brain perceived it at that moment. I’m not an expert, nor a psychic. I cannoy read his mind, anymore than I can read anyone else’s. Yet, I hurt all the same.

  17. Yeah. I mean, I’ve completely stopped even engaging with most types of “empathy” discussions (both about, and not about, autistic people) because I find them, in general, completely ignorant of the historical, philosophical, and cultural contexts of the term “empathy.” And it deeply, deeply frustrates me. Because empathy is a social construct. Like. Just. So much so. Everything Ib Grace said above is completely on point.

    People who are “normal,” who aren’t in some other way “different” or “atypical” or just lacking a certain cultural competence/fluency, find it easy to “intuitively understand” the nature of other people’s perspectives and reactions because in most situations, they can simply ask themselves “How would I feel?” and then presume the other person feels the same. What is assumed to be empathy is generally presumption, in these cases. This doesn’t make it a bad thing; those kinds of presumptions often lead to offering others sympathy and assistance. But it also doesn’t make it some innate, psychic ability that comes wired in your brain.

    Your friend Andrew sounds lovely and intelligent, and willing to discuss difficult topics. That said, if you chat with him again on this topic, feel free to inform him that as someone who has spent literal years researching this subject from a variety of angles (cognitive science, neuroscience, philosophy, literary and cultural theory) I feel comfortable asserting that “cognitive empathy” is a load of crap that only exists because the overwhelming majority of scientists have forgotten what it means to commit an “is-vs.-ought” fallacy, and are completely ignorant of how cultural diversity shapes various social competencies during individual development. Also, I have citations. Many. So, you know. Just for future reference.


      • I am going to send you .pdf presents via the emails and they will make you happy. Because they are less opaque than I am, and also because they back up all your arguments? Happy .pdfs.

      • Hee. I like sharing citations. Let’s see…
        For examples of different cultures’ social/interpersonal belief structures, the journal Language and Communication (god, the fact that I can’t italicize is painful right now) did an issue last year, #33 I think, that had a great section on intersubjectivity in different cultures.
        For psychology theory and comparative psychology, look for stuff by David Leavens or Timothy Racine. Leavens is a comparative psychologist who works with non-human ape species, and has done a lot of great work debunking “Theory of Mind” research in developmental psychology (he’s also incredibly funny, in a dry, annoyed way). Racine is a more theoretical guy (his writing can also be kind of dense) who really knows his philosophy, and has worked with Leavens and on his own arguing against “cognitivist” theories of socio-emotional development.
        Also the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences has published a couple great pieces in the last few years (also a couple heinous ones, so beware). I quite like “The weirdest people in the world?” by Henrich et al., and “The myth of language universals: Language diversity and it’s importance for cognitive science” by Evans and Levinson.
        And for disability studies, there’s a couple good articles: Duffy and Dorner (2011) in the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, which is titled “The Pathos of Mindblindness: Autism, Science, and Sadness in ‘Theory of Mind’ Narratives.” Also, McGuire and Michalko (2011) in Educational Philosophy and Theory, which is titled “Minds between us: Autism, mindblindness, and the uncertainty of communication.” Also anything Melanie Yergeau has ever written ever. Ever.

        I have more than this, but this is like…the most relevant/least esoteric stuff. For anyone that doesn’t have access to a university/college research database (and all it’s magical journal subscriptions), most of these will likely be behind a paywall. However, I do happen to have pdfs of everything. And I would be happy to share, if people are interested. This was long. But you asked!

      • tagAught, I send the .pdfs to the (hopefully accurately typed) email address that’s on your blogger profile–the “tag@tagaught.net” one. I hope they arrived safe and sound!

  18. Raise your hand if you’ve said something without thinking how it would affect the person hearing it…there is no way this is an “autistic” problem! I have hurt my husband’s feelings more in day to day conversation or taking a joke too far than I have when I’ve been upset with him or in a fight. And the people and experiences for whom I have empathy are all stemming from my own experiences. I’m not sure I believe that anyone can understand how a person feels inside without having first walked that walk. I really enjoyed reading this exchange, and I appreciate how much thought each person has put into their comments. Lots to think about.

    • I hope I am not double posting, but I did not see my first attempt show up, so trying again. 🙂

      “I’m not sure I believe that anyone can understand how a person feels inside without having first walked that walk.”

      As an autistic who was raised by a genius Nana (grandmother), I respectfully disagree. That which you believe is possible or impossible is largely irrelevant, in the face of what is, what has been and what is yet to be. Nana used to lecture me, “Reality just doesn’t care what you believe or agree with. Reality is fully capable of continuing on its own course regardless of your beliefs or agreement, and it will ALWAYS continue on its course regardless of your beliefs or agreement.” I have met exactly 4 individuals, other than Nana, in 5 decades of life who understand this very self-apparent thing; 2 of them being Standard Issue Apes (neurotypical variety) and 2 of them being non-Standard Issue Apes (autistic variety).

      Therefore, what I observe is that the ability to “put yourself in another’s shoes” comes down to what I call Imaginative Capacity. I can speak to this from my own experiences and perceptions. While you accurately observe that “putting yourself in another’s shoes” seems to have varying degrees of success, varying by individuals, and largely correlates to whether that person has themselves experienced that same experience, this is the, forgive the accusation, intellectually lazy interpretation of what you’re talking about. For most humans I have met, SIA and nSIA alike, most simply will not “stretch themselves” to even TRY to empathize, as you call it, and what I call Sharing Experience.

      The difference comes down to Desire, Implementation and Practice. Let me define those terms.

      Desire – the internal impetus, be it emotion or logical thought, to engage in a particular task or activity

      Implementation – the method by which one executes a particular task or activity

      Practice – repetitive execution of a particular Implementation, in order to become better at performing that task or activity

      Therefore, whatever task for which one possesses the Desire to Implement and Practice a method of performing that task, then you have or gain the Desired skill necessary to successfully perform that task. This goes for empathy. Here’s where I clumsily try to explain Imaginative Capacity. So, in most of my conversations with other humans, most acknowledge there is some variety of “internal Cinema” in their minds, where they can “roll the tapes” of memories, or imagine other worlds while reading a fiction novel, for instance. For my Nana, and hence how she trained me, I use this “internal Cinema” to place myself squarely in that same circumstance, allow the sensations of the place and time to become what I perceive, then “roll the tape” to see how I will feel, react and potentially behave by default. Just as some do not enjoy reading fiction because the topics are “foreign” and “outside their experiences”, there are those with more Capacity for Imagination, who can, in fact, visualize and “experience” those other worlds and other experiences, regardless of the collective content of their prior experiences.

      To create this Imaginative Capacity, however, requires the Desire to actually, truly, try to put yourself in another’s shoes, but also requires an Implementation that works for you to “experience” that other situation, and then the Practice to solidify that Implementation into a repeatable activity. In my observations, as I stated, I have met few individuals who have this Desire, and in fact, from invasively questioning many SIA’s, to try to understand “them”, it appears they are intellectually lazy enough to blame their failing of imagination on others. “I can’t understand you, so obviously you don’t know what you’re talking about” is one common quote. It’s not their failure to Actively Listen (read: validate their interpretations for accuracy with the speaker), indeed they feel it is the speaker’s fault for not spoon-feeding them precisely how they wish to be spoon fed. As the poster and many respondents have noted, it is, in fact a failing of the SIA to “stretch” their imagination into formerly unknown situations that causes their own lack of empathy, BUT if you can’t perfectly explain your situation and your feelings in precisely the one way they can understand, again it is YOUR failing that is the problem, not their own lack of “work” at understanding you.

      I realize this all probably sounds accusatory and “me better than you” but that is very far from the case. This exact same cause-and-effect relationship exists at the core of misinterpretation issues when I venture into new conversational topics, cultural lexicons, or in fact conversations with new people. It isn’t their failure to check whether their interpretations are accurate, it is MY failure to spoon feed them the understanding in the one way (that they won’t tell me) that they wish to be spoon fed.

      Like I implied, this understanding of mine is all my Nana’s fault, as it were, and my life’s hope remains that I can spread her wisdom out into the world beyond myself.

      If I have offended anyone with my “accusations” I remind you that reality doesn’t care whether or not you agree with its content. *wink*

  19. Pingback: Some Thoughts on Stereotypes and Empathy | Emma's Hope Book

  20. I personally feel we are looking at the entire subject upsidedown.

    Empathy is an emotion. Just as sadness, happiness, anger and guilt are. Humans feel these emotions to various degrees, and then choose a course of action based on them. Sometimes this is beneficial, sometimes the consequences are tragic.

    We do not say Autistic individuals cannot feel anger. Or those on the spectrum in general have difficulty expressing happiness.

    Why then does empathy or a lack of any manner of expressing it play into an individual being autistic or not?

    If a lack of empathy makes one autistic then there is an entire planet full of world leaders, religious leaders, politicians, business giants, who are all lacking a diagnosis!

    The lack of empathy by NTs is astonishing and disgusting to me. In fact it angers me when it is assumed that those on the spectrum cannot intuitively percieve others emotions as a blanket statement. Because what it really means then is that NTs CAN, but simply choose not to, and thus the world is full of people hatefully ignoring others needs as they fufil their own desires. Is this true? It certainly feels true when one looks out across our world.

    Perhaps however, since many emotions are culturally influenced, there is a more balanced view of empathy and it’s manifestation across the globe. Perhaps in Western cultures it would be considered a lack of empathy not to help someone up that has fallen, yet in some cultures to attempt to assist would be percieved as pompous and recieved by the individual as demorilizing. Yet here in the US a man who is moved easily to tears is viewed as weak and mocked, yet in many cultures that same man would be greatly esteemed and view as having desirable qualities.

    It seems to me the argument is improperly rooted. It is not about do Autisic people feel or express empathy or how they do so.

    The real question is do enough humans feel empathy and express it in ways that are making a difference in others lives? In our world?

    When this is the question, the line between Autistics and other Autistics and between Autism and Neurotypical dissapears.

    And the answer, sadly, is…No.

  21. Pingback: Empathy | Joy on a Shoestring

  22. Pingback: A little more on empathy | Joy on a Shoestring

  23. Pingback: I’m Not a Genius: A Gimpy Monologues Interlude | The Musings of a Digital Vagabond

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