Autism/Empathy Myth: Autism Reality

Autism Awareness Ribbon
Loanes Baptista, Author
Public Domain, from Wikimedia Commons

By A. G. Moore 9/4/2012

Back in 1995 Simon Baron-Cohen announced that a simple experiment he had conducted with children (the Sally-Anne, or false belief, test) led him to a theory of autism: people with autism lack empathy. There was a kind of magic simplicity to Baron-Cohen’s experiment. Its conclusions were seized upon and soon became mainstream. Psychologists and educators started protocols based on Baron-Cohen’s empathy-deficit theory.

This view of the autistic personality became so mainstream that the author of an article in The Guardian, reviewing a Baron-Cohen book, stated unequivocally, “Autistic people lack any comprehension that other people have feelings.” It was almost like one of those fairy tales people with autism are not supposed to be able to imagine: there was harmony and agreement among all on the empathy-deficit theory.

Except that, as the years passed, doubters broke the smooth skin of uniformity. Some questioned the theory—especially some people with autism.

For example, in 2011 a paper published in the journal Brain  described the results of MRI scans; these were performed on subjects who were observing distressing “real-life” situations. The test showed that the subjects who had autism and those who did not demonstrated equal levels of emotional reaction when they were confronted with unpleasant scenarios. The only group in the research cohort that did not show an appropriate emotional response was the group comprised of people who had been diagnosed with a condition called alexithymia (whether or not they had autism). This disorder, first identified in 1973, is described as a condition in which people have difficulty identifying feelings.

Other studies have challenged the empathy-deficit view of autism. One ( see:…), tried to separate out the effects of alexithymia from autism in recognizing emotional facial expressions. This study concluded that it is not autism which limits a person’s ability to recognize emotions in someone’s face; it’s alexithymia–a very distinct and independent diagnosis.

Of course, out of all of these studies not one gets a prize for being definitive. Nonetheless, in the aggregate they do represent a critical fact: Simon Baron-Cohen’s empathy-deficit theory of autism has been debunked. It’s time now for psychologists and educators to get with the program.

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