In a bold perspective on empathy and autism, Dr. Jacob A. Burack compares displays of empathy between a child with autism, and a typically developing child, the neurotypical. In his book titles, The development of autism: perspectives from theory and research, he discusses the finding of various studies on behavioral responses to adults showing distress, fear and discomfort were compared for autistic, neurotypical, and mentally retarted children (Bacon, Fein, Morris, Waterhouse, & Allen, 1998, Charman, 1997, Sigman, Kasari, Kwon, & Yirmiya, 1992).
In the study, the mother pretended to hit her finger with a toy, and cried. All children except the autistic group were attentive to the mother’s distress. The autistic children appeared more interested in their toys, ignored and appeared inattentive to the mother’s moans. Dr. Burack concludes, “thus, little empathy in the form of personal distress, prosocial behaviors, or even an attention to the other was found in these young children with autism” (Burack, 285).
Given that this book promises to give the readers a ‘perspectives from theory and research’, one cannot blame Burack for concluding that there is little empathy, since he is only referring to the research that he reviewed. With an open mind, scholars can extend their perspective and actually study the autistic mind, with the help of those who live with it. Available to them are the voices of individuals who are happy to share their experiences, from the perspective of their own mind.
My core theory of autistics is that they are the fixers of society. We look to fix things, whether it is displayed by taking apart the toaster and putting it together again, or knowing from the bottom of our hearts what makes others feel comforted. Because people with autism are very emotionally sensitive to feelings in the room around them, they are immediately in tune to recognize that someone’s anxiety is appeased. They pick up on what led to that, and store it for future reference. For example, “Mom feels better when she sits on her favorite spot on the couch and watches her favorite show. She likes to use the pink blanket“. Well, two months later, Mom is in the kitchen having a phone conversation with the bank, and she’s on her last nerve, yelling. The child with autism will possibly bring her the blanket, to the kitchen, and then walk away. The neurotypical mother would have no idea why the child did that, and researchers might label that a behavioral problem. But we know; we want to fix. And we certainly know how to fix, because we feel it in a different way.
Since the majority of the population is ‘normally’ developed, it is it therefore a social norm to hug another person, as the psychological preference to display empathy. However, let us give credit to the fixers in society who wanted to improve the lives of the world, and invented all the goodies which we rely on today. Where would we be today without the personal computer, the iPods, the light-bulb, and all the beautiful art and music that we cherish today?
Written by: Henny S.