Wednesday, 29 January 2014

I Feel You - Emotional And Cognitive Empathy

Author's Note: I must apologise in advance seem overly emotional at any point in this piece. I'll do my best to remain completely neutral, but it's a subject I feel very strongly about and I hate some of the misunderstandings the general public have about it.

Empathy. Apart from general social difficulties and anxiety, this is probably the most talked about part of Asperger's and autism. The general consensus seems to be that autistic people lack empathy, and are unable to tell how others are feeling. To put it bluntly, I think that's flat wrong, at least for the most part. I, and other autistic individuals, are nearly all perfectly capable of feeling other people's emotions, we can just have some difficulty recognising that emotion, like reading it from body language. So I think I should start with a few definitions.

First, the term everyone is so familiar with:

Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Seems reasonably easy to understand. Empathy is, well, that definition. But I think there's a little more to it than that simple sentence. Here's a couple more definitions:

Emotional Empathy - Physically feeling the emotions of another person

Cognitive Empathy - Knowing how another person feels and what they might be thinking.

Suddenly everything doesn't seem so simple does it? What are all these strange terms that people don't seem to mention? I believe most of the confusion over empathy comes from a lack of understanding of these two terms. Empathy can, broadly speaking, be split into these two sections, the two of which are related but distinctly separate. Emotional (or affective) empathy covering the emotions themselves, and cognitive empathy covering the reading of those emotions from comunication, facial expressions etc. Now, these two terms aren't the be all and end all of empathy. After all, the human brain is a massively complex structure and, to be completely honest, we really have barely any idea how it works. But for now the two definitions will suffice.

Emotional empathy is the term we usually mean when referring to empathy in general. If we say someone has empathy for someone, we generally mean that they are actually sharing the emotions of that person, and understand them. In other words, they are having an emotional reaction. This allows them to understand the other person's situation, and help out if needed. Cognitive empathy on the other hand, deals with the actual recognition of that emotion in the first place. This can be through reading body language, catching subtle changes in voice tone, or any number of other social cues. A person who is using cognitive empathy is seeing the emotion, not feeling it. Cognitive empathy does usually lead to emotional empathy, as seeing an emotion is the first step in feeling it, but there are other routes to emotional empathy.

Now that you have some idea what empathy really is, we can move on to the idea that autistic people lack it. The idea first started in 1985 when Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist completing his PhD at University College London, proposed that children with autism have a lack of Theory of Mind. Theory of Mind is a theory that explains how humans understand each other's thoughts, wants and needs. He went on to develop the Empathy Quotient, a measure of the ability to identify with another's feelings. According to Baron-Cohen, males scored highly on systemising (analysing and constructing rule following systems) and low on empathy, whereas women were the opposite. As autistic children appeared to show similar scores to men, he concluded that autism is a kind of 'extreme maleness', whereby autistic people are extremely systematic, and do not take much account of other people's thoughts and actions. It's easy to see how the idea that autistic people lack empathy arose from these studies.

However, if you talk to an autistic person, go on autistic forums such as, or visit self advocacy sites such as ASAN, you'll soon see a very different story. Reading articles such as this and this, you quickly get the idea that all is not as it is told by the experts. Everywhere you look there are autistic parents asking 'If my child lacks empathy, why is he upset when I am?', and autistic people themselves, including me, asking 'Does that mean it's not empathy if I feel my friend's emotions?'. Though it's not something I tend to outwardly display, I consider myself to be a very caring person. If I see a friend in emotional distress, I will almost always attempt to discover the problem and help if possible, even if all I can do is crack a few jokes and give them a hug. Just listening is normally enough to help a little. So, where is this supposed 'lack of empathy'?

The answer is simple. Autistic people are just as empathetic as neurotypical people, if not more. The reason we seem to lack empathy isn't because we aren't feeling other people's emotions, but as I said at the start it's that we have difficulty recognising which emotion it is that's supposed to be felt. Recent studies suggest that, far from lacking empathy, autistic individuals can be just as emotionally empathic as anyone else, but simply lack the cognitive empathy to see the required emotion in all the nonverbal communication we have to wade through everyday.

When I interact with my friends and people I meet, I don't immediately recognise and understand all the nonverbal communication I'm seeing. Imagine going to a rock concert. You can see the band, and you can hear the music, but no matter what you do, you can't quite recognise the words they're singing over all the bass and the screaming of the crowd. You recognise the tune, but you can't quite make out what it's supposed to be saying. That's what it's like for me. If you spoke to me, I'd see your arms move, your hands spread, the movements of your eyes and face, how you sit, and all the cues I'm supposed to see, but I wouldn't instinctively have any idea what to do with it. I've had to learn to recognise the meanings over the years, and I'm getting pretty good at it, but I still have to play catch up, trying to process the cues instead of understanding them immediately. This disconnect between what autistic individuals see and what we understand is what causes our lack of cognitive empathy. If we can't see the emotion that's being displayed immediately, we can't trigger the emotional response, so it never gets as far as emotional empathy.

The emotional empathy, however, is still there and very much alive. If we see an emotion that we can relate to without needing to go through cognitive empathy first, such as a close friend whose body language we've learned, or a person who is in a situation similar to us, then we feel the emotion just as strongly as anyone else. In fact, based on my own experience, and that of a lot of bloggers I've seen online, our experience can be even more intense than that of a neurotypical person. When I do feel emotional empathy, it can often easily be strong enough to disrupt anything I've been doing that day, killing schedules and plans left, right and centre.

Recently, people seem to have started to accept that autistic individuals don't lack empathy, and that there are more complex factors at play; they are realising it's not a black and white issue. So, with people starting to accept it, the only question that remians is, where did all the cognitive empathy go? This is a question that goes right to the core of autism. It may be that the explanation to this explains many more things about autism that could help the autistic community and society as a whole. There are several theories, but the one I believe is Intense World Theory, which suggests that, rather than lacking certain traits and cognitive empathy, autistic individuals actually have far too much, and as a result develop differently, always trying to avoid too much sensation, both physical and emotional. But that is a topic for next week, I'd be here all day if I wrote about that too!

As a side note, I'd like to say that I respect Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues' work, and believe it has been of great use in the area of autistic research. I just think it has inadvertently been one of the main causes of the 'autistics lack empathy' myth.

See you all on Saturday,


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