In the 90’s, Simon Baron-Cohen proposed and developed his Systemising – Empathising Incrementum as a model for understanding what he described as the extreme male brain theory of autism. Leaving aside the disputes around whether Autism is a form of extreme male brain and instead focusing on the Empathising/Systemising discussion, it is a good idea to understand exactly what we mean by empathising in a general context in order to understand why this is not as simple an issue for people with Autism as we might like to think.
We think of empathy as being the ability to place ourselves in another person’s shoes and actually share the feelings and emotions they have rather than just understanding why they have them. Bill Clinton is alleged to have said at a news conference during his 1992 Presidential Campaign, ‘I feel your pain.’ By which he wanted people to think he genuinely shared their emotions rather than just understood them.
Whenever I go to watch a film, I often end up with tears in my eyes as I live the emotions of the characters on the screen. Recently, whilst watching The Imitation Game about the work of Alan Turing during the second world war, I became so engrossed that, when the Bombe finally spat out the enigma settings for that day, I had to restrain myself from breaking into spontaneous applause!
Psychologists tell us that there are three types of empathy. Daniel Goleman sums these up in this article from his blog on the subject here:
As he explains, sometimes empathy can exist within a framework of complete lack of sympathy. In some cases this is actually a benefit in helping things move forward or for improvements to be made. In other cases, people really want others to fully share the grief.
The research on the subject by Simon Baron-Cohen gives the idea that people with Autism are often in the bottom right of the graph, good systemisers but no better than average empathisers with a tendency to be not very good at the latter. The questions is, how much truth is there in this idea, the idea that people on the Autism Spectrum are not very good empathisers. Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne have another idea, that people on the spectrum empathise too much and they need to withdraw to cope. You can read about their ideas here.