Does Loss of Empathy Make You Autistic? The Internet-ASD Debacle

by Autism and Oughtisms

In an attempt to defend herself against growing outrage at her suggested link between autism and internet use, Baroness Susan Greenfield has stated the following:

“I have never claimed new technologies are causing autism. Rather, I’ve said that the increase in lack of empathy, that is documented scientifically, may be leading to behaviours like that and this should be explored.” (From the Daily Mail)

So, if I am reading that correctly, she is equating “an increase in lack of empathy” with autistic behaviours. (Do let me know if you read her statement differently, but the rest of this post takes her words as they are, and is based on her previous statement clearly linking the rise of autism with internet use.)

Autistic behaviours are those defined in the DSM-IV-TR, as qualitative impairment in social interactions, communication, and restricted or sterotyped patterns of behaviour. When you broaden autistic behaviours to include the other four pervasive developmental disorders that make up the autism spectrum (as it’s come to be known), you don’t need all three areas of impairment (sometimes two is enough, and Retts and CDD have somewhat different criteria). If any of those three areas of impairment include or suggest a “lack of empathy,” it would come under the head of “social interactions.” But empathy is not mentioned nor necessarily implied, in the description of those impairments.

Specifically, the mentioned social interaction problems are as follows: impairment in the use of non-verbal behaviours, failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to level of development, a lack of spontaneously seeking shared enjoyment, and a lack of social or emotional reciprocity. An autism diagnosis (though for not all conditions on the spectrum) requires only two of those social impairments to be present.

If someone with autism had every single one of those social impairment criteria (my son, for instance, had everything on that list when he was diagnosed), that would not mean they lacked empathy. It might mean they are very withdrawn, which is often the case. But having immense trouble interacting with and understanding other people, is not the same thing as lacking empathy. Indeed, there has been growing understanding that autistic people often suffer from too much awareness of others emotions and feel overwhelmed by facial expressions (again, my son has become such a person). Even if an autistic person cannot read another person’s body language and facial expressions, and struggles to understand what another person means, that is a very different claim from the idea that they don’t care what the other person feels and thinks.

Being able to understand what someone else feels and thinks and not caring about it, is something else entirely. A very nasty something else, and incidentally, the same something-else that is often linked to internet use; the trolling, cyber-bullying, griefing behaviours that concern parents and society more generally.

It has been argued that internet time – particularly the time spent on an internet by a  parent when the should be interacting with a child – can reduce a child’s ability to learn from and about body cues and facial expressions. But the internet time would have to be extraordinarily extreme to actually give rise to anything like autistic behaviours, and the child would have to be excluded from interactions with other human beings too, who would otherwise have passed along this non-verbal information. Furthermore, in addition to this extremely deprived situation, the child would have to somehow pick up repetitive / stereotyped behaviours, and have marked communication problems or abnormalities, for an actual diagnosis of autism.

The idea that abuse or neglect on this sort of scale, could lead to autism, is an old and fully debunked theory. There is no connection at all between parental abuse or neglect of a child, and a child getting autism. There are entire cultures that do what we in the West would consider extremely neglectful behaviour when bringing up their young children, and yet they do not have higher rates of autism (anyone not familiar with such cultures and the fact that there is no connection between abuse and autism, would be well recommended to read “Unstrange Minds” by Richard Grinker). Autism is, by definition, a pervasive developmental disorder; both those words – pervasive, and developmental – are essential to appreciating the nature of the condition.

What of the older age groups then – the teenagers who are face-down in the internet and technology, and thereby take on “autistic behaviours.” Considering that autism isn’t something you suddenly get as a teenager, this is a very misguided approach. Autism is present from very early on in life; usually evident before the third birthday, and often by 12 months old. Less severe forms of autism may go un-diagnosed until the teen (or even later) years, but there is no evidence linking such diagnoses with increased internet use. None. (If you know of some, do share, I’d be very interested to have a look.) Again, you would have to also account for such things as repetitive behaviours; even if internet use lead to lower social skills and communication skills, and even if we labeled this “empathy”, where did the autistic stereotyped behaviours come from?

But there’s a great big elephant in the room that I haven’t even pointed out yet.

It’s got a great big sign on it that points out that internet use has also been linked with higher levels of empathy and more real-world social interactions. So even if the internet was leading to lower levels of empathy that created more “autistic behaviours,” might it not – in the same breath and reasoning – be reversing autistic behaviours and tendencies? (Though I think the link to autism in either direction is weak and unconvincing.)

There are some things we do know about autism and internet use. We know that the internet allows autistic people to get jobs, make friends, get a sense of belonging and self-worth, that might not have otherwise been possible. If there is a link between autism and the internet, it would seem to be one that helps those who are already autistic, not turns non-autistic people into autistics. To demonize internet use, is to not helping autistic people, in fact it may harm them in some very real ways.

There is one way to perhaps save the statement linking lack of empathy to autistic behaviours, as arguably represented by the social impairment criteria for autism. Which is to say that the behaviours at issue are only the social impairment ones, not autism as a whole (this is definitely a way someone might read Greenfield’s statement). However, that makes the “autism” reference entirely redundant. Autism is not just social impairment, (even if social impairment there meant lack of empathy). If what she means is just social impairment, then she should say that. If what she means is just lack of empathy, then she should say that. Autism, on this reading, is in no way part of the picture, and is a meaningless tag-on word serving no obvious nor helpful function.

In the meantime, the damage to understanding autism, its behaviours, and its causes, is already done. Headings like those at the top of the story by the Guardian on this matter, “Research linking autism to internet use is criticised,” makes it all the harder, since there is no such research (and in the piece itself they don’t even suggest or refer to any such research; it is just a bad header). And just when I thought the story was bad enough, she had to throw in that suggested link to empathy, which is a widely-spread misunderstanding about autism already, and which particularly damages the public’s willingness to interact with, and themselves empathise with, people on the autism spectrum.

Autistic people are not unfeeling, uncaring monsters. Struggling with non-verbal and verbal language, doesn’t make you a sociopath nor a psychopath. Lack of empathy is not part of the definition or description of autism. Suggesting it is, is not only wrong, it is harmful.

About the Author: Autism and Oughtisms is the mother of two sons, a five-year-old and a one-year-old. Her elder son has classic autism. This piece first appeared on her blog, Autism & Oughtisms, and is reprinted here by permission.

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5 thoughts on “Does Loss of Empathy Make You Autistic? The Internet-ASD Debacle

  1. Devon Kearney says:

    Being wealthy, apparently, really is associated with a loss of empathy (cf: http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/EMO-class-and-compassion.pdf). Maybe what the Baroness means to suggest is that playing video games will make you rich?

  2. Bob Castleman says:

    I would tell you how this makes me feel, but I am on the spectrum, and I clearly have no feeings. So whatever it is I am experiencing at this moment cannot in any way be considered an appropriate emotional response to an external set of stimuli.

    The other option is to consider this current sensation an actual emotion connected to the plight and experiences of others, i.e. empathy, and call it proof by contradiction.

    But again, I am autistic and I don’t know jack …

  3. There’s really no way I could agree more with this article. I’m getting really tired of the “Autism = lack of empathy” thing too. I agree with you that the word they might be looking for is “withdrawn” which is something else altogether. My son is Autistic. He has empathy. I see it every day. (Sometimes I almost feel like he has too much empathy, if that makes sense.) I know from what I’ve read on other parent and self-advocate blogs that other Auties also have empathy. What’s the deal with this wrong “lack-of-empathy” labeling, then? I don’t get it.

  4. Jean Carroll says:

    Great to read this, esp as the “refrigerator mom” theory still raises it’s ugly head from time to time. It’s just a shame that idiots like Tony Humphries and the baroness get any airtime at all. xxx

  5. Becoming a baroness and poncing around in the house of lords significantly reduces your empathy quotient.

    I despair not only at the lack of empathy at these poor individuals but the total lack of intellectual credibility and anything else but wealth, power and a big mouth.

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