Content Alert: (discusses and includes language featuring harmful stereotyping, Theory of Mind, dehumanization of autistic people, etc. Trying to cover all bases here.)
Before I begin, let me note that I haven’t seen The Accountant yet. On one hand, I’d go watch it, but I have neither the time nor the money (not to mention that I still have yet to get a car again; I have no idea when I’m going to get a suitable replacement). On the other hand, why should I buy a ticket to a movie that, for all intents and purposes, lazily demeans people like me for the sake of a plot? I’ll pass and wait for it to come on one of the movie channels. (BTW, I’ve read spoilers of it already, because I don’t really care). This blog entry is a quick discussion over my feelings about it and links to resources about issues related to the harmful stereotypes that this movie perpetuates.
I’m coming out of my period of blog silence to talk about something that always concerns me: autism and empathy (plus its portrayal and speculation about it in the media).
There are going to be many links to many resources, so pardon this looking like rambling. But let me make it clear that every link I am about to post is worth your time reading.
There are three main categories of links below: (Autism and Empathy/Theory of Mind, Autism and Violence, and Autism and Alexithymia)
While I enjoy a good movie and am well aware that many are a portrayal of fiction, I hold my breath every time one of them deals with autism. Long before I found out about my autism and long before I watched Rain Man (which I didn’t watch until 2015), the movie that introduced me to autism was the 1998 movie Mercury Rising with Bruce Willis. Like Rain Man, it plays into the savant stereotype. It also gave me the idea for the longest time that autistic people are people who huddle in the corner screaming at the slightest change. No discussing how people can feel fine one day and bad the next. No discussing how verbal autistic people like me even exist or how, when we have meltdowns or overload (be it sensory, cognitive, or emotional), we can resemble those children “huddled in the corner.”
And before you say that I don’t take the plight of more severely impaired Autistics into account, let me redirect you to Join Elder Robison’s blog on Psychology Today (I hold many of the same views he does, thus these links):
Does Neurodiversity Whitewash Autism?
High Functioning Aspies Don’t Know What Real Autism Is
Autism and Asperger’s: Two Separate Conditions or Not?
The “Cure” for Autism and the Fight Over It
That said, there is a lot that needs to be done in alleviating sensory impairments in more impaired autistic people. There are things that need to be researched and done to help more severely impaired autistic people be helped when it comes to life-threatening conditions that endanger them or put them at risk (such as epilepsy).
Here’s a quote from that last entry above:
The problem starts with autism itself, and how people see it. Unlike cancer and most other medical issues in the news, autism is a stable neurological difference. It’s not a progressive disease. At the same time, autism’s impact on people varies tremendously. Some people are totally disabled which others are merely eccentric. It’s no surprise that the individuals at the two extremes would have totally opposite views of their condition.
The “High Functioning” autistic group says, “We don’t need to be cured. We just need tolerance and understanding.”
The Highly Impaired group says, “Enough with the understanding! We need some cures, fast!”
Parents of affected kids say, “I want my kid to have a good life, whatever that means or takes.”
To a large extent, those points of view are mutually exclusive. HF people tend to see the HI desire for a cure as an indictment of their very being. “Get rid of autistic disability” morphs into “get rid of people like me,” in their minds. From the HI perspective, the desire for tolerance and the HF statement that, “we are fine the way we are,” seems to be a callous dismissal of their very real disabilities.
Mind you that there are nonverbal Autistics who can use technology to communicate, like Amy Sequenzia:
There are also many others such as Dillan, who is nonverbal yet uses an iPad to communicate:
There are also people who blog about other nonverbal autistic people who communicate with technology. For example, Ms. Kerima Çevik’s excellent blog entitled The Autism Wars, where she blogs about her son and other nonverbal autistic people.
Where is Sharisa Joy Kochmeister? The War for Safety, Personhood, and Competence
That’s plenty of resources about nonverbal Autistics for the time being.
And now, the meat of this blog entry.
I’ve been hearing about this movie called The Accountant, which is full of dangerous stereotypes about autism (and the now defunct diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, something I would have gotten had I found out about my autism before 2013).
Have a look at the loaded language in this link (content alert for harmful, stereotypical language about autism):
‘The Accountant’ miscalculates how to reach its potential: 2.5 stars
This review of The Accountant buys into Theory of Mind (like the movie itself appears to do), which I and many other Autistic self-advocates have a huge problem with.
If you don’t know what Theory of Mind (ToM) is, you’re not alone. It was first part of animal research into primates such as chimpanzees in the late 1970s. Later, with a flawed study by Simon Baron-Cohen (a cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen, the guy who played Borat), he extrapolated that autistic people basically have an “impaired theory of mind.” This has opened the door to many practices and assumptions that assume that autistic people are somehow broken and less than 100 percent human.
Look at this archived copy of an article from TIME magazine to see a result of this harmful stereotype, thanks to Theory of Mind:
It would be smarter to be cautious, because the Internet’s personality has changed. Once it was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now the web is a sociopath with Asperger’s. (emphasis mine)
I’m too busy right now trying to finish vision therapy and doing research for my book to deal with all of this, but in the meantime, here are some links to articles that explain how Autistics like me can have a problem with Theory of Mind and how it is used to dehumanize people all across the autism spectrum (with some juicy quotes from each to entice you into actually reading them).
Category 1 of 3: Autism and Theory of Mind (i.e. – “Lack of Empathy”)
Review: Michelle Sutton’s THE REAL EXPERTS
When autistic people speak, who listens?
Simon Baron-Cohen has built an entire career on his theory that autistic people cannot predict or interpret other people’s mental states – or, as he puts it, that we have no Theory of Mind (ToM).
Because we have no idea that other people have minds, ToM argues, we have no concept of audience. Without a concept of audience, we can’t speak to persuade others. What others? We live in a perpetual echo chamber full of babbling; there are no others. If we cannot speak to persuade others, we literally cannot participate in rhetoric or exist as rhetorical subjects.* We’re the lone creature shrieking into the abyss, except even that image has no emotional content, because we have no concept of “lone” or “into” or “abyss.”
We can’t fathom audience, and this is SBC’s excuse not to give us an audience. Because if I’m not “really” talking to you, if I cannot understand that there is an “I” who can talk “to” “you,” why should you listen? I’m shrieking into an abyss. Why bother?
The image gets attention because it’s heart-wrenching.** The wrenching of the heart neatly covers for the fact that the game is rigged.
Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind
Across disciplines, ToM operates as a binary between the humans who have it and those distant Others who do not. Particularly iconic of this has/has not dichotomy is the following passage from Baron-Cohen’s Mindblindness (1997): “A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human. …The theory of mind difficulties seem to be universal among such [autistic] individuals” (3). And so, if autistics possess anything, it is decided lack. On one side of the continuum are those whom Baron-Cohen has termed “mindreaders,” that is, those individuals whom we know to be human precisely because they possess a ToM. Meanwhile, on the other side of the continuum are the “mindblind,” that is, individuals who lack “one of the quintessential abilities” that makes one human. In other words: Humans are human because they possess a theory of mind, and autistics are inhuman because they do not.
An Empathic Debunking of the Theory Of Mind
Simon Baron-Cohen, the man who has single-handedly done more damage to the perception of Autistics than any other human being (though there are arguably a number of people vying for that title), depresses me.
I need to say that before continuing.
Simon Baron-Cohen developed the “Theory of Mind” based on the results from the now famous “Sally-Anne” test. The Sally-Anne test, where the child is shown two dolls, is an example of dubious “science.” Sally has a basket in front of her, while Anne has a box. Sally, presumably made to move by an adult, which further complicates the test, puts a marble into her basket and leaves the room. While she is gone, Anne takes the marble from Sally’s basket and places it in the box. When Sally returns, the child is asked, “Where will Sally look for the marble?” Only 20% of the Autistic children were able to correctly answer the question – Sally will look in her basket.
A Critique of the Theory of Mind (ToM) Test
The most common form of the ToM test is called the Sally-Anne Test. The ostensible purpose of the test is to measure a person’s ability to attribute false beliefs to other people. In the original version, the clinician uses two dolls, Sally and Anne. Sally has a basket, and Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves the scene of the action. Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her box. When Sally returns, the clinician asks the child where Sally will look for the marble.
To pass the test, a child must say that Sally will mistakenly look in her own basket first, evincing the belief that Sally is unaware that the marble has been moved. A child who fails the test will say that Sally will look in Anne’s box, where the marble is actually located. In a 1985 study of ToM in autism by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith, 80% of the autistic children failed this test. The conclusion drawn is that the autistic children have an impaired (or non-existent) ToM and cannot understand that other people have information and beliefs different from their own.
I am very bothered by this conclusion. Very, very bothered.
Saving a Theory, Dismissing Its Subjects
And then, I read a 2004 article by Uta Frith, and I moved away from my stance of critical detachment toward one of absolute moral outrage.
There I was, enjoying a quiet day at home, reading by the woodstove, minding my own business, and wanting nothing more than to have an enjoyably uneventful time, when I stumbled upon the following piece of remarkably nuanced thinking and stellar prose in Frith’s Emanuel Miller lecture: Confusions and controversies about Asperger syndrome:
“One way to describe the social impairment in Asperger syndrome is as an extreme form of egocentrism with the resulting lack of consideration for others.” (Frith 2004, 676)
Unwarranted Conclusions and the Potential for Harm: My Reply to Simon Baron-Cohen
This is not about anyone hurting my feelings. It’s about the perpetuation of stereotypes and oversimplifications that, in my opinion, have the potential for tremendous harm. Consider the possibilities:
Autistic people describe our empathic experiences in detail, only to be told that we have such low empathy that we are the last to know it.
Autistic people protest abuse and ill-treatment, only to be told that we can’t understand other people’s motives and intentions, much less respond to them appropriately.
Autistic people are treated without empathy because other people believe that we have none ourselves.
Autistic people face lives of substandard care, isolation, and abuse because we are considered to have been born without a core component of humanity.
Note: I highly recommend that you read the whole of the Autism and Empathy blog.
You think autistic people have no empathy? My little boy is so empathetic it hurts
But apart from all of that, the idea that people on the autism spectrum don’t know or care about other people is offensive and wrong. It makes their ability to navigate a path through this world so very vexed. Let’s be very clear: how people with autism might appear in company and what they know or think about, or care about, are quite distinct things.
My boy cares deeply about other people. He tells his little sister, his dad and me that he loves us many times a day. Sometimes he misreads people’s intentions – difficulty with interpreting facial expressions is a hallmark of autism. But he is so empathetic that sometimes it seems to literally hurt. He can’t bear to see me cry – it’s like he’s been stabbed. I have seen him, when another child is hurt, run over and pat the child and loudly console them (and sometimes he tells them that he loves them). He adores babies and told his five-month-old cousin the other day he was “the most beautiful baby in the whole, whole world”. He doesn’t say the “cool” thing; he doesn’t check his behaviour like a neurotypical kid would. He just does what feels right.
Category 2 of 3: Autism and violence
Adam Lanza and Look Me In The Eye
Every time there’s speculation about a connection between Asperger’s and murder innocent people are put at risk. Many of us with eccentric interests have already learned the hard way how others may misunderstand our actions. My own son fell victims a few years ago, when a publicity-seeking prosecutor tried to twist his innocent scientific experiments with explosives into imaginary terrorism. That story is described in my newest book, Raising Cubby, which stands as a cautionary tale for what can happen when those of us who are different fail to understand how the public may misconstrue our actions, and how other people may try to twist our eccentricity into something much worse for their own petty gain. I’d like to see the question of what went wrong in Adam Lanza’s mind answered as much as you. Unfortunately, they present speculation isn’t going to get us that data.
Asperger’s, Autism, and Mass Murder
Whenever something horrible happens the public and the media look for answers . . . factoids to explain what may be truly inexplicable. Whatever information can be discovered is tossed out into public view in the hope that somehow a bunch of discrete facts and data points will somehow provide the answers everyone is seeking.
Unfortunately, on other occasions, early speculation proves unfounded, wrong, or irrelevant. When that happens, innocent people are often harmed by the rush to judgment. I’m very concerned that is occurring right now, as the public digests news reports about the Sandy Hook school murders.
Reporters are saying the killer had Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Every time a news story does that – by tying “killer” and “Asperger’s” in the same sentence – they are at some level implying that there is a connection between autism and mass murder.
Statisticians have a phrase for this situation: Correlation does not imply causation.
The IACC Weighs in on Autism and Violence
There is no scientific evidence linking ASD with homicides or other violent crimes. In fact, studies of court records suggest that people with autism are less likely to engage in criminal behavior of any kind compared with the general population, and people with Asperger syndrome, specifically, are not convicted of crimes at higher rates than the general population (Ghaziuddin et al., 1991, Mouridsen et al., 2008, Mouridsen, 2012)
And finally, Category 3 of 3: Articles about autism and alexithymia, which is the fancy name for not being able to express and/or recognize emotions in mainly ourselves (and occasionally others)
People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy
There is a persistent stereotype that people with autism are individuals who lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. It’s true that many people with autism don’t show emotion in ways that people without the condition would recognize.
But the notion that people with autism generally lack empathy and cannot recognize feelings is wrong. Holding such a view can distort our perception of these individuals and possibly delay effective treatments.
So we looked into the overlap between autism and alexithymia, a condition defined by a difficulty understanding and identifying one’s own emotions. People with high levels of alexithymia (which we assess with questionnaires) might suspect they are experiencing an emotion, but are unsure which emotion it is. They could be sad, angry, anxious or maybe just overheated. About 10 percent of the population at large — and about 50 percent of people with autism — has alexithymia.
Emotional Dysfunction: Alexithymia and ASD
A typical aspie-NT conversation about feelings:
NT: What’s wrong?
Aspie: I don’t know.
NT: You look upset.
Aspie: . . .
NT: Are you sad? Angry?
Aspie: I don’t know.
NT: It’s okay. You can tell me.
Aspie: . . .
NT: Fine. Don’t tell me. I was just trying to help.
When an aspie says they don’t know what they’re feeling, it’s a literal statement. We aren’t trying to dodge the conversation. We aren’t withholding information. We aren’t being rude, mean, cold coy or vindictive.
Alexithymia, not autism, is associated with impaired interoception
It has been proposed that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is associated with difficulties perceiving the internal state of one’s body (i.e., impaired interoception), causing the socio-emotional deficits which are a diagnostic feature of the condition. However, research indicates that alexithymia – characterized by difficulties in recognizing emotions from internal bodily sensations – is also linked to atypical interoception. Elevated rates of alexithymia in the autistic population have been shown to underpin several socio-emotional impairments thought to be symptomatic of ASD, raising the possibility that interoceptive difficulties in ASD are also due to co-occurring alexithymia.
Whew! All done! Hope you learn a lot reading these!