Tag Archives: empathy

That sympathy vs. empathy video

Ok, so I finally watched that video that I’ve been seeing everywhere.

Here it is, by the way:

I’ve been a little trepidatious about it because I was worried it would approach empathy and sympathy in a way that I find icky.

I was right.

So ok, the video made some really good points. The actions they are labeling as “sympathy” really are harmful actions that lots of people engage in, but shouldn’t. It’s true that people shouldn’t try to make it better or point out a silver lining or similar sorts of things.

Regarding empathy, I also agree that it’s true that people should do their best to be with you in your dark place. I mean, I wrote about this.

But then there was that part when Bear goes down into the hole where Fox is, and says “I know what it’s like down here.” And the video lost me right there. I HATE it when people claim they understand. Really. It’s awful. Because most of the time they DON’T understand. Not really. When Bear joins Fox in the dark hole, he’s being a good friend. He’s joining the fox and sharing his experience. That’s awesome. But Bear has a ladder. And a lightswitch. And went down there of his own free will, while Fox had the ground just fall away. And that FUNDAMENTALLY changes the equation. It’s like spending a day in a wheelchair and then claiming to totally understand what it’s like needing a mobility aid all the time. You may be able to temporarily share the experience, but you can always leave it behind and go back to your life where all this, whatever “this” is, is not a thing. Honestly, I really hope you get why this is not a good thing. When you have power over your circumstances, and you can leave whenever you want, it is not the same as it is for a person who is stuck there.

Now, maybe at some point in the past Bear had a similar experience. Maybe he was in a hole with no ladder or lightswitch, and can draw on that memory to have an idea of what the fox is going through. But even then, his experience was different because it was HIS EXPERIENCE, and not Fox’s experience.

Then there was “Ooh… um… want a sandwich” Giraffe. Another thing I’ve talked about over on my blog is the fact that we CANNOT assume that a person’s ability to express themselves is equivalent to a person’s ability to think. Or feel. For all we know, “want a sandwich” lady is, in fact, feeling all of those empathy feelings. She could very well be struck deeply by what was shared, and care a lot. And maybe she just doesn’t know where to go from there, and out comes something awkward. I know I’ve been in that position. I’m sure lots of people on the spectrum have been in that position (look up autism and hyper-empathy if you want to read more on that). All that video did was demonize the awkwardness, and push a bunch of assumptions about her connection or lack thereof based on a few words. So not cool.

Though I also want to add – maybe that wasn’t awkwardness at all. Sometimes when I’m getting really wobbly, a sandwich is exactly what I need, and my bf has “check to see if she’s eaten” high on his list of things to look at if I’m doing badly. And in some situations – not all of them, but some – doing some “at least’s” can be helpful in terms of perspective taking. I mean, if a person is struggling with depression, they might lose perspective. Their time horizon might be really short (this happens to me). For those people, in those situations, giving some perspective can be VERY useful.

I actually like to use the word sympathy (or similar) in these situations. Because I’m not going to go claiming I understand, as though my experiences are the same as someone else’s. They aren’t. So I can say “I have been through something similar and I can sympathize with your experience. I know how much it sucks. I am here for you, and I care.”

But then, maybe I haven’t been in a similar hole. I’ve never personally experienced racism. Occasional bigotry, sure. Sexism, definitely. Ableism and… um… mental-illnessism, totally. But racism? Nope. My ability to understand the experiences of a person who is experiencing racism is far far less than my ability to understand the experiences of another autistic person, or another person who deals with depression or anxiety. I can, however, draw on my own experiences of oppression, believe their experiences, and connect that way. All the while admitting that no, I don’t really understand. I can’t really understand. I can believe, I can sympathize (yep, the dirty word again!), I can care, and to whatever degree I can attempt to connect, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes. I also like it on the other end. The first comment in this here post started with the commenter sympathizing with me, and it was exactly right. It was wonderful. Sympathy is NOT some icky thing embodying harmful behaviors.

So yeah. This video bothered me. I agreed with most (though definitely not all) of the commentary on the basic behaviors, but I hate how it used the word “sympathy” as something dirty and bad. I also hate that it’s supposed to be good to claim to understand. Plus, the fact that it contrasted one person’s actions to another person’s feelings was rather problematic.

People sometimes claim to understand me. They usually don’t. They are drawing from their own experiences – which are different from mine – and then trying to make a connection. Which is fine and good, but it usually comes with assuming that my experiences are like theirs. Which they aren’t. So yes, connect with me. Yes, bring up similar experiences that lead you to be able to sympathize with me. But STOP saying you understand.

Finally – that video never did stop to mention, even briefly, the idea of just checking in with the person to see what THEY need or want. I hate it when people say “I understand.” Maybe someone else loves it. Asking me if I need a sandwich can be incredibly helpful to me, but maybe someone else would find it insulting. Some people find assistance getting perspective really helpful. Other people do not. There is no one right answer, and just finding out from the person in question what they need should be considered very important. That the video didn’t even bother to mention it was downright disturbing.

If that’s what empathy is – pretending to understand when you honestly don’t, and doing what you think is “empathic” rather than actually checking in with the person – I want no part of it.

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Demonization

Search term post! Someone found my blog by searching for “why does society seek to dehumanize and demonize the mentally ill.” You know what? That’s a really good question. I mean, it happens really a lot, like when that lady wrote that letter calling an autistic boy a wild animal and telling his parents to euthanize him. It’s astounding how awful some people can be. How little empathy some people can have.

Let’s talk about one of my pet peeves. Actually, I think it’s more than a pet peeve, since it’s an attitude that is actively harmful. I call it the “it’s all your fault” syndrome. It’s that thing that causes people to say that since autistic people have trouble understanding typical people, it’s because we lack empathy (our fault). Yet since typical people have trouble understanding autistic people, it’s because we’re flawed (still our fault). If we get bored listening to a lot of mindless chatter, it just shows that we lack empathy. If someone else gets bored listening to us talk about our special interest, it also shows that we lack empathy.

See where this is going? Somehow it’s always our fault. Somehow, no matter who is confused or bored or whatever else, the fault is our differences or “lack of empathy” or whatever else.

I call bullshit.

Personally, I think everyone lacks empathy. I think empathy is not nearly so prevalent or so easy as people try to make it out to be. Thing is, most people can fake it. Most “empathy” seems to involve assuming people are like you. When you’re typical and many of your feelings and responses are typical or close to typical, this makes you “more empathic,” since your random guesses as to what other people are thinking or feeling are close to accurate. When you are not typical, when you think things and feel things that are distinctly different from what most people think and feel, then your guesses are going to go wild.

Yet all those typical people with their apparently amazing empathy somehow consistently fail to empathize with people on the autism spectrum. Why? Because we’re different. Because we aren’t like them, we don’t feel like them, we don’t think like them. However, admitting to their own failure in empathy is, apparently, anathema. No, they can’t do that. So instead they blame us. It’s our fault. It’s always our fault. If only we weren’t so different, you know?

Which is to say, I think people dehumanize and demonize the mentally ill due to a lack of empathy on their parts. They can’t understand us. And for some reason, this translates into a failure to accept us. I also think people have a really hard time with the idea that “normal” people can do bad things. So somehow “violent” and “mentally ill” have become synonymous is people’s minds. And because they can’t (or won’t) empathize with what it’s really like to be mentally ill and/or different, few people bother to challenge their own perceptions. The actual facts don’t really mean a lot to way too many people.

And honestly, this isn’t just about mental illness. People do this to physical illness and physical disability as well. I can see it any time I see people claiming that type 2 diabetes is always the sick person’s fault. I can see it whenever someone would rather say “gee, it sure was nice of that business to actually follow the law and put in a disabled entrance” rather than “disabled people might feel discriminated against when they’re told they have to enter in the back.” Or any time customer service people ignore anyone in a wheelchair, instead only serving or talking to able-bodied people. Or any time people say they’re all for equality, but really, it’s ok to pay disabled people less than minimum wage.

It’s all around us. It’s everywhere. It’s not ok and it’s frustrating and I don’t know how to fix it, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore it.

Though I will say – just after writing this I saw this here video

So maybe it’s not ALL bad.

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Stop Saying That!

*side note: I wrote this quite recently in a moment of significant frustration. Instead of cleaning it up and removing all the feels from it, I’ve decided to leave it as is. Rough, disjoint, and full of frustration. I’m kind of not sure about this, as I seem to have some idea that I’m not supposed to actually show my feels (talk about them, sure. show them, not so much) but I’m trying it anyway.

Seriously, quit saying that I am the one who lacks empathy. Because I am TIRED of this.

Jess, of Diary of a Mom, is one of the few mom bloggers I read. I appreciate the fact that she makes an effort to bridge that gap between autistic adults and parents of autistic children. But, as shown in this post even she finds it to be somewhat remarkable to actually listen to an adult on the autism spectrum for insight into what it’s like to BE on the spectrum.

Even she admits that it had not occurred to her to look at things from her autistic daughter’s perspective. In the end, she is another parent who does a whole lot of talking to other parents, and not a lot of talking to us. I’m glad that she talks to us at all, don’t get me wrong. And she does try, she works on promoting the whole idea of talking to adults on the autism spectrum because, you know, we’re there and that’s a good thing. But still, when I’m read her blog I still find that I am Other. I am Them. She is talking to other parents, not to autistic adults. And then, if I stop to think about it, I realize that she is Them-ing a group of which her daughter is a part. The daughter on the autism spectrum, who she is working so hard to help, and create a world where her daughter can be who she is, but still I’m Them. I barely even know how to process this, but it just seems so messed up. And this is coming from a parent who WANTS autistic adults to be listened to, and not all parents want that.

And the comments… parents who had never even considered looking at things from their child’s perspective. Not even that they hadn’t bothered to do so yet, but it had not even occurred to them that it is a thing to do. And I am SO FRUSTRATED at that.

I regularly see parents claiming that they are their child’s voice, often when their child has significant communication difficulties. And you know what? You ARE your child’s voice. You are their primary advocate until your child can speak for themselves. How can you possibly claim to be able to do that if you never bother to stop and really try to see from your child’s perspective? If you want to understand someone, you have to look at their world from their point of view. You have to at least TRY.

You want to talk about people not understanding that other people are different than them? Look at yourselves before you go looking at me. Look at the people who don’t understand that when I say I don’t want to touch strangers, I actually mean I don’t want to touch strangers. Look at the people who insist that I am a puzzle without bothering to think about the impact that metaphor has on me and those like me. Look at the people who blame autistic people for our difficulty in understanding others, and then continue to blame autistic people for others difficulty in understanding us.

Yes, I need to be careful of this too. It’s true that I don’t understand people. But at least I am aware of my lack of understanding. I struggle. I really struggle. People are incredibly hard sometimes. But things like this just make it harder, so just fucking stop it already.

Stop misrepresenting what we say. Stop disregarding us. Stop pushing us out of our advocacy. Start noticing that we have things to say, and we are saying them, and we deserve to be heard! Parents, get out of your own heads for a few minutes at a time, and try to see things from your child’s point of view. And yes, it’ll be hard. We’re different from you, and many cannot communicate with you easily. We have impairments in that area. But this is where adults on the autism spectrum can help. We’ve been there. No, we do not know your child as well as you know your child. But we know what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum. I can tell you about myself and hope that some of it applies. I can tell you what I believe and what I feel and where I’m coming from and all you have to do is listen.

I see so many parents talking to other parents, and so little talking to adults on the spectrum.

Please just listen.

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How empathy works for me

Picture by geofones on flickr

Empathy seems to be a fairly popular topic amongst autism bloggers, for reasons which include certain autism “experts” and their opinions on the matter, and certain unfriendly ways that autism is depicted in the media. I’ve written once before about problems in how we use the word and all the things it can mean, but I have yet to opine on autism and empathy directly. I am still solidly in the stage of thinking through how it all works for me and am not prepared to make broader statements about empathy and autism, but I can certainly blog about myself easily enough.

So I pose the question to myself: just how does empathy work for me? Rather predictably, the answer is not short and simple simply because empathy seems to mean so very many different things.

The simplest version is the ability to read facial expressions. I’ll be honest, I’m not so great at that. I can determine basic expressions, like smiles and frowns and furrowed brows, but I often seem to miss subtleties. The way I once put it is that when seeing cues and such from other people, I will often see 2+2=4. Unfortunately, it may have actually been 2.3+2.7=5 and I simply could not see that .3 and .7, so my conclusion was off. So this is definitely an area where it could be said that I struggle with empathy.

If empathy is about caring about the feelings of others, than I have no real problems. I care about people a lot. A whole lot. I am not always particularly good at expressing it (actually, I am often quite poor at it, sadly) and I rarely know what to do in response, but I do care. If empathy means caring, then I am quite empathic. On the other hand, if empathy means knowing what to do, then I am not particularly empathic at all.

If empathy means feeling what other people feel then… actually, this one is tricky. I’m not sure. I do not seem to automatically feel what people around me are feeling; at least not all the time. I can and do, however, imagine myself in the place of someone else, and imagine what I would feel were I in their position. This is not an infallible method, though, as what I feel is not always going to be what other people will feel. Of course, it’s not infallible for other people either, and I have had multiple unfortunate encounters with neurotypical people who seem to use this method, but got tripped up when I turned out to be different from them. It does not appear to be only autistic people who struggle with empathy in that way, it’s just that neurotypical people have the privilege of knowing that most people will respond to input similarly to themselves, while autistic people tend to be very much different. That said, I am able to see the world from the perspective of other people; I just have to work at it a bit. So I guess my answer to this one is “sort of” but I am more aware of it’s shortcomings than many neurotypical people.

There is another area that is rather more woo-like, so I’m a little bit hesitant to write about it. That being – that I feel the presence of other people as pressure. Attention of a person is even more pressure, like standing in a stream of water. When I’m in public, I feel all the people around me as though they are pushing on me. This was actually a significant problem when I was younger, and I spent years trying to figure out how to build walls around me to keep that pressure at bay, with mixed success. That feeling of pressure from people around may or may not actually convey useful information to me, and the amount and type of pressure can vary wildly from person to person and situation to situation. If I’m not careful, it can be overwhelming (and sometimes is even if I am careful). I have no idea if this would qualify as a form of empathy or not, or even if many people would be inclined to believe me. Nonetheless, there it is, and it is definitely one of the reasons I pull away from groups and crowds, and sometimes even individuals. It can get intense.

So if a person were to ask me if I experience empathy, the simplest answer would be yes, but after that I would need to ask them precisely what they mean by empathy. It is not actually a simple word.

To anyone who feels like answering a question: how would you say that empathy works for you?

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I get it now

I’ve seen many blog posts and arguments and protestations from the autism community regarding empathy. Many of them boiled down to “yes, we have empathy!” stated in a most emphatic fashion. I will confess, I didn’t really understand them. Not so much the content, as the need for such posts in the first place. I mean, I knew that there are people out there saying less-than-flattering things about ASDs and empathy, but I also knew that I struggle with certain forms of empathy (since “empathy” is an incredibly broad word with lots of different meanings).

Then I read this blog post.

Oh.

Now I get it.

I have never actually read anything by Simon Baron-Cohen. I knew he was someone who said less-than-nice (or true) things about those of us on the autism spectrum. What I did not know was just how bad it was. Just how awful the things he says are, and by extension, just how harmful he is as a so-called “expert” on autism, as someone people listen to and take seriously.

He isn’t saying that we struggle with empathy. He says that we do not have any empathy, nor can we develop it. Plus, now I get to add him to the list of those that other us, and who say that being different makes us wrong. Similar to my puzzle complaint, now we also have that if I pull away from other people it’s because I lack empathy. Yet if they pull away from me, it’s because I’m wrong somehow. Similar behaviors from two different groups, but both get to be my fault because I am the one who is different.

For the record, I am tired of being othered.

In any case, I’ve decided that Simon Baron-Cohen needs to be added to my reading list. I think it will be useful to me to have a better understanding of the dialogue out there about aspergers and autism, including the harmful voices.

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Filed under personal, ramble

What is empathy?

I see discussions about empathy or lack thereof rather often on autism forums.  There is a lot of debate around the issue, which I definitely want to opine about at some point.  Before I can do that, though, I have to opine about the fact that empathy is, in fact, an extremely poorly defined word.  This makes discussions about empathy very messy, because very often what Person A means is not what Person B hears, because they are thinking of the words in different ways.

So what does empathy mean, anyway?  I have heard it used to mean an ability to care about other people.  Some people say that it means the ability to feel what other people are feeling.  Yet other people say it means the ability to determine what other people are feeling.  An article I just now read here said empathy is “acknowledging the patient’s emotional state” and contrasted it to sympathy, which was “feeling the emotion that the patient feels.”  The dictionary says “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” which is astoundingly broad.

Let’s say a person says “ASD people do not have empathy.”  One person might hear “ASD people have difficult determining what other people are feeling.”  Another person might hear “ASD people do not feel what other people feel.”  Yet another person might hear “ASD people do not care about others.”  How can we possibly have a rational discussion on empathy if we are not clear about our terms?

There are some people taking steps to be more precise on the matter.  For instance, some people are using words like “cognitive empathy” and “affective empathy” which is definitely a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, I have already started seeing multiple ways those phrases are being defined, which seems to take us back to step one.

Ultimately, my desire is for people to be more precise in their language.  Of course, I always tend to desire this, but I think with things like ’empathy’ or other incredibly vague words, the need for precision and clarity becomes much more pronounced.

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