by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg
In Part 1 of this series, I outlined the basics of the EQ test, introduced the definition of cognitive empathy assumed by the authors of the test, and critiqued the statements on the EQ that speak to how well the respondent can read nonverbal cues. In this post, I will talk about the problematic nature of the statements that measure perspective taking.
Statements that measure being able to see things from the perspective of another
Following are the 12 statements on the EQ test that primarily speak to perspective taking:
4. I find it difficult to explain to others things that I understand easily, when they don’t understand it first time.
11. It doesn’t bother me too much if I am late meeting a friend.
15. In a conversation, I tend to focus on my own thoughts rather than on what my listener might be thinking.
21. It is hard for me to see why some things upset people so much.
22. I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes.
25. I am good at predicting how someone will feel.
27. If I say something that someone else is offended by, I think that that’s their problem, not mine.
29. I can’t always see why someone should have felt offended by a remark.
36. Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.
48. Other people often say that I am insensitive, though I don’t always see why.
49. If I see a stranger in a group, I think that it is up to them to make an effort to join in.
60. I can usually appreciate the other person’s viewpoint, even if I don’t agree with it.
These statements measure the respondent’s ability to put himself or herself in someone else’s shoes. Statement 22 asks the question explicitly, but the idea that one can or should be able to walk in another person’s shoes underlies all the other statements in this category.
The difficulties of perspective-taking for both autistics and non-autistics
The ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes means being able to imagine the thoughts and feelings of the other person; to paraphrase Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, it is rests on the ability to set aside one’s own perspective, to naturally imagine the sorts of responses a person might have to any given situation, and to make an intuitive judgment as to the content of the person’s mental state. In other words, being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes rests on having a proper ToM about the other person — to be able to reflect on the contents of another person’s mind, and to identify with the mental state of the other person as though it were one’s own.
This definition of ToM rests on the assumption that the people involved in an interaction experience the world in similar ways. After all, if you have never had a particular experience, you certainly don’t know what it feels like or how you would react; and if you experience emotion, cognition, and sensory stimuli in certain ways, you won’t be able to intuitively understand a person whose experience is wholly different. You might try to imagine what you would feel in a similar position, but all you would be doing is projecting yourself, from your own experience, into the experience of someone whose life and mode of perception are quite different.
Autistic people bear the brunt of this sort of projection all the time. For example, I have had people read my lack of eye contact as evidence that I am not listening to what they are saying, and that I am not interested in them. For non-autistic people, in non-autistic social situations, avoiding eye contact is, indeed, a sign of rudeness and lack of interest, rather than a physical necessity. And so, they assume that the reason I am not making eye contact is the same as the reason that they would not make eye contact.
In doing so, they are utterly failing to take my perspective. My reasons for avoiding eye contact are the polar opposite of theirs. For me, avoiding eye contact is, indeed, a physical necessity. I generally have to avoid eye contact in order to be able to process and understand what a person is saying. My auditory processing difficulties mean that I have to devote most of my energy to decoding and keeping up with speech, and I simply can’t afford to indulge myself in other forms of sensory processing; if I do, I will lose the meaning of what is being said. If I look in the person’s eyes, I am so distracted by the power of the soul that comes through them, by the emotion coming off the person’s face, and by the sheer intensity of my visual experience, that I cannot attend to the person’s words properly. So, when I am interested in what a person is saying, and when I feel moved to respond in an empathic way, I will look away from the person’s eyes and find something neutral and static to occupy my sight. My lack of eye contact is a sign that, in fact, the person has my undivided attention.
I have never once experienced having a non-autistic person intuitively take my perspective at these moments. I always have to explain my perspective with words.
On the whole, it’s very common for both non-autistic people and autistic people to believe, at some point, that everyone experiences the world in similar ways, and to assume that they therefore understand the perspective of another person. For example, I used to believe that everyone experienced sound as I do — loudly and with almost no filtering. I accounted for the fact that most people could converse in rooms with loud music — without getting irritable and exhausted — by telling myself that they simply had greater discipline, willpower, and maturity than I did. A false belief? Certainly. But such false beliefs also run in the opposite direction. In the same situations, no one understood that I experienced sound differently than they did. Based on that assumption, they were unable to see my perspective and respond to it appropriately. In fact, they often treated me as though I were being anti-social and not making a sufficient effort to enjoy myself.
Present research on autism and empathy is shot through with these failures in perspective taking. One such failure is the false belief that autistic people withdraw from social situations because we’re not interested in other people. Certainly, this may be true for some, but there are a number of other reasons that we withdraw — overstimulation, sensory overload, difficulty parsing spoken language in real-time, hyper-empathic awareness, exclusion, bullying, and so forth. And yet, non-autistic people often make the assumption that you enter a social situation because you’re interested in other people, and that you therefore withdraw from a social situation because you’re not. They then project that false belief onto us, and make the assumption that we withdraw from these situations for the same reasons they do. They’re unable to see life from the perspective of our experience of the world.
It’s also quite common for people to believe that a specific idea that is obvious to them is obvious to everyone else. For example, when I was teaching freshman English, I had to constantly remind some of my students to back up their opinions with supporting arguments. In response, they often said to me, “But it’s so obvious! Why do I have to explain it?” They had difficulty imagining that others could see the same issue in different terms. Frankly, I don’t see how autistic people could be total strangers to the idea that other people have perspectives different from our own; after all, the first time we are misunderstood, or told off, or bullied, or abused, or excluded, or dismissed, it becomes obvious that other people are coming from a wildly different place.
Biases in the perspective-taking statements of the EQ test
On the EQ test, what is the profile of the person whose perspective the respondent is asked to take? As in the section on nonverbal cues, it is assumed that the person observed is non-autistic and that the respondent should be able to take the perspective of the non-autistic person. A failure to do so contributes to a low empathy score. Of course, the test does not measure whether the respondent can take the perspective of an autistic person, nor does it assume that such a failure is a problem of empathy.
Take, for example, statement 36, “Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.” Who are these “other people”? They are, of course, the non-autistic majority. So, if you are in the non-autistic majority, it is far more likely that you are going to have other people tell you that you are good at understanding how they are feeling and thinking, because you share similar experiences and internal processes, and because there are simply more of you. On both counts, the odds that you are going to get it right increase significantly. And you will earn a higher empathy score as a result.
It is highly unusual for non-autistic people to tell autistic people that we are good at understanding how people are feeling and what they are thinking, which means that, regarding the statement at hand, an autistic person will earn a lower empathy score. Contrary to popular opinion, this state of affairs often does not derive from the failure of an autistic person to consider the perspective of someone else, but from projecting, as non-autistic people also do, from our own experiences. For example, I spent much of my life thinking that I understood how the majority experienced the world and trying to imagine all the different things that people might think, feel, and need. Based on my understanding, I went out of my way in my daily life to act with care and concern for other people, but was often told that I was getting it wrong — that they did not experience the situation as I did, and that they did not need what I thought they did. I was able to intuitively sense their emotions, but it grieved me that I was missing a sense of their perspective.
But now I understand. I was projecting how I operate, how I experience the world, and what I need onto people whose mode of processing is fundamentally different from mine, who experience the sensory and emotional worlds less acutely than I do, and who therefore have needs very different from my own. I tried to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but it didn’t work — for the simple reason that, based on the ways in which I process information and experience my environment, what I need people to do for me is often the polar opposite of what they need me to do for them, under the very same conditions.
Before you suggest that I’ve just proven that autistic people lack empathy because we don’t intuitively understand the perspectives of “normal” people, let me point out two things:
a) Most “normal” people don’t intuitively understand the perspectives of autistic people, either. If they did, autism professionals wouldn’t need to run autism research projects, create EQ tests, speak at autism conferences, develop autism degree programs, or write books about autism, all in an effort to understand us and explain us to the non-autistic population.
b) Many autistic people work very hard to observe, to listen, to ask questions, and to understand the ways in which non-autistic people operate. Very few of us have consistently been the recipients of the same hard work from non-autistic people — which is the reason that, when I find a non-autistic person who wants to hear and understand my perspective, it’s a balm to my soul.
Underlying all the statements about perspective taking are a series of unequal assumptions. It is expected that “normal” folks should not be expected to easily understand autistic folks; this inability to intuitively “tune into” our perspectives, thoughts, and feelings is simply considered natural, and not evidence of an empathic failure. But the same rules do not apply to autistic people. It is expected that autistic folks should be able to easily understand “normal” folk. Our inability to intuitively “tune into” their perspectives, thoughts, and feelings is considered unnatural — evidence not simply of an empathic failure, but of a condition defined by empathic failure.
You’ll excuse me if this double standard does not sit well with me.
An example of the double standard is apparent in the following interchange between Karla McLaren and Professor Baron-Cohen that took place in a Q&A session sponsored by the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion. Karla asked:
I have a question about the hypothesis that people on the Autism Spectrum lack empathy. I went into a job supporting college-aged Spectrum students, and I read everything I could get my hands on — most of which follows your hypothesis about low empathy and incomplete or missing theory of mind. From all these books, I thought I knew the kind of people I’d meet, but I didn’t see a lack of empathy — rather, I saw people who were often overwhelmed by incoming stimuli and who had a very hard time organizing and understanding emotional cues. I’ve since worked with many Spectrum people, and I really think the theory is leading the data-gathering.
Is it possible that people on the autism spectrum actually have a normal range of capacity for empathy, but are often overwhelmed and unable to organize incoming emotional and social stimuli ?
What I saw was that labeling Autism Spectrum people as unempathic obscures deeper inquiry. Sadly, that label also helps people treat Spectrum folks as aliens. The lack of understanding I saw “neurotypicals” show for Spectrum people made me ask: “Just who is the unempathic person here?” (Google Docs 2011)
Here, in part, is Professor Baron-Cohen’s response (I’ll be considering the rest of his response in Part 4):
You make an excellent point that empathy is a two-way street. So-called “neurotypicals” need to make an effort to understand what the world must be like for people on the autistic spectrum, and how to make people with autism spectrum conditions feel valued. (Google Docs 2011)
I find this statement to be quite interesting. There is absolutely no assumption that non-autistic people should be able to intuitively understand autistic folk. None at all. In order to come to an understanding about us, they “need to make an effort;” in fact, they are urged to do so. How exactly is making that effort any different from the ways in which autistic people must come to an understanding of non-autistics?
It’s not different in the least.
While Baron-Cohen acknowledges the need for greater emotional empathy and intellectual understanding on the part of the majority, he does not define the need of the majority to consciously and analytically understand our perspective — “what the world must be like for people on the autism spectrum” — as a failure of cognitive empathy. He simply assumes that it is natural that non-autistics would not naturally understand “what the world must be like” for us. The difficulty that “normal” people have in intuitively setting aside their own perspectives in favor of autistic perspectives, in intuitively understanding the sorts of responses an autistic person might have to any given situation, and in intuitively making a judgment as to the content of the autistic person’s mental state, is simply a given. After all, how could people possibly be expected to understand autism without the experts doing years of research and explaining it to them?
When autistic people lack the ability to intuitively understand what the world must be like for non-autistic people, it is a sign that we have a low-empathy condition. When non-autistic people lack this same ability regarding autistics, it is considered natural. It is on this double standard that the entire test rests.
Next: In Part 3, I will turn to the issue of emotional empathy.
Baron-Cohen. “Theory of mind in normal development and autism.” Prisme 34 (2001): 174-183. http://www.autism-community.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/TOM-in-TD-and-ASD.pdf.
Baron-Cohen, Simon and Sally Wheelwright. “The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger Syndrome or High Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34, no. 2 (April 2004): 163-175. http://www.autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2004_BCandSW_EQ.pdf.
Google Docs. “2011-07-31 – Simon Baron-Cohen.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1TtsT4k4AZv5-aAVLvM4b8NbNQ-KpqutnlOT9d2hDid4/edit?hl=en_US.
© 2011 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg