Empathize with this

by Melanie Yergeau

So, one of the popular medical theories surrounding the “puzzle” of autism spectrum disorders involves theory of mind — or lack thereof. Possessing a theory of mind involves the illusion that one can understand what another human being is thinking or feeling, a neurotypical ESP of sorts. Theory of mind largely concerns empathy, the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes, so to speak. Many autism specialists, among them Simon Baron-Cohen, argue that people on the autism spectrum either lack a theory of mind or have an impaired theory of mind. Autistics supposedly cannot empathize with or predict the NT world, and they thus have a whole bunch of communication issues.

Of course, I think that this theory has done quite some damage. Autistics have been represented as characteristically unempathetic individuals. And this “unempathetic” characterization has often been conflated with emotionlessness, conceitedness, apathy, and plain old malevolent and murderous evil. While I don’t deny that I’m hardly able to place myself in the shoes of others, I do posit that no one can really, truly place themselves in someone else’s shoes, unless we’re talking about literal shoes with similar foot sizes. In any event, I think there’s a limit and a danger to this thing we call empathy, because empathy isn’t wholly concrete and logical. Empathy, by definition, involves assumption and guesswork.

Empathy (or imagined understanding) can only be remotely successful when engaged between people with similar backgrounds, people who occupy similar social stations. Thus, in the same manner that auties have difficulty empathizing with NTs, so too do NTs have difficulty empathizing with auties. (James Wilson, in Weather Reports from the Autism Front, makes this very point about empathy. He can’t pretend to understand his autistic son’s experiences, his ways of knowing and being. Neurotypicals are just as empathetically impaired as autistics.)

Jenny McCarthy and empathy
[Jenny McCarthy: “expert” on autism, empathy, and strapless bras]

I like Dennis Lynch’s complication of empathy in “Rhetorics of Proximity: Empathy in Temple Grandin and Cornel West.” In his article, Lynch suggests that true empathy is never possible because such an act results in “bodily displacement,” in colonization or assimilation. So, in order for an NT to step into an autistic’s shoes, the autistic has to physically remove her feet from her shoes. As a result, when an NT claims to empathize with autistic experience, the NT is really imagining what it would be like for an NT to be an autisticnot what it is like for an autistic to be an autistic. The same could be said about an autistic person attempting to empathize with an NT: bodily displacement results.

Of course, because neurotypicality is the dominant neuro-discourse, NT ways of empathizing are considered more acceptable than autistic ways of empathizing. Warning of empathy’s co-optive dangers, Lynch writes,

Empathy in this way may seem like a harmless practice as one imagines how another may be feeling about an event, circumstance, or issue, but, as these critics argue, whatever’s empathy’s expressed aims may be, asking people to empathize usually locates the obstacles to empathy—to listening and to being heard—solely in the minds and habits of individual participants, and so obscures or ignores the political and economic and bodily dimensions of social struggles. (6)

This isn’t to say that empathy is inherently bad or wrong. However, empathy has its limits and dangers — severe limits and dangers. In assuming we can experience the fullness of another person’s “lifeworld,” we erase, or make transparent, very real differences (Lynch 9).

About the Author: Melanie Yergeau is an autistic woman and an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan, where her academic interests include rhetoric and composition, digital media, and disability studies. She currently serves on the board of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN). This piece first appeared on her blog, Aspie Rhetor, and is reprinted here by permission.