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Autism and Empathy, the Fixers and the Huggers

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.


3 thoughts on “Autism and Empathy, the Fixers and the Huggers

  1. The one thing people must understand is that autists are not without empathy. It’s simply we have TOO MUCH empathy and we usually focus it toward someone with whom we trust and deeply care for. For example, when my significant other has a traumatic flashback and recounts her trauma to me, I feel as if I had suffered the trauma as well. It’s hard for me to engage in such things because I know that I will always remember what was said and I will always have those feelings in my mind when the subject returns. But I push myself to not run away for her sake, in order to help her through her troubles — to be a true friend and partner. If we seem distant and unsympathetic, it’s simply because we’re either too stressed or are avoiding contact because we KNOW what stress will come from such engagements.

    Also, this is going to obviously be extremely autistic of me (I’m not saying I’m ashamed or anything, just giving a warning for my frankness), but there’s a spelling error in your article: “mentally restarted”. Just wanted to point that out since it bugged me.

    Posted by reksum | December 20, 2011, 4:54 pm
  2. Thank you for explaining some of these things to me because my daughter cannot speak and it helps me to understand her.
    I agree with the comment that autistics might have “too much empathy”; those senses might be hyper-alert. My daughter, severely affected by autism, is acutely aware of my moods and emotions. Although she might not demonstrate her feelings in a typical manner, she often shows me her deep attachment to me in more subtle ways
    When I am ill or at the end of my patience, she doesn’t do some of the things that she knows will get me frustrated.
    I cannot raise my voice even a little , even if I am just talking to the TV, or she gets anxious and I have to reassure her that everything is OK. Luckily, I am a “fixer”, too, and somewhat sensitive myself and can tell when she is being pushed too far. And sometimes, if I cry at the television instead of shout at it, I have to explain to her that I am only crying because I am such an Old Lady and we cry for no reason! That is difficult to explain!

    Posted by Catherine Cornell | January 23, 2012, 8:57 pm

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