Monday, June 23, 2014

Autism, Empathy, and Practicality

I have previously written about the issue of whether or not people with autism have empathy or not.My son's reactions to two recent episodes suggest that the claim people with autism do not have empathy is in fact quite wrong.

First, our babysitter for our two youngest recently hurt her leg mowing her grass. The lawn mower threw out a brick, and cut and bruised her pretty badly. Daniel's response was, "I'm going to grow up and become a doctor so I can fix your leg."

What this suggests to me is not a lack of empathy, but a focus on solving the problem. Rather than giving a "there-there" response that may make one feel better emotionally, he gave a (to a 4 yr old) practical solution to fix the problem. Is that a lack of empathy or evidence of it?

More recently, our youngest, Dylan, hurt himself shoving a q-tip into his ear. He was bleeding and we took him to the emergency room to make sure he was okay. Anna and I were in other rooms when it happened, any only Daniel saw what Dylan had done. So when the doctor asked what happened, Daniel stepped up and started trying to explain what happened. Understand that Daniel was in a strange place for the first time, talking to a strange person -- but he was more concerned making sure the doctor knew what happened than he was with being in a new situation with a new person. More, he went up to Dylan while he was crying and patted him on the leg. Again, Daniel focused on the practical, but in this case he also tried to comfort Dylan.

As for me, I stayed calm as I first cleaned Dylan's ear to try to look at it, then took him to the emergency room. Was the fact that I was calm an indicate that I did not have empathy? It might to some people. Am I being unempathetic when I focus on the practical and try to figure out ways to actually solve the problem at hand rather than say or do something that sounds nice but doesn't actually help anyone? I don't think so.

In fact, on this last point, the very reason I am a libertarian is because I have a great deal of empathy for the poor and I want them to have much better lives. I am persuaded that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the role of free markets in eliminating poverty. Support for welfare programs and such all amount to saying or doing something that sounds nice but doesn't actually help anyone. More, they actually harm the people they are supposed to help. I don't find support for such programs empathetic. I find them unthinking and lazy.
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