Sunday 8 October 2017

Autism, Morality, Love, Empathy

I have many professional colleagues who do a fabulous job of improving the lives of autistic people.  I want to start by saying that.  It's important to affirm that many people are thoroughly supportive and splendid.

I and others train a good number of the Psychiatrists and Psychologists in the UK on autism.  It's invaluable work, because we're still living with a lot of myths about autism.  The last 24 hours have seen significant examples of this.  I'd like to talk about these, in this blog.

Firstly, we know that autistic people are most often victims of crime done by non-autistic people.  Murder rates of autistic people are high. Violence against us is high.  Bullying against us is high.  80% report that supposed-friends have defrauded us out of money and possessions. More than 30% of autistic women report that they have been raped.  

Secondly, we know from the newer research that autistic people do not generally lack empathy.  We find it hard to see face expressions and read eye contact/ voice tone messages.  Thus, we may mis-guess emotions.  We also may take a bit of time to process what to say and do about the situation in front of us, so may be anxious about saying or doing the wrong thing and making it worse.  This is not a lack of empathy.  In a recent poll by autistic people, for autistic people, 163 people responded.  58% said they feel extreme empathy, overwhelming, when they realise others are in distress.  33% said they feel empathy in their own way.  Only 5% said they did not feel empathy.  There is no evidence that the 5% are in any way violent.

We should pause here, and reflect on the myth that all autistic people lack useful empathy, a statement I see so regularly that it's quite depressing.  I've seen some colleagues attempt to define this differently, saying that there are different kind of empathy.  There are.  But a lifetime around autistic people has revealed a group that care very deeply indeed.  Huge concern, huge support, huge love.  Huge social justice-seeking, also.  Seems like empathetic action to me, however we describe it.  Me, I am blessed with a family who are autistic and care deeply for me, as I do them.  I am blessed with autistic friends of all genders, IQs, verbal abilities and otherwise, who are cheerful, kind, friendly and caring people.  Many of whom live in fear of some non-autistic people.  Note the word 'some', in that sentence.  Most non-autistic people are great, of course.

I spent a day exploring the case histories of alleged 'autistic serial killers'.  Statistically, far less likely than non-autistic people to kill.  And, in the case of many newspaper reports, they'd invented the diagnosis.  They had decided that a lack of empathy meant it had to be autism.  A lack of empathy is not autism.  A lack of empathy could be sociopathy/psychopathy.  It could be Narcissistic Personality Disorder.  It could be a result of drugs or alcohol misuse.  It could be many different things.  It's not 'autism'.  Lack of empathy isn't even in the diagnostic list.  Truly.  Go and look.

Are a few autistic people also sociopaths?  Yes.
Are some people with size nine feet also sociopaths?  Yes.

Does having size nine feet make you a serial killer?  No.
Does being autistic make you a serial killer?  No.

This is remarkably simple to understand, and yet, some have misunderstood it.

So, what went wrong here?  How did we end up with a set of data that failed to ask the right questions of autistic people?  How did we decide that autistic people lack empathy, or were linked in any meaningful way to deliberate nastiness?  Let's have a look at a couple of examples:

Firstly, questions of morality.  Take the famous Trolley Dilemma.  Imagine a heavy train trolley is racing down a track, unable to stop.  Ahead of it, four people on the rail line.  People are told that they are standing next to an overweight man, and that it would be possible to push him onto the track to derail the trolley and save the other four people.  He would die.  What would you do, they ask.  Would you push the man into the path of the trolley, to save the other four?

They found that quite a few autistic people reasoned that it was better for one person to die, than four.  The researchers decided this meant we lacked a sense of proper morals.  Apparently, the researchers decided that the 'correct' answer is to do nothing, since it's immoral to kill anyone at all yourself (but not immoral to watch lots die, whilst you stand there doing nothing much.  That's a point of view.  Perhaps we should cancel all military service on that basis, mmm?). (That is not a serious suggestion by me - I'm just encouraging people to think).

This is a controversial experiment.  For a start, people from different countries and cultures tend to give different answers to the Trolley Problem.  Also, they noted that many people find the scenario so ridiculous that they giggle, nervously, when asked the question.  And because of the ridiculous nature of it, their answers may be altered by their emotional response to the silliness of it.  We note that when people are put into real-life versions of this test, they respond differently to their previous answers.  We simply don't know how we will respond, whether we are autistic or not.

I asked some autistic people about their responses to this question.  They said it was a silly test.  One might shout for the others to get out of the way.  One might leap in front of the carriage oneself.  Some reasoned that it was indeed better for four to live, than to watch four die.  We had a whole range of careful, reasoned responses, deeply reflective of the need to save lives, of the tragedy that could await, of the moral dilemmas. Of the difficulties for the emergency services, having to deal with four dead bodies... telling relatives, getting over their own trauma.  So much for a lack of empathy.  The question was nonsense.  

In fact, in a recent study of smartphone users, 33% of smartphone users agreed that it's more sensible to kill one person to save four others.  So, are 33% of the population using smartphones all non-empathetic?  Clearly not.  The solution is simply one of a range of possible solutions.

Today, an article online about a serial killer.  A controversial Psychiatrist in the USA stated that he'd never met the man.  But, he had decided that because this chap was antisocial and good with numbers, that must mean he was autistic.  He ignores evidence to the contrary.  He even pretends that autism is a mental illness, which it is not.  He suggests that because he (as a Psychiatrist) has seen some autistic people with psychiatric problems and expressing violent thoughts, that must be what autism is like.  The clue is that only people who are autistic AND have mental health conditions or personality disorders will normally be seeing a Psychiatrist for treatment. Mental health conditions do not lead to violence, per se.  Logically a few people in such Psychiatric settings are also sociopaths.  If he is basing his views in any way on the sociopathic people he finds in his waiting room who also happen to be autistic and also happen to want to kill people, we're all in trouble, aren't we.  Little wonder that this Psychiatrist resigned from his professional body.

It beggars belief that any Professional could say something that meaningless, but, they have.    It's not the first time this one has come up with baffling stuff, and I dare say it won't be the last.  But, the damage is done.  Again.

And, from this sort of baffling lack of clue, we have constructed a hell for autistic people.  

Little wonder that so many autistic people are treated with such contempt and fear, when we go to offer love and friendship, support and skills, information and passionate focus.

Autistic people communicate differently.  Different does not mean sociopathic-of-a-sort-that-will-commit-violence. Non-autistic people have great difficulty empathising with us, research shows.  Does that mean they all lack empathy?  No, it means we are using different social signalling, and need to learn to interpret one another.   We need to understand this, and understand it fully.  

Autistic lives are at risk, and, as a society, we need to be careful about describing autistic people in ways that cause such fear-mongering.  In ways that may incorrectly link serious crime with autism in people's minds.  In ways that misunderstand empathy completely, and assume that different levels and form of autistic empathy equate to crime.  

Frankly, on average, you're safer with an autistic person than you are with almost anyone else.    

There's some lovely studies out there, showing that autistic people are, on average, more moral than others, less likely to commit crime (unless duped into it by others).  One  - for example - shows that autistic children were far more upset than non-autistic children, when seeing someone else injured.  Also, that they would play more fairly with people, even if the people had not played fairly with others.   Generalising, because every person is a personality and a past, not just 'one feature'.

So many autistic people work tirelessly for safety, for justice, for the arts and sciences, for a society where all are safer and more able to be themselves.

I would like to see an end to the awful studies and articles looking to portray autism in unfair negative ways.

Would you?

The photo shows a heart shaped stone, with the word Love engraved into it.