Enough, Enough, Enough!!!! A Social Skills Lesson for the Neuro-typical World.

My morning routine is the most important routine of my day.  Every morning I eat a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios, drink an 8 ounce glass of Hot Tea, and check my computer for weather and news updates.  After reading the news, I scan through Facebook and Twitter for updates from my friends.  If I am lucky, I will run across a post or two that really lift my spirits, helping me gain energy for the day.


As a person with autism, I often hear that people with autism lack empathy.  It is a hot button issue of debate between most Autistics and the medical and mental heath professionals.  As autism continues to receive negative press, following the Sandy Hook tragedy and the alleged tie to Asperger’s, the empathy debate has been rekindled, but this time it is cutting deeper into the wounds of Autistics.  This particular social tsunami is reshaping our societal shores, which is traumatic for those of us who are forced to live at the edge.


What Is Empathy?


Today, empathy is defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously esperiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.  The word empathy has only been in the English Language since 1909.  The English word was coined by a British Psychologist named Edward Titchener in his studies on the structure of the mind, better known today as Structuralism.  Dr. Titchener wanted to classify structures in the mind like chemists classified elements into the periodic table.  Without getting too technical, Titchner believed that the goal of psychology was to study mind and consciousness.  He defined consciousness as the total of mental experience at any given moment and the mind as the accumulated experience of a lifetime.  He felt these experiences were the basis of reasoning.  Since today we focus more on behavioral and cognitive psychology, the theory of structuralism is mostly ignored.


When using the word empathy, Titchener was attempting to translate the German word, Einfühlungsvermögen” meaning “feeling into.”  If we follow the etymology through the Greek, the word can be tied to meanings such as physical affection, passion, partiality, and suffering.  What is most interesting is that empathy is often related to Alexithymia, from the Ancient Greek modified words lexis and thumos meaning “without words for emotions.”  


Why the painful and dry etymology lesson?  It should be understood how words begin and evolve into their current meanings.  According to my research, the origin of the word empathy focused more on the feelings of self rather than the ability to recognize and relate to the emotions in others.  In addition to that, the word Alexithymia, which is often used in tandem with empathy, seems to more accurately descried what we autistics experience – a loss of words to describe emotions.  The idea of Einfuhlung (the German word that gave birth to empathy) wasn’t really explored until the publication of a philosophy paper by Robert Vischer in 1873.  In other words, empathy derived from philosophy and is a relatively new idea in the grand scheme of time.


So Are You Telling Me There Is No Empathy?


No.  I am simply recounting the history to show that the concept of empathy is a philosophical and theoretical construct that we have redefined over time to label and understand the basic human idea that we feel emotions for others even when the other persons feelings are different from our own.  (check my sources at the end of this article for further reading)


I will propose, however, that we cannot measure the lack of empathy in another human.  Why?  Well, we can’t measure empathy so how can we measure a lack of empathy?  In my opinion and personal experience with autism, the supposed “lack of empathy” associated with autism is actually an illusion caused by Alexithymia, compounded with sensory system overloads, and a thinned membrane in the brain that inhibits the ease of bilateral communication – all which are manifested in autism.  In other words, since there are so many communication and expressive deficits in autism, along with the inability to sync thoughts in real time (or when immersed in the moment), we autistics can appear unfeeling when we are actually quite moved.


Ummm, What?


You’re right, I promised not to get too technical.  Let me try an analogy.  

I used to own a 1967 Malibu.  Being a junk yard find, the car had many issues, including electrical issues.  I bought a new wiring harness and went to work.  The new harness was a re-production part and included wiring for air conditioning, which my particular model did not originally have.  However, since other Malibu’s had a A/C option, I knew I could get it to work.  I spent hours running wires, splicing, connecting and testing.  This job even required the removal of the dash, which in 1967 was solid metal and very heavy.  After several days and countless hours, every wire was finally connected.  I hooked up the battery for a test. 


I never could have predicted what happened next; when I attempted to use the turn signal, the windshield wipers moved, when I depressed the brake pedal, the brake lights blinked, and when I turned on the heat, the radio came on too.  I was floored.  The first thought that ran through my mind was that I had incorrectly hooked up some wires.  For the next several days, I re-read the wiring diagrams and re-checked every single connection in the car.  Everything was in its proper place.  Defeated, and confused, I took the car to an automotive electrical specialist.  He smiled and told me to check the grounds.


Car electricity requires a ground.  A ground is a place where excess or “leaking current”, called fault current, is carried away harmlessly.  Since I did not properly ground the electrical system of this car, the fault current had no where to go.  Since the current doesn’t just disappear, it ran back through the system to other points, causing the strange behavior in the car.  Since the car was old with no on board computer system, the car could not communicate with me. 


In autism, we have a fault current and no ground.  Overstimulated by our heightened sensory system and trapped in thought by our communication system, we display an array of behaviors that are not related to the cause.  Flapping, humming and rocking are just a few examples of this, as is what looks like a lack of empathy.


Tying It All Together


I become very agitated when I perceive hypocrisy in another. During my morning news reads and social media scans, I keep seeing hateful messages in everything from headlines to user comments.  Obama shows support for gay-marriage, and then the internet is barraged by hate talk.  People begin to post pictures online of them eating at Chic-fil-A, an openly anti-gay institution, while using a technology built on the achievements of Alan Turing, a gay/cultural icon.  When news outlets ran with rumors that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook gunman, had Asperger’s Syndrome, again the hate talk flooded the internet stating that the lack of empathy in autism causes autistics to be a violent threat to society.  Posting hate rhetoric and reporting harmless autistics to the police are behaviors that are the furthest from empathetic.


Yet, how did the autistic community respond?  Did we post hate rhetoric about NT’s?  Did we boycott all NT owned businesses?  Did we rant or rave using hypocritical actions?  No.  We mourned.  The autistic community was sad, scared, and expressed a deep compassion for the victims and their families through a host of generous and symbolic gestures.  When we were attacked for being autistic, we posted photos of ourselves, listed out accomplishments and led the world to a more compassionate view of autism.  Through compassion and empathy, we separated the autism debate from the Sandy Hook tragedy, giving the focus, honor, and respect the victims really deserved.  Why should their tragic deaths be obscured by an irrelevant debate over autism?


Autistics are great mimics.  We learn communication and the expression of emotion through hours of hard work, and by mimicking that which we see displayed by the neurotypical world.  We autistics are struggling in the dark to show you our compassion, our intelligence, and our accomplishments amidst a social firing squad, armed by an apathetic political agenda.


If the neurotypical world wants the autistic world to better express our empathy, then perhaps the neurotypical world should be a better model of empathy.  The hate rhetoric, the hypocrisy…..enough, enough, enough. 


Some of My Sources


My Reaction to Sandy Hook, and the Asperger’s Blame Game

When I first heard of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook, I literally didn’t believe it.  With all the bizarre apocalyptic talk in regards to the Mayan Calendar, I thought maybe someone started a horrible rumor.  But it wasn’t rumor.  It was a real, heart sinking tragedy that took the lives of children inside an institution built for growing young minds.  Not knowing how to react, or what to say, I did what most people did; I signed an online sympathy card, I read news articles, and I liked Facebook posts that showed sympathy and love for the victims and their families.  Filled with sadness, uncertainty and fear, I stood in silence wondering what I could say.  I reacted as a sympathetic American.
It didn’t take long for the media to start in on the experts as they ripped apart the shooter’s life to find a cause.  When we experience a tragedy of this magnitude, we want to ease our pain with explanations, and if possible, with justice.  We ask questions like; Why did he do this?  What can be done to bring justice to the victims families?  How can we prevent this from happening in the future?  As an American, and a parent of school aged children, I asked these questions too.
Then it happened.
Reports began to flood the internet that Adam Lanza, the 20 year old shooter, had Asperger’s Syndrome.  Story after story hit the airways as the major news conglomerates scattered to find “experts” on autism, education, mental health, and psychiatric medications.  Arguments ensued and fear crept in, like a damp, heavy fog that obscures the shore from the sailor.  Before the 72 hour mark following the massacre, Asperger’s Syndrome was being blamed for the violence.
Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America began to report an increase in calls to hotlines over concerns of the autism link to violence.  Autistic individuals became fearful of leaving home as the hate talk flooded the comments portion of internet news publications.  I became so overwhelmed with the hatred, fear, and attacks that I began to shut down.  

In an attempt to stay connected with those who read my social media posts, I wrote, “We must be careful when we say ‘mentally ill.’  There’s a big difference between mentally ill and disabled.  Autism is not an illness, it’s a perspective on life that is neurologically influenced.  I’m not ill.  I’m me.  I hold hands with autism.
I really had no idea what to say or how to react.  The fact was there was no official report that proved Adam Lanza had Asperger’s.  I began to wonder if this was some sort of publicity stunt to validate the recent decision of the APA to remove Asperger’s from the DSM.  After all, who would want the diagnosis if it were to be associated with violent behavior?  My mind bounced from thought to thought trying to understand how I, an Autistic American, was now under attack.  I was now afraid.
The only thing worse than tragedy, is the injustice that follows.
We have been here before.  We have sat in the judgment seat and strung together loosely correlated events, only to assume causation.
Remember when it was thought AIDS was a gay disease?
Remember when it was thought that the black color of an African-American would rub off?
Remember when it was thought women were too stupid to learn to read?
Remember when it was thought that Jews were an inferior race?
Remember when it was thought that men placed a whole being in a woman, for the woman was just an incubator?
Remember when it was thought the world was flat and at the center of the universe?
Remember when it was thought the world would end on December 21, 2012 because the Mayans said so?
The human race, in order to fulfill a void in their own lives, seek reasons to the unexplained.  When we add fear to that basic human motive, we dilute our logic and begin to accept myth in its place.  Like a mental deer tick, the myth grows by rooting itself into fragments of logic and reason.  As it grows, it secretes into us an illness, better known as illusionary correlation.  This is a cognitive function where an erroneous inference is made about the relationship of two events.  Even if the two events are infrequent, the mind searches for more pairings of similar events, reenforcing the bond between them.
(source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103176800066)
The stereotyping of autistic individuals as prone to violence has produced an atomic sized social blast that will live a half-life for many years to come.
It’s never too late to say you’re sorry
What can help us heal?  What can help us refocus our attention on the points of the Sandy Hook investigation that may lead to real answers?  How can we restore faith in the autism community?
Easy.  Every major news publication and television broadcast that jumped on the “Adam Lanza had Asperger’s” bandwagon, should issue a public apology to the autism community.  Knee-jerk reactions are expected when dealing with the enormous grief that follows unexplained tragedy, this we understand.  Autistics are human.  Autistics are compassionate, and we are empathetic to the families who lost a loved one.  But these grieving families do not want their loss to be dirtied by hate bantering and stereotyping of a group of citizens.  We all want answers and actions that prevents such violence from happening again, but we don’t want to grow hate.  
The grieving families and the autistic community deserve an apology from all the major news networks and publications.
Autistic communities around the world should bond with a single action
I’m autistic and proud, but I am also deeply hurt by the children who died at Sandy Hook.  Therefore, on Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 9:30 pm Eastern Time, I am going to turn off my outdoor lights and burn three candles on my front porch:
One candle for the victims of Sandy Hook.
One candle for the unity of the autistic community.
One candle for hope.  Hope that love, not fear, will burn brightly and lead our nation into tomorrow.
Autistic or not, I invite you to join me.  Burn your three candles and post the photo of it on my Facebook page.
Let’s show the world we care for this tremendous loss.  Let’s show the world that the autistic community is strong, even in silence. Let’s change the world, one porch at a time.