Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thoughts (not feelings) about empathy

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about empathy.

Maybe it’s because of this article on a new theory that people on the autism spectrum experience the feelings of others so deeply and intimately that they are overwhelmed and as a result, tune out or go inward.

This contrasts with the common belief that autism causes individuals to be entirely removed and unaware of others’ feelings, or to lack empathy.

And maybe it’s because of all the talk in the news about the Supreme Court nomination: President Obama’s statement about wanting to pick someone with “empathy” and the various media conversations that followed.

And maybe it’s because of John Dickerson’s article on Slate called The Logic of Empathy: How Obama is Like Spock. He reflects on the ways in which the president exhibits empathy and how that's not necessarily inconsistent with his famously cool, analytical and perhaps even Spock-like demeanor.

And it’s definitely because I’ve watched Ben in situations where he has shown he is developing the ability to anticipate and imagine what others might be thinking, which is one component of empathy.

But back to that autism article for a moment. Because I have a quibble.

I completely buy the premise that this strong response to emotional situations is not uncommon for those with autistic traits. I've seen it with Ben lots of times.

For example, we occasionally let Ben try out a violin that belonged to my great-grandfather. Last night, he became upset that I had repeatedly reminded him not to touch the bow hairs, and he yanked it to show his anger. My sharp and clearly emotional response (to almost having a 100-year old violin thrown across the room) triggered a now-infrequent robot-rampage-style meltdown.

I know that his response wasn’t just because I set a limit; it was how I lost my composure when I did it.

However, I’m not so sure I would, as the article suggests, call that “empathy.”

I don't think of empathy as feeling the emotions of others; and certainly not developing strong discomfort or anxiety in response to the emotions of others.

It seems like empathy refers to the ability to place oneself in the mindset of another to imagine and predict how they might behave, how they might feel. This is an analytical activity, a sort of detective work, and it may or may not elicit our own emotions.

Empathy is useful. It helps us make better decisions, respond to others’ needs, and alter our behavior based on what others might be feeling or thinking.

But being fearful and overwhelmed emotionally by the perceived feelings of others isn’t necessarily analytical, nor is it useful. And judging from the comments on the article from adults on the spectrum who've experienced this, it certainly doesn't sound like much fun.

When Ben is using his emerging “theory of mind” - or empathy - he is in control of the situation. When he is reacting strongly to others’ emotions, he is not.

An example of empathy is when Ben asked my mom to leave him alone in his room with his trains, but sweetly complimented her as she was leaving, saying, “Grandma, I love making cookies with you.” He predicted her disappointment and decided to soften the blow with kindness.

Contrast this with when Ben once hit another mom (a stranger) at a playground when she sharply and loudly reprimanded her child. I would not classify this as empathy for the other kid.

I don’t see Ben’s atypically slow emergence of empathy and theory of mind and his tendency to react with anxiety to the emotions of others as mutually exclusive, as the article nearly suggests.

But I do wonder if they might be related.

As the cognitive, analytical ability for empathy develops, does the overwhelming un-separateness of others’ emotions fade? And can we help that process along if we understand that these tendencies can be translated into strengths?

To go back to the Star Trek analogy, can we encourage a modified Spock rather than Deanna Troi?

(And really, wouldn't you rather go into battle with Spock than an Empath anyway? “Pain! I’m feeling pain, Captain!”)

Ultimately, that’s what I want for Ben: for him to be able understand another’s perspective – with compassion - rather than to be so fearful and overwhelmed by strong emotions that he has to shut down or act out.

Or to borrow from John Dickerson’s article, empathy might not be Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain” as much as it is Obama’s “I see your point.”


K said...

This is a very interesting post for me as R is perfectly in tune with me - example 2-3 times when I have been thinking sad thought he will suddenly burst into tears. We were once jumping on a trampoline and I was thinking about playing some musuc and was wondering which CD to play - R actually walked off and went and played the EXACT CD I was thinking of
I remember in a movie a doctor had described Autism as "Everything gets in " And I think that is very true
I also think every emotion getting in is not necessarily good
Still its important to know where they are coming from - when we are trying to help our kiddos

Natalie said...

Christa, When I read what you wrote about Ben hitting the other mom in the park for reprimanding her kid I about fell out of my chair. Hannah does something very similar and I've never been able to wrap my head around it and of course I've never met anyone else who has experienced it. Whenever someone else expresses a strong emotion (usually negative, but not always) Hannah freaks out, goes samuri warrior on them, and starts pummeling them. If the person that expressed the emotion is not readily accessible then the nearest adult or person she is comfortable with gets her wrath. I never really could understand it when I would hurt myself and say, "ouch!" and Hannah would hit me in response, but at least now if I don't understand it I at least know I'm not alone. Thanks for making me feel not quite so crazy.

PowerCow said...

Great post Christa, makes alot of sense.

For myself dealing with 'empathic overload' has been one of the biggest challenges throughout my life.

I find the two most usful things to utilise this 'condition' as a strength are :
1. Knowledge of Self
2. Taking control

By knowledge of self, I mean things such as introspection, working things out, the kind of thing you are doing in the article above. And by 'taking control', I guess this is a kind of (analytical) confidence :)