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In his rec-listed diary Callous and Despicable on Monday, Horace Boothroyd III made us aware of the appalling "Second Amendment!" heckling when Neil Heslin, father of one of the Sandy Hook murder victims, publicly questioned why Bushmaster assault-style weapons are allowed to be sold in his state.

The conclusion of the diary went like this:

I'm on the Autism spectrum so I'm stuck with all the empathy the Republicans never got apparently.
When I encountered the diary, twelve hours and a hundred-plus comments later, nobody had yet commented on what he'd said about being on the autism spectrum and stuck with empathy.  An excerpt of my own comment:
I hope folks don't think that's snark.  The awful stereotype associating autism with lack-of-empathy is so deeply destructive and deeply false.
Horace Boothroyd III responded, "You should diary this."

And so here I am, with the resulting diary continuing beyond the jump.

Among the things that far too many people -- starting with some deeply-misguided prominent academics -- think they "know" about autism is one particularly destructive stereotype:  That people on the autism spectrum don't have empathy.  The theory goes that autistics are all wrapped up in themselves, with the very word "autism" coming from the prefix "auto" meaning "self."  Such people are supposedly unable to take another person's perspective and therefore cannot feel other's emotions.

When people on the autism spectrum do not express emotion themselves in typical ways, especially in the presence of others' emotion, that just bolsters the theory for those who already believe it.

But the lack-of-empathy theorists are sadly, dangerously wrong.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, gifted thinker and writer and on the autism spectrum herself, brings the counter-evidence on her web site Autism and Empathy: Dispelling Myths and Breaking Stereotypes.  Her site "exists to undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long."  There's an entire sidebar-section on "Studies Linking Autism with Typical to High Levels of Emotional Empathy" including this study from 2009:

In 2009, a study conducted by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested that not only do individuals on the autism spectrum have empathy, but they actually feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope. Kamila Markram states, ”There are those who say autistic people don’t feel enough. We’re saying exactly the opposite: they feel too much.”
Cohen-Rottenberg's site echoes with personal accounts -- "Voices of Autistics" -- from people on the spectrum who speak of their own emotions and experiences of empathy in powerful terms, like this excerpt from Lydia Wayman:
I’d ask you how people are meant to sleep at night when the world is in such pain.  Perhaps I don’t show much empathy, but I literally lose sleep over hunger, pain, death… of people who have no faces and no names, of animals, of life itself.
Personally, I am reminded of my own eight-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with autism at age 2.  When she was younger, she used to start laughing whenever her sister, typically-developing and older by two years, began to cry.

That was hard to experience, especially for the aforementioned sister.  Why did she think it was FUNNY?

But then over time, the reaction changed.  Now when her sister or anyone else sheds tears, she puts her fingers in her ears and begins to weep too.  Sometimes inconsolably, or continuing on well beyond when the first person's cries have waned.

My daughter doesn't have the words to tell me (yet) -- but I'm convinced that her earlier "inappropriate" reaction was more related to overload than to deficit, and that her reaction now reflects a maturation into dealing with feeling-what-they're-feeling.  Think how invalidating it could be if we bought into the theory, "since we know she isn't feeling others' emotions, it must just be that she doesn't like that particular sound."  Well, she puts her fingers in her ears when a snowplow goes by, too... but it doesn't make her weep.

Dangerously wrong, I called the lack-of-empathy theory a couple of paragraphs ago.  We don't have to look any further than the events and commentary post-Sandy Hook to see the danger and damage play out.

In the all-Sandy-Hook, all-the-time media frenzy in the hours and days after the massacre, a rumor was reported that the killer might have been on the autism spectrum.  Pretty soon the "Adam Lanza might have had Aspergers" meme was appearing in every news story.  Autism advocacy groups scrambled to get the word out: that there is NO CONNECTION between autism and planned violence.  But of course, even in issuing a denial, one says the words together and backhandedly reinforces the spurious connection.  The story didn't go away, though many outlets eventually did begin to include the disclaimer.  At its worst it looked like this, a quote from psychologist Xavier Amadour (not an autism expert) on Piers Morgan's Dec. 14 show while discussing the Sandy Hook murders:

“Well, actually, a symptom of Asperger’s, and this is one report coming out which may or may not be true, is something’s missing in the brain, the capacity for empathy, for social connection, which leaves the person suffering from this condition prone to serious depression and anxiety.”
Cohen-Rottenberg documented multiple examples of disturbing reactions online to the supposed autism-Sandy Hook connection, including disgusting comments ("Autistics have gaping holes in their DNA and are therefore mutants. One cannot expect 'normal' human behavior from a being that is indeed subhuman") and an "Aspergers Prevention Campaign" Facebook page that promised "When we reach 50 likes, we will find an Autistic kid and set it on fire."

And then there was this incident, in which a 14-year-old young man with autism was shopping at Wal-Mart, wearing headphones to reduce sensory input.  He put his hand on a price list in his pocket, and a community member who knew he had autism panicked.  His mother reported:

He got his prices written down and had turned to leave the area for less crowded spaces when the mother saw him.  She SCREAMED "Oh my God, he's going to kill us!" and panic ensued.  J had his hand in his coat pocket, holding on to his piece of paper with prices on it.  That's all.

By the end of the pandemonium, my son had been tackled by no fewer than a dozen adults, and six security personnel.  He had a black eye, a busted lip, and sprained shoulders, elbows and wrists.

All because he was holding a piece of paper in his pocket and trying to get out of a crowded space.  

This mother said afterwards, and I quote, "How was I supposed to know?  You see these freaks on the news like that Newtown killer who shot all those kids!  He had Asperger's!  He was nuts too....


Here we are over a month later, and the Sandy Hook stories are now focusing on gun law reform, thank goodness.  Finally we've reached a moment where we as a nation are still interested but it's apparently not "too early to talk about it."   The autism/empathy angle has receded from the news, though surely hasn't vanished from people's thinking when they hear or suspect that someone is on the autism spectrum.  (Stigmatizing and scapegoating of those labeled mentally ill is still in full swing meanwhile, but that's another conversation.)

But we saw lack of empathy on full display in the "2nd Amendment!" heckling of a bereaved father earlier this week.

And when Horace Boothroyd III says that, being on the autism spectrum, he feels stuck with all the missing empathy...

I hope folks don't think that's just snark.

Originally posted to AnnieJo on Thu Jan 31, 2013 at 02:49 PM PST.

Also republished by Parenting on the Autism Spectrum, KOSpectrum, Shut Down the NRA, and Mental Health Awareness.

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