Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, related to Sacha) is a British researcher who developed the idea that Autism is caused by an ‘extreme male brain’. This is a very controversial hypothesis. It’s the idea that Autistic people, regardless of gender process the world ‘through a male lens’, have typically male interests, and struggle with tasks that women are supposed to be better at. Men are typically better at systemising, which is recognising and understanding patterns and systems, and are not as ’empathetic’ as women. Therefore, the idea is that Autistic people are extremely ‘male’ in terms of the way their brains work.
There are issues with this, such as that the questionnaires used to diagnose Autism typically contain a lot of questions about ‘male’ topics, so there is almost certainly confirmation bias at play here. It also erases the experience of non-binary people, Autistic people who are more feminine, and many trans people.
An issue that has arisen from people hearing about this theory stems from a misunderstanding of the word ’empathy’. People hear ‘Autistic people are less empathetic’, and think that we are uncaring, unable to love, and even equate Autism with conditions such as sociopathy. This can be very stigmatising.
Many Autistic people struggle with a concept known as ‘theory of mind’. This is being able to interpret others’ thoughts and behaviours as separate from your own. For example, a test used to diagnose Autistic children involves showing cartoon images of a doll being hidden from a character, and asking the child if the character knows where the doll is. Someone who struggles with theory of mind may think that because they know where the doll is, the character must also know.
This is where the idea of a lack of empathy comes in. If you can’t understand what someone else is thinking, how can you be empathetic- that is being able to feel their emotions as they do. From the Cambridge dictionary, empathy is defined as:
the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation
Colloquially though, that’s not really how most people view empathy. Many people think of empathy as caring about another person. Therefore, when they hear that Autistic people may struggle with empathy, they think that Autistic people struggle to care about people other than themselves.
Sympathy is defined as:
(an expression of) understanding and care for someone else’s suffering
It’s really quite a subtle difference, and in colloquial use, the difference is subtler yet. Sympathy doesn’t require a person to feel what the other is feeling. Sympathy is when you say sorry to someone because they lost a loved one, empathy is feeling the same sadness that they do.
For what it’s worth, I don’t believe that Autistic people never feel empathy. I can only really speak for myself, and I certainly feel sad for someone else when something bad happens to them. I can feel pain when I see another in pain. My issue is that unless someone tells me how they feel, I can often miss signals in body language or vague language that perhaps neurotypical people would pick up on. Sometimes I don’t know that something even makes another person feel a certain way unless they tell me. But as soon as I know, I can feel something for that person. Whether it’s the same as they feel, can neurotypicals even claim to know if they do that? You can’t really know.
What I’m more interested in as a concept is compassion. I talk about it a lot in my tarot posts. I like it because I see it as more powerful. It’s a skill, you can learn it, get better at it, and best of all, there’s evidence that you are less easily exhausted. Empathy burnout is definitely a thing and it’s a problem. It’s when you have spent so much time caring about someone and feeling their pain, that you get exhausted and can’t empathise with others as well. You know when you see adverts on TV over and over again from charities about starving children, abused animals, people affected by natural disaster, and the shock starts to wear off. You care less. That’s dangerous.
Here’s the abstract for an interesting journal article about compassion vs empathy (check references for source). Some of it is a little hard to understand so I’ll bold the important parts:
Although empathy is crucial for successful social interactions, excessive sharing of others’ negative emotions may be maladaptive and constitute a source of burnout. To investigate functional neural plasticity underlying the augmentation of empathy and to test the counteracting potential of compassion, one group of participants was first trained in empathic resonance and subsequently in compassion. In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training, but not memory training (control group), increased negative affect and brain activations in anterior insula and anterior midcingulate cortex—brain regions previously associated with empathy for pain. In contrast, subsequent compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect and, in contrast, augment self-reports of positive affect. In addition, compassion training increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex. We conclude that training compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience.
Compassion doesn’t require feeling what the other person feels. That is why it’s less likely to lead to burnout. The article mentioned above shows that compassion and empathy even come from different regions of the brain. When you feel compassionate, you want to relieve another person’s pain. You don’t have to feel their pain, you might not even want to, initially. Compassion extends to people you don’t like, even people who have done terrible things. Compassion is recognising the inherent similarities in all human experiences and showing unconditional care. Compassion isn’t feeling sad when another is sad, it’s feeling love for them.
Thich Nhat Hanh said: In the eyes of Great Compassion, there is no separation between subject and object, no separate self.
I’d like to introduce you to a meditation that I learned from the teacher who ran my high school’s meditation club. It’s the practice of metta, also known as lovingkindness.
Close your eyes, take a few breaths, and imagine yourself holding a ball of light. Imagine this ball of light contains your compassion. If you have aphantasia, perhaps you could stare at a candle or draw instead.
Say to yourself ‘May I be well, may I be happy’ and let the ball of light envelop you.
Think of a person you love and say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and imagine the light also enveloping them.
Think of a person you are indifferent to, maybe an acquaintance. Say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and imagine the light enveloping them.
Think of a person you dislike and say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and imagine the light enveloping them.
Think of the building or area that you are in, say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and imagine the ball of light enveloping all of the people inside it.
Think of the country you are in. Say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and imagine the light enveloping everyone in that country.
Think of the world. Say ‘May you be well, may you be happy’ and visualise all beings on the planet being enveloped by that light of compassion.
Take a few breaths, and then open your eyes.