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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Autism Blogs Directory: Simon Baron-Cohen Replies to Rachel Cohen-Rottenbe...

Iv'e been unsure whether to discuss this issue here. When I tried, unsuccessfully, to offer a perspective that understood both Autistic self advocates and Simon Baron-Cohen's perspective, I was accused of "attacking" people with Autism. It seems that for many, we can only be on one side or the other of this debate. After further consideration I have decided to go ahead and link to the article because I think the ideas around empathy and Autism are really important to discuss. So as a starting point I want to only post Simon B-C's response to Rachel about Empathy and Autism. And allow readers here to read the criticism by those who responded.

Autism Blogs Directory: Simon Baron-Cohen Replies to Rachel Cohen-Rottenbe...: Several months ago I reviewed Simon Baron-Cohen's latest book and interviewed him for Countering and Science 2.0. In the months since his n...


  1. I responded. Twice. The first time rather angrily. The second time I really just tried to stick with the point.

    I have a serious, SERIOUS problem with Freudian-like social-developmental assumptions. I find it disengenuous to say "the science is in" on the matter when nothing he says is fully testable or falsifiable. Everything he says reminds me of Freud's psychosexual stages- a lot of guesses about what external observations mean internally to people whom Baren-Cohen admits he cannot understand. Honestly I have had problems with the science behind AQ tests and BAP tests, but at least there is a pattern of typical answers people with ASD would usually give vs. typically developing people, even if I think self reported surveys have limited value. In Baren-Cohen's research, he has basically jumped a step. He designed questions about empathy and made an assumption that those who don't display empathy in a typical way don't have it. I also REALLY have a problem with the idea that ASD individuals have ANY cognitive empathy deficit that typical people don't have. It is pretty clear that the majority of the global population has a problem understanding where people unlike themselves are coming from. I think when you see little puzzle symbols, and parents trying to solve the mystery of their ASD children's thoughts and behavior, and when people talk about those with ASD lacking humanity, and having to be broken out of a shell- it's pretty clear that they have fallen short of trying to see where those on the spectrum are coming from. I see endless stories with the theme "My child is severely affected by autism- woe is ME, not my child." It's so clear to me that there ISN'T a cognitive empathy deficit in ASD individuals, and it's just that there are less people "like them." If your brain works pretty much the same way as the majority of the population, of COURSE your cognitive empathy deficits will be less obvious and have less of an effect on your every day life.

    And I am really just appalled that Baron-Cohen, over and over again, tries to define subjective, mostly derogatory terms, with his brand of science. Evil isn't a scientific concept, dude. Just sayin.

  2. Mmm thanks Sunshine. Your clearly and well thought responses to SBC give me lots to think about and I really do appreciate where you are coming from. Though can't completely agree. And wonder if it is because definitions, as you say, of empathy are slippery?
    Firstly the term 'evil' is emotive not scientific, I agree, , and I suspect he uses it more as a metaphor to describe behaviours motivated by bad internet. Which he clearly states is not the case with Autistic people, rather psychopaths.
    I wonder how you respond to people with Autism who acknowledge they find it hard to impossible to read others emotions? Because there are plenty of self reports of this difficulty. What I hear SBC saying, based on not just his research but many international studies is that it is very difficult for many people with Autism to focus on the cues that allow most of us to see and read others. NOt just to illicit empathy but also fear, anger and all other emotions that tend to picked up from facial expressions. And this is supported by Autistics saying the same.
    So I wonder if it is possible that those who strongly object to SBC position happen to be a sub group of people on the spectrum who do not have struggles in this area?
    AS for NT's being able to empathise with their ASD children. I think there's a misunderstanding there. At least from my perspective there is no lack of empathy, and much of my anxiety about him is directly related to concerns about how life will treat him, how other children will respond to him etc I try to put myself into the shoes of people with ASD based on how those who are articulate enough to describe their experiences. My son is not yet capable of telling me about his internal world. So while I can read his feelings, I cannot always know what is driving them due to his inability to tell me.
    I agree there are a whole lot of insensitive NT's about the place, but insensitivity is not the same as lacking empathy. It's just that most people are so caught up dealing with their own day to day shit, they choose not to extend themselves emotionally to understand another's perspective. What may look like lack of empathy is probably more about where people choose to focus their energies (and yeah some people make shitty choice in that)
    I know we are going to disagree on this, but I really think SBC is well intentioned and somewhat misunderstood. I also believe that he will be taking on board the things Rachel, yourself and the other commenters said. I think there's incredible value in these discussions and I am really glad you took the time to comment here. I do need to look into more of his work to appreciate your thoughts on the Freudianesque developmental aspects to his writing.
    Please let me know your thoughts on what I have written above.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    I can't find a Contact Me on your page, and I would like to do so. I have one. Don't be put off by the blurb. :)

  4. Oh I am not sure how to create one. I will try, and if I cant will contact you so you have my contact details :)

  5. BTW the should read intent not internet in my response above. How did I miss that?

  6. Have now added my email address to my profile/About Me (see bottom left). Seemed the easiest way to go.

  7. You are, like, my favorite person to disagree with, haha. I am always legitimately open minded and do not assume I am right about everything, and you raise good points, and in fact, some things you have mentioned I have noticed myself.

    I have talked to a lot of individuals with ASD or AS who readily admit they have problems with empathy... but again, I have to agree with Rachel on this one. I have discussed with her how cognitive empathy can have social/cultural implications; the way one is expected to express empathy can have social/cultural implications... That's not to say there isn't an obvious biological component to ASD individuals not picking up on nonverbal cues. I don't doubt that. There is some "eye expression" test that supposedly individuals with ASD consistently have difficulty with. Supposedly there are issues with the mirror neuron. I get that. I just think we as NTs have a very, VERY obvious advantage by being in a majority, and it's also kind of apparent to me now that ASD individuals understand other ASD individuals better than NTs understand ASD individuals, which leads me to conclude that at the very least, the gap isn’t as wide as it is being portrayed. Also, I think there is this “normal vs abnormal” thing where what I have read about his methods, he is always testing how capable those with ASD are at detecting the inner emotions of TYPICAL people… I really think if you tested a “typical” person for how well they could identify the inner emotions of someone with ASD, we would have similar deficit results.

    Believe me, I absolutely appreciate how hard it is to “get” our kiddos when they have such communication issues. My issue with the "my kid is a mystery" mindset is just that specifically we fault those with ASD for not picking up NONverbal cues, and then we lament their inability to verbally communicate with us. So, in my mind, it's often exactly the same thing. They do not understand that we are upset by reading the look on our face; we don't understand what they are screaming for because we're missing some environmental cue. Reading Temple Grandin's (who actually agrees with SBC a LOT in the books I've read by her) Animals in Translation was eye opening for me- she literally can see where these cows are coming from while people who have been working with cattle their whole lives miss simple cues like cows getting spooked by yellow shirts draped over the fences. It appears to me that there is plenty of value to recognizing the difference in the way those with ASD relate and understand other people, but to say they completely LACK this ability is dishonest.

    I think I disagree with you about the insensitivity vs. empathy issue. It just seems to me that NTs often very seriously have a hard time seeing things from very different perspectives. While some people just simply fail to think about how their words and actions affect others, including those with autism, it actually appears more common to me for those to just not understand that those with ASD are human, have real feelings, and have reasons behind their behaviors. It’s really not that different from lacking TOM—they often expect autistic people to think and know and have feelings as they do in the way they assume things about autistic behavior. I find that people not familiar with the ASD community are very quick to empathize with those who hurt (possibly kill) their special needs children without thinking about what it must be like to be a vulnerable child who is solely dependent on someone who is supposed to love them. It's very subjective, so obviously I can be wrong, but it appears to me that people actually have cognitive empathy issues in general.

  8. I may not be TOO familiar with his stance on the "evil" term, but my understanding is that he is actually pushing for a scientific definition that includes "lack of empathy" in the definition, and weird ideas about psychopathy and autism being considered different types of evil. That doesn't seem particularly metaphorical to me.

    I want to say that you have a very valid point about some autistic people perhaps being less affected by empathy issues. I do not approve of those who are less affected by autism speaking for those who are more affected in such a way that it creates an obstacle for identifying issues and working on solutions. However, he chose to make a blanket statement about autistic people, and this blanket statement is repeated in very offensive ways (I’m thinking Robert MacNeil here basically saying his grandson isn’t human??).

    And, obviously, as a parent, I do get that most parents love their children immensely, ASD or not, and I also do not fault any parent who has to vent about how autism affects THEIR life. I still think there are some cognitive empathy issues, however. I don’t think this is a morality issue- just because I think NTs fail to see things from the autistic perspective does not mean I think they are bad people. I’m also not super emotional about the debate- I don’t think TALKING about empathy issues is in and of itself insulting to autistic people, and if this were truly a unique problem to ASD, I would be all for any studies to identify the problem. His assertion that “it’s hard to talk about the science without insulting a community of autistic people, but it must be heard” would be completely valid if his assertions were completely true. I personally think there are logical advantages to empathy and on top of that, compassion, that can be taught even without the biological process of automatically placing one in someone else’s shoes and feeling and understanding their emotions. I truly don’t have a visceral reaction to his statements—I just take issue with what he is saying on a logical level, and also, more indirectly, the way he is using the information he HAS collected to make hasty conclusions and really provide ammunition for the people who insist on dehumanizing autistic people.
    I think SBC provides valuable information about the different ways autistic people think and his TOM ideas are very important. His information about empathy will probably be influential and lead to more advanced discoveries about the neurological differences in autistic people. However, I find his present conclusions to be based on dubious assumptions at this point. I’m certainly willing to hear out opposing views and perhaps my opinion will change. (shrug) Has Rachel responded to his response yet? I do hope I see what she has to say about it. And I really have only read ABOUT his studies and theories—I haven’t read any of his books. So if I am completely misunderstanding him, please do offer your insight some more!

  9. hey there, yes Rachel has. Over at Autism Blogs Directory. It's such a fascinating topic. I really like your points but I'm still not sure there isnt some interpretation issues in the mix.
    Can I tell you though, that saying I am your fave person to disagree with is one of the best compliments I have ever received. You have made my day :) I need some time to digest a lot of the points you have made.

  10. Sunshine, SBC is not defining autism as evil. He had no say in what his book was titled in the US; the publisher decided on that. In the UK his book was called Zero Degrees of Empathy. He is trying to reframe four conditions/disorders as being fundamentally caused by empathy deficits. His assertion, at least as it goes to the zero degrees of empathy negative, is that "evil" arises not out of some religious or philosophical construct but as the result of zero degrees of empathy. If one cares, feels for another, one will not commit evil acts. And his assertion is that we ALL have times where we suffer from empathy deficits.

    I disagree with him on many things, but understanding exactly what he's saying and what definitions he is using is important if one is going to argue against his points (and to know when he's shifted on a point, like he has with affective empathy and autistics--something I pointed out to him in my interview and review several months ago).

  11. Fascinating. I scored high in both the empathy & systemizing SBC tests and my husband scored very low in both. Meaning that when we go to Ikea, I get to choose what colours to get everything in AND assemble it when we get home.
    But my poorly systemizing husband has a vast knowledge of Birds - very in depth. Of course he corrects people using the wrong genus or subtype in a blunt fashion - some might even find it rude; but I'm used to it. My son can tell you what day of the week your birthday is in any given year, but at 13 he cannot count out the right coins to make a ten percent tip in a cafe, even when I tell him the amount.
    This article explains a lot in a clear and concisely scientific fashion and may I say also sympathetically to people who are cognisant of their own autism. It is also very encouraging to people who live with a lot of autism, in their family and in themselves. Thanks for sharing it xx