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 test that speak to how well the respondent can read nonverbal cues. In Part 2, I talked about the problematic nature of the statements that measure perspective taking.
In this part, I will speak to the statements that measure emotional/affective empathy.
Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright define emotional/affective empathy as “an observer’s emotional response to the affective state of another.” (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004, 164) They go on to define three categories of empathy relevant to the EQ test:
- “The feeling in the observer must match that of the person observed (e.g., you feel fright when you see someone else’s fear; Eisenberg & Miller, 1987; Hoffman, 1984) (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004, 164).”
- “The feeling in the observer is simply appropriate to the other person’s emotional state in some other way, even though it doesn’t exactly match it (e.g., you may feel pity at someone else’s sadness; Stotland, 1969) (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004, 164).”
- “The feeling in the observer must be one of concern or compassion to another’s distress (Batson, 1991) (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004, 164).”
All three categories foreground the appropriateness of the viewer’s emotional response; of course, the question of what constitutes an appropriate emotional response is an important one, to which I will return.
Statements that measure emotional empathy
On the EQ test, 13 statements deal solely with the appropriateness of emotional response while leaving aside the question of how the observer arrives at an understanding of the mental or emotional state of the other person:
6. I really enjoy caring for other people.
12. Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them.
18. When I was a child, I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen.
28. If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn’t like it.
32. Seeing people cry doesn’t really upset me.
34. I am very blunt, which some people take to be rudeness, even though this is unintentional.
37. When I talk to people, I tend to talk about their experiences rather than my own.
38. It upsets me to see an animal in pain.
39. I am able to make decisions without being influenced by people’s feelings.
42. I get upset if I see people suffering on news programmes.
43. Friends usually talk to me about their problems as they say that I am very understanding.
50. I usually stay emotionally detached when watching a film.
59. I tend to get emotionally involved with a friend’s problems.
As far as I can tell, the only statement in this list that shows a pure lack of empathy is number 18; cutting up a worm just to see what will happen (as opposed to, say, slaughtering a chicken in order to eat it) really can’t be explained away as anything other than unempathetic in the extreme.
But for me, all the rest are quite troubling, because they all assume “normal” situations that exclude, overwhelm, or evoke non-normative responses in autistic people. The situations falls into three categories:
- For reasons deriving from lack of empathy on the part of non-autistic people, or from difficulties in communication and information processing on the part of autistic people, the situation may be one that an autistic person cannot enter at all.
- The nature of the situation may trigger such an intense experience of emotional empathy that the autistic person needs to shut down.
- The response considered “appropriate” to the situation tends to work better for non-autistic people than for autistic people.
Contexts that may not be open to autistic people at all. Statements 6, 12, and 43 assume environments from which autistic people are often excluded.
Statement 6: When posed with a statement about whether the respondent enjoys caring for people, an autistic person’s response may very well be dictated by the fact that he or she may not have had many hands-on opportunities to do so. The settings in which these opportunities occur (hospitals, clinics, and the like) often present sensory and communication obstacles that other people are unwilling or unable to ameliorate. Moreover, autistic people are often kept away from such opportunities, precisely because of the stereotype that we lack empathy. An answer that derives from a lack of opportunity to care for people – an opportunity denied on the basis of the lack-of-empathy stereotype — will only reinforce that stereotype. After all, if you’re excluded from environments in which you can care for people, then you certainly can’t say that you enjoy doing so.
Statement 12:The feeling of wanting to give up on friendships and relationships can derive from a lifetime of bullying and exclusion, from having experienced a lack of empathy on the part of former partners and friends, or from auditory and communicative challenges that potential friends or partners are unwilling to deal with. It may have absolutely nothing to do with failures of empathy on the part of the autistic person.
Statement 43: Because of the auditory processing and communication challenges common to people with autism, many of us have difficulties with processing language and coming up with purposeful responses in real-time. These difficulties significantly lower the possibility that lots of people are going to come to us to talk about their problems. Most people want to talk face-to-face, rather than via text, a medium with which many of us feel more comfortable or use out of necessity.
Contexts in which autistic people shut down because of oversensitivity. Statements 32, 38, 39, 42, 50, and 59 all have to do with situations in which an autistic might need to shield because of an intensely felt experience. Seeing people cry, seeing an animal in pain, making decisions in the face of other people’s feelings, seeing people suffer on the news, watching a film with strong emotional content, and relating to a person with serious problems may be so painfully aversive that an autistic person might need to shut down.
We’re not talking here about a “normal” level of upset and difficulty. We’re talking about an acute experience of another person’s emotional state so intense that one has to detach in order to be of any use at all — to oneself or to anyone else.
An example: My daughter suffered a terrible betrayal this year at the hands of a friend whom she’d loved and trusted. Because she’s still in the process of healing, she still has moments of profound grief and pain. In those moments, I feel her grief and pain very intensely in my own mind and body, and I work very hard to keep them from levelling me. After all, my daughter needs me to be strong for her, not collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor.
I have seen some of the experts pathologize this level of sharing in the pain of another person, but the word “compassion” means “suffering with,” and that is exactly what I’ve done for as long as I can remember. Because I experience the emotions of others in this way, I try to choose carefully when and how to open myself up. I will always have an empathic response, often before I even consciously know what’s happening, but there are situations in which I will shut it down — sometimes instinctively, and sometimes consciously. For example, when I see a stranger crying at the grocery store, I might block my emotional response; it largely depends upon how long it’s been since I’ve entered into someone else’s strong emotional experience, whether or not I can physically remain in the auditory environment, and whether or not someone else in the situation is attending to the person. Certainly, if I allowed myself to respond in every single instance, there would be nothing left of me.
I’m not blocking the response because I lack empathy; to the contrary, I’m blocking it because my empathic experience is always so acute. If I have to shut down at times, it’s because I’m still learning how to take this gift and channel it properly in a world that has given me absolutely no guidance on how to do so — a world that, in fact, is oblivious to the fact that I even have this gift, or that sees it only in pathologizing terms.
Repression is a common response to overwhelming experience, and once a person enters into it, the defense mechanism becomes automatic and invisible. I’m old enough, and self-reflective enough, to understand the mechanism and to work around it. But there are an awful lot of people who have long since shut down their emotional responses as a defensive measure, who do not understand the process of repression, who have not yet been given the emotional language to put words to what is going on, and who have not yet encountered anyone who might be able to help them with the intensity of their experiences. Such people would very likely choose “Strongly disagree” in response to statements about whether they feel upset in the face of the pain of another being.
Contexts that engender responses considered inappropriate. Statements 28, 34, and 37 cover “inappropriate” responses to another person’s feelings. Two of them have to do with blunt honesty; the other has to do with whether a person talks about his or her own experiences, or listens to those of someone else.
As is true for most of the other statements on the EQ test, all of these statements assume a “normal” situation with “normal” people and “normal” expectations. And, of course, what “normal” people in “normal” situations experience and expect is not always what autistic people experience and expect.
For an autistic person talking to another autistic person, blunt honesty is usually the most appropriate response. In fact, I have autistic friends who absolutely insist on my being blunt. When they ask me a question, they want an honest answer. By the same token, when I ask my non-autistic husband a question, I honestly want to know what he thinks, largely because I don’t intuitively know how non-autistic people see me, and I very much want to find out.
In other words, I am almost always information gathering. I seldom, if ever, fish for compliments. So, for example, when I recently asked my husband whether he thought I was odd, I really wanted to know. And just as it’s very off-putting for a non-autistic person to hear the answer “Yes, I think you’re odd,” so it’s very off-putting for me when my husband ducks the question and keeps asking me why I’ve posed it in the first place.
It’s certainly important to learn the appropriate response for any given person; after all, most of us don’t want to go around hurting people’s feelings. So, when a non-autistic person asks me whether I like her haircut, I will generally respond in the affirmative, even if I don’t like it, in order to protect her feelings. Given my penchant for accuracy, I feel like I’m lying – which, of course, I am – but the falsehood would be considered an appropriate emotional response.
Of course, the test does not measure whether non-autistic people give an emotional response appropriate to an autistic person who asks the same sort of question. For many autistic people, honest responses are invaluable to our ability to navigate and to understand conventional social norms; when we don’t get honest responses, we can end up in situations in which we are shunned or bullied. So, for example, asking whether someone likes your haircut may be a way to find out whether your choice of style will open you to ridicule. Asking whether someone thinks you’re odd gives you some idea of what you might expect when you walk into a conventional social situation. When we ask honest questions, we often long for honest answers. Most people do not pick up that longing in any way, shape, or form.
In terms of talking about one’s own experiences in a conversation – I do that a lot. I don’t do it because I find my experiences utterly fascinating, or because I don’t care about other people’s experiences, or because I enjoy hearing myself talk. In fact, talking is usually very tiring for me. I do it mainly for the purpose of letting the other person know that he or she is not alone in the difficulty of the moment. In other words, I listen to the other person’s experience, and my sharing about my own life derives from an empathetic response.
Especially when speaking with an autistic person who has lived a lifetime thinking that no one in the entire world could possibly understand his or her experience, it’s very, very comforting for the other person when I share in these ways. So, if asked whether I tend to talk about my own experiences or listen to the other person’s experiences, I would answer, “Neither. I always try to provide space for both parties to tell their stories.” But of course, the test doesn’t provide me with an opportunity to give that answer.
Clearly, as is true for the rest of the EQ test, the statements measuring emotional empathy fail to consider life from the perspective of autistic experience, and so fail to measure the ways in which autistic people experience emotional empathy for others, and the ways in which non-autistic people fail to experience it on our behalf.
Next: In the Conclusion, I will share some thoughts about the general nature of the EQ test and its implications for autistic people.
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.
© 2011 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg