Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Empathy, Autism, and the Intense World theory


It's "common knowledge" that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy.  The reasoning for that is mentioned: they tested kids with autism for a basic form of empathy at an age that other children had it.  And those kids didn't have it.  From this, they assumed that all people with autism don't have empathy.

This is in stark contrast to the experiences of people on the spectrum, who complain more of feeling overwhelmed by others' emotions than lacking them.  People mainly defaulted to believing the interpretation of the studies, because as everyone knows, scientists are infallable human beings without a shred of bias.  Therefore people on the spectrum were walking sociopaths.  With no empathy to tie them to other human beings, why wouldn't you expect every gunman in a school shooting to be autistic?

Fortunately, not all scientists were so closed-minded.   The Intense World theory was first proposed by a pair of concerned parents of an autistic child, aided by another researcher. The article is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010743/

It's longwinded and technical, but the basic idea is this: People on the autism spectrum experience the world more strongly than others.  Sounds are louder and sharper, lights brighter and more distracting, words and intonations confusing, and others' emotions and reactions overwhelming.  

This, I feel, is a more accurate representation of autistic people than a strict assumption we have no empathy.  My life would be a lot simpler if I didn't have empathy.  I wouldn't cringe when I accidentally make someone's job or life harder.  I wouldn't consider the effect my words will have on other people before I say them.  Not having to do these things would save me a lot of time and care.  Unfortunately, I don't have a choice.  I do have empathy.  And I have a response to the assertion of that study.

People with developmental disabilities often develop mentally and emotionally at a slower rate than our neurotypical counterparts.  I personally still feel like a teenager emotionally, though mentally I feel like I'm 40 or so.  I suspect if they'd taken kids a few years older and tried the same test, they'd have gotten results saying autistic kids do, in fact, have empathy.

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