Understanding empathy through a study of autistic life writing
Stenning (Anna)
Source: Neurodiversity Studies: A New Critical Paradigm; Edited by Hanna Bertilsdotter Rosqvist, Nick Chown and Anna Stenning; Chapter 7
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction1

  1. The notion that autism is defined by empathy deficits (and the related ideas of an absent Theory of Mind (ToM), otherwise known as mindblindness), has been used to suggest that autistic people are not fully moral (Barnbaum, 2008). As scholars and activists have observed in connection to cognitive theories about autism in general, autistic people have been denied characteristics that are commonly considered part of what it is to be fully human, including empathy, morality, a sense of self2, imagination, narrative identity3, integrity; introspection, self-hood4, personhood5; rhetoricity, gender, meaning-making, sociality, or flourishing (McDonagh, 2013; Milton, 2012; Rodas, 2018; Yergeau, 2018). They show how, in each case, these limitations are based on foreshortened or even non-standard definitions of these qualities, to ensure that they only apply to a cultural ‘in-group’6. This impoverishes the generalisability of any empirical or theoretical research that relies on it. These assertions become harder to sustain as more prominent autistics7 (e.g. Temple Grandin8, Chris Packham9, Greta Thunberg10, Hannah Gadsby11) enter the public arena and make valuable contributions to discussions about the nature of an ethical human life, and to what it means to be neurodivergent.
  2. Within the academic realm, the ethical implications of human neurodivergence are far from well understood, and yet it is on this basis that funding and interventions are decided. While this may seem purely a ‘theoretical’ exercise within an academic essay, I believe that granting ethical value to neurodivergent people must happen both top down (challenging established theory and methodology) and bottom up (from experience), to have a chance to impact on society more widely. It is hoped that this chapter will be of some practical help to scholars who genuinely understand the value of including neurodivergent voices in both the methodological and ethical justifications for their work. While this kind of inclusion is often tokenistic and based on a shallow understanding of co-production or impact, much ‘ethical work’ needs to be done to question why it is happening in such ways. Within the field of autism research, I offer the following initial exploration.
  3. Simon Baron-Cohen is the theorist most responsible for the association of autism and empathy deficits in the popular imagination. His idea of empathy is a propensity to ‘naturally and spontaneously [tune] into someone else’s thoughts and feelings, whatever these might be’ (2003, p. 21). He believes that this is absent or impaired in autistic people. On the other hand, the literary critic Patrick McDonagh – as part of the first wave of critical autism studies within the humanities and social sciences that was willing to grant autistic voices some authority – observed that ‘many autistic people assert that they do experience empathy’ and this includes overwhelming empathy for other people and other species (2013, pp. 155–156). McDonagh considers that empathy, in Baron-Cohen’s ‘cognitive’ sense, has been taken as a necessary basis upon which economic and social transactions take place. However, he notes that despite being depicted as a quality that is essential to humanity, empathy has no single characterisation through history. He concludes, therefore, ‘empathy is an abstraction, a reification; any definition is bound to be the sum of a cluster of responses that someone (or some culture) defines a priori as “empathic”’ (p. 47). Indeed, as we will discuss in detail, the question of what empathy is even within autism is significantly more nuanced and complex than Baron-Cohen’s characterisation suggests. And it is interesting to note that, from McDonagh’s writing to the present, humanities scholarship has retained an interest in autistic empathy in connection to our supposed affinity with other species (see, e.g. Figueroa, 2017).
  4. And yet within the humanities, the prevalence of deficits-based models of autism is perhaps most problematically demonstrated by Deborah R. Barnbaum’s The Ethics of Autism: Among Them, But Not of Them (2008). Basing her work on Baron-Cohen’s cognitive empathy deficits view of autism, Barnbaum saw autism as the limit case of full moral agency, where moral judgements are based on either automatically following rules or imitating other people’s responses without fully understanding why. Her arguments, if generalised, suggest that Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism is either a kind of parroting of genuine moral judgements made by others or that she is not autistic. While it might be unfair to attribute this anachronistic judgement to Barnbaum, Greta Thunberg has recently been accused of both kinds of ‘faking’ by contemporary critics. Thunberg has replied eloquently to these charges, as I explore below.
  5. While this chapter focuses on autism–empathy–environmental discourses, the purported lack of autistic capacity for moral judgements contributes to the difficulty autistic people have in being believed when they report violence and abuse (see, for example, Dimensions 2019). This urgently needs to be addressed by all autism researchers, both neurodivergent and otherwise. To begin to understand and question the existing discourses on autism, empathy, and environmental experience, I offer a speed-tour of some of the psychological, philosophical, and literary contexts in which they have been addressed, at least in the West. Future work might also consider whether focusing on environmental experience is helpful or if it plays to existing agendas where we are valued only in relation to a neurotypically defined end, such as providing expert knowledge on other species.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 6: Footnote 7: Footnote 8: Footnote 9: Footnote 10: Footnote 11:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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