Empathy & Sympathy

Empathy in Autism (and Alleged Lack of IT)

Empathy is the ability to identify oneself mentally with somebody else, thus understanding what the person feels.

Sympathy is the state of being simultaneously affected with a feeling to that of another person; the ability to share emotion.

Autistic people are said to be (severely) impaired in their ability to empathise with other people which is reflected in the mind-blindness theory of autism Opens in new window (Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith 1985; Frith 2003; Happe 1995).

A few functional imaging studies suggest that these deficits may be caused by a hypo-active amygdala.

Numerous studies confirm that the role of the amygdala in modulating and regulating emotional responses is of paramount importance and pathology in the amygdala has been proposed to be the cause of the social interaction in autism.

However, contrary to the belief of lack of emotional compassion in autism, autistic individuals may experience enhanced emotionality (along with enhanced perception) (Markhram et al. 2007).

Research has shown that people respond to emotional expressions unconsciously, and emotions seem to be contagious (Hatfield, Cacioppo and Rapson 1994); people involuntary tend to mimic facial expressions of those with whom they interact (Surakka and Hietanen 1998). This can explain empathy, when people feel others’ moods (Sonnyby-Borgström 2002).

Emotional contagion develops very early in life and is fully established by the age of two (Hay 1994). There is some research evidence that the perception of someone’s facial expression activates the neurons that would produce the same expression in the self (Preston and de Waal 2002).

For example, when people, in response to seeing someone else’s smile, pose their own smile, they begin to experience the emotion that goes with it (Tantam 2009).

Tantam proposes that persons with autism do not show this involuntary response, but it does not necessarily mean that they lack empathy — they simply may not recognize the ‘conventional expression of emotions’.

An alternative explanation is that they may not be consciously aware that they have perceived emotion because they are too busy understanding what someone else is saying and preparing their response; their ability to read the emotions of others seems to increase when they can observe their communicative partners without having to think in language (Kimball 2005).

However, there is another explanation as well: emotional contagion Opens in new window normally develops with a very early ability to imitate, and by mimicking their carers’ facial expressions and body language normally developing children learn to connect outside expressions of emotions with their physical sensations (activating the same areas in the brain).

In contrast, in autism ‘emotional contagion’ develops through resonance, that is, they actually catch the emotional energy of others, resonating with them, and experiencing the same physical sensations through their bodies.

So despite having difficulties identifying conventional emotional cues that are easily read by normal people, some individuals with autism are very hypersensitive to the emotions of others.

Some resonate with emotional states of their significant others and experience the same emotion inside themselves; many resonate with animals. For example, Temple Grandin feels sensory empathy with cattle: when they remain calm she feels calm and when they are in pain she feels their pain:

‘I tune in to what the actual sensations are like to cattle rather than having the idea of death rile up my emotions’ (Grandin 2006, p.94).

Jawer (2009) has introduced the concept of emotional energy that, just like other forms of energy, ‘can be stored, focused, drained or liberated. It can radiate out to others, for better or for ill; it can be vividly felt or left to work its own way in our bodies and nervous systems’ (p.153), and like other forms of energy, it can be felt by some while being ‘invisible’ to others.

‘[This] energy produced by the brain and the heart extends outside the body. It can be measured by devices such as electrocardiographs (ECGs), magnetocardiographs (MCGs) and magnetoencephalographs (MEGs)’ (pp.169–170).

Many autistic people can easily pick up the emotions (emotional energy) of others and may be very distressed by the emotional behavior of those around them (even though they cannot interpret the feelings).

Often those who take care of autistic children trigger (by their emotional state) what we call challenging behaviors and then are puzzled as to what caused the outburst or meltdown. Many autistic individuals seem to automatically tune into the mood of their carers’ and instantly share their emotions and feed them back. If the emotions are negative, ‘difficult behaviors’ emerge, which, in fact, are caused by the negative emotional energy that has been ‘fed’ to the children by those around them.

Research has shown that experiences of feeling someone else’s pain are, in fact, very real for some people, and reflected in the activity not only in the emotional centers of the brain (common for the majority of people) but also in a greater activity in somatic brain regions, providing the evidence that some people can experience both emotional and sensory components of pain while observing others’ suffering, resulting in a shared pain experience. Other studies show that some individuals find it difficult to distinguish between the touch sensation caused by observation of someone being touched and by physical touch.

Some autistic individuals argue that there are different types of empathy: sensory empathy, emotional (affective) empathy and intellectual empathy. ‘Normal’ people have emotional empathy but some of them may be very deficient in or lack sensory-based empathy, quite common in many autistic people.

Donna Williams (1998, p.117) describes sensory-based (not mental) empathy as working ‘through resonance in a relationship between sender and receiver with the sender as part of the mechanism of acquaintance before returning to the unmerged state of its own entity.

Sensory empathy can be very strong in autism, but weak in non-autism:

For me to have empathy I have to visually put myself in the other person’s place. I can really empathize with a laid-off worker because I can visualize his family sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out how the bills will get paid. If the worker fails to pay the mortgage he will lose his house. I really relate to physically hardship. I have observed that normal people have had bad visual empathy. They are often not able to perceive how another person would see something (Grandin 2006, p.99).

[Watching news on TV] As I feel my worries for trapped coal miners, I can smell the boiling starch, frothing on the brim of the clay pot, then spilling out with the smell of burning rice. My worries grow as the voice of the newsreader continues to say that the miners are still trapped. I smell burning rice all across the room as the more starch spills out (Mukhopadhyay 2008, p.113).

Even when a young child, Gunilla Gerland (1997, p.48) ‘could see and understand terror in others’; she ‘could empathize with other people being frightened, feeling small, insulted or exposed, because [she] had felt all that, too’.

Intellectual empathy is quite common in some people with autism — typically, high-functioning individuals whose sensory empathy is not pronounced but who are able to feel and appreciate emotions intellectually — through art, music, literature and other creative and artistic means.

This is because, through the arts, emotions are translated into sights, sounds and words. ‘They register on the intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities’ (Schneider 1999, p.52). These ‘intellectually emotional people’ can become emotionally moved under the effects of arts, music, literature or films. Paradoxically, art (whether visual or music or literature) is a felt experience, even if it is not consciously registered. A very good illustration of this is from the (unpublished) account of MS T. (a woman with AS) about her childhood experience:

When I was nine years old my father took me to Moscow on holiday for seven days. He kept talking about this trip for several years, since he bought a beautifully illustrated book about the Tretyakovskaya Gallery. We arrived late at night, had a few hours sleep in the hotel and off we went. We headed straight to the Tretykovskaya Gallery — the Red Square, the GUM and other ‘must-see’ places would have to wait… And they had to wait for more than 10 years because our last six days my dad was nursing me in our hotel room. It was a mistake to ‘take’ the Gallery in a day. At the end of the day I was physically overwhelmed: I had to lie down and was afraid to move my head — the headache was unbearable. I thought my brain was going to explode; all the pieces of art seemed to ‘engulf’ my very body with what seemed like the energy they emitted — it was beautiful and very positive, but I couldn’t cope with the intensity of it.

A very important feature of intellectual emotionality/empathy is that it is very logical. People can logically explain and rationalize the feelings they have in different situations.

Never in my life have I ever felt grief, or even a sense of loss… Any sorrow I felt was purely intellectual… I am, though, able to intellectually appreciate the grief of another. At one time, I saw an old man lamenting the recent death of his wife. I thought about how there must be a great deal of love to produce that much grief. Not being able to feel what he felt, I was at a total loss as to what to say to him… The irony of this is that I can get all weepy at the tear-jerker endings of operas such as La Traviata, La Bohème, or Madama Butterfly, or novels such as Dracula… [feeling ‘emotion’ only through art] (Schneider 1999, pp.51,52)

Sometimes, people with ASDs’ interpretation of emotions differs from the conventional one, but isn’t the argument logical?

I define [‘teasing’] as holding in someone’s view something that person wants a great deal, but purposely withholding it, causing that person to suffer. A synonym is ‘tantalize’, which comes from the story of Tantalus… The gods thought this a fit punishment for someone who had done an evil thing, yet teasing is often done solely for ego-enhancement. I see this as nothing but gratuitous cruelty (Schneider 1999, p.41)

Sometimes, people with ASD may empathize with those who do not seem to deserve it (from the conventional point of view). For example, Edgar Schneider’s logical analysis of fictional characters is very different from ‘ordinary readers’:

I often find myself in sympathy with characters that the author, I have to admit, did not intend to portray as sympathetic. In fact, the author, I would imagine, would have wanted the reader to consider them as worthy of being outcasts. They are usually cast as the villains…

In shakespeare’s King Lear, I developed an immediate fondness for Edmund, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester, after hearing, at the beginning, his father’s conversation about him with the Earl of Kent. Later in the play, when Edmund has his father’s eyes gouged out, I could not, in spite of the gruesomeness of it, get over the feeling that the old man had it coming.

These (intellectual) emotions are as powerful as sensory emotions are. Gardner’s (1983) plurality of intelligence has brought numerous attempts to apply the concept of intelligence, social intelligence, cultural intelligence, collective intelligence, spiritual intelligence. The most prominent ones (which have attracted both support and criticism) are emotional and spiritual intelligence.

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