What is autism?
When I give people the formal definition of autism, I see their eyes glaze over as it is rather long winded and meaningless to those who know little about autism. So I’m not going to talk about autism diagnosis, which is somewhat complex, but one aspect of autism: empathy.
Many people equate “lack of empathy” with autism, so much so that whenever someone has been inconsiderate, others may joke that they were “being a bit autistic”. Say this around me and I get really annoyed as autism is more than lack of empathy and most inconsiderate people are not autistic. Autistic empathy problems are fairly specific. Hurting other people without remorse is generally considered as “lacking empathy”, although shrinks prefer to use the term “callous and unemotional” as it does not ascribe a cause to the behaviour. This is important as there can be many different causes to this type of behaviour. I will give you 3 adapted real life examples of callous behaviour involving the death of an animal to see whether you can identify the one most likely to be a case of autism.
(a) A 5 year old boy was playing with his pet hamster. The hamster bit him as he was a bit rough. The boy got his baseball bat out and bludgeoned the hamster to death. In explanation of what had happened, he showed no remorse and said “It bit me on purpose, so it deserved to die”.
(b) A 10 year old boy was playing golf. He was very good at golf. A squirrel appeared in his line of sight, and he had the question as to whether his driving accuracy was good enough to hit the squirrel. He hit the squirrel with the golf ball striking the squirrel hard and killing it. In explanation of what happened, he showed no remorse saying “My aim is very good”.
(c) Two 8 year old boys were pulling at a cat’s tail to hear it hiss which they found funny. They tied string to its tail and used that to pull it around. Then they thought it would be funny to set the string alight, which then set the cat alight. In explanation of what happened, they showed no remorse saying “We don’t know what happened to the cat; it had nothing to do with us”.
In Big Sis’s Oxford School Dictionary (apologies, this is sadly the only dictionary our household possesses), empathy is described as “Noun. The ability to understand and share in someone else’s feelings”. In order to empathise, you require the ability to do the following:
1) Be aware that other beings (animals or humans) have independent thought, action and feeling; this is sometimes called having a ‘theory of mind’.
2) Be able to experience and recognize your own emotions and feelings and the situations in which different emotions arise.
3) Be able to imagine that others may have the same feelings, emotions and thoughts that you experience if they were in similar situations.
Autistic “lack of empathy” relates to inability or difficulty with the fundamental step, step 1, which impacts ability to completely master steps 2 and 3. This “step 1” ability is something that you either have, or don’t have. It relates to abnormal brain wiring which goes awry in pregnancy and early infancy. None of us were ever sat down and taught “this is a table: it does not think, act or feel; this is a human, it is able to think, act and feel”, we just realise it ourselves one day, usually in infancy. To an autistic child, something this fundamental is not obvious. A typical complaint from parents of autistic children, and what I imagine would be the most painful as a parent; is that an autistic child may see parents as no different from anyone else, or indeed, any other object. An autistic child may show interest in a parent as a “biscuit dispenser” or “toy-buyer”, but are unlikely ever to have an intimate and confiding relationship with anyone including their parent, due to their inability to recognise other people as thinking, sentient beings. It is hard to comprehend or to believe, but if you are not naturally aware that other people have independent thought or feeling, then the death of a parent would affect you as much as the loss of a toy (provided someone else stepped in to dispense biscuits and buy toys). Classically, without step 1, steps 2 and 3 are impaired. Autistic children find difficulty in describing emotion in themselves as well as others. Some autistic children with good intellect are able to behave empathically. They are able to actively learn that others are thinking sentient beings, and are able to learn what someone would feel and think in a given situation. They learn it in much the same way that we might learn the highway code. It does not come naturally, but we can learn to behave in the way that is required of us. Just as with the highway code learning, actively learnt behaviour can slip in times of tiredness or stress, and is useless in new situations where the rules are unknown.
“Lack of empathy” frequently occurs in children without autism. The work of the clinicians in an autism assessment is to differentiate these children from autistic children.
Children with ADHD, who have a different brain wiring problem have a tendency to impulsivity. They can behave as if they lack empathy as they typically do things without thinking. If someone falls over, it can look very funny. All of us like to laugh when we see people falling over, which is why slapstick comedy is so successful. In real life, most of us would be able to inhibit our impulse to laugh if the person was actually hurt and crying in pain. The ADHD child, cannot inhibit impulses, and therefore will laugh, appearing to “lack empathy”. However, if you question the child afterwards they are able to interpret the situation empathically and realise that they should not have laughed, although they might say “but I couldn’t help it.” Of course some children with ADHD will also have autism spectrum disorder, as one brain wiring problem increases the risk of another.
Other children without brain wiring (neurodevelopmental) problems can develop difficulties with steps 2 and 3. For step 2, I will give two simple examples, but there are likely many permutations for the development of what shrinks call “callous and unemotional” symptoms in the absence of autism. Firstly, Children who are emotionally neglected and not stimulated to interact with others and experience emotion can have difficulty in experiencing and recognising emotions in themselves and others. The classic example of this is from Romanian orphanages. After the fall of the Communist government in Romania in 1989, aid workers found thousands of abandoned children being housed in orphanages in terrible conditions where abuse and neglect were rife. Babies were literally left alone in cots day in and day out with minimal human contact. When discovered, many of these children appeared to be autistic, as they had difficulties with social interaction, communication and empathy. However, the majority of these children, when adopted out to loving families, gradually acquired the ability to empathise and socially interact normally. Their early childhood experiences of neglect had impaired their ability to experience emotion amongst other things, and therefore they had difficulty in understanding emotion in themselves and others. Love, not rote learning of rules was able to restore their empathy as the majority did not have brain wiring problems.
Secondly, young children who suffer emotional abuse (which can occur alone or with physical and sexual abuse) or are constantly witness to violence and trauma, may have had no biological difficulty in experiencing emotions, but as their emotions are too hurtful due to the extremely stressful environment, they may employ a defence mechanism of “blocking out” or “numbing”/ “desensitisation” of emotions in order to survive. Channelling “I am a block of wood” is sometimes your only defence in a situation where you are entirely powerless. These children find allowing themselves to experience emotion difficult or impossible, which limits their ability to understand emotion in others, even long after the abuse/ trauma has ended.
These two groups of children may have “attachment disorders”; some may grow up to develop “personality disorders”. Emotional availability of parents and care givers and exposure to violence lie on a continuum, and it is likely that even within the general population, there is variation in how in tune people are with their own emotions and the emotions of others even if they have not been through abuse and trauma.
There are children who have no difficulty with step 1 and 2, but have problems with step 3. They understand that people have emotions and they experience their own emotions. However, their own emotions are so over-encompassing, often due to insecurity; that they are unable to think about or care about the emotions and feelings of others. These children may have suffered abuse or neglect as children and pushing heavily for their own needs and wants has been the only way they have been able to survive. If these children are asked about emotions, they are able to describe them well. They are able to demonstrate theory of mind in non-emotive tasks and may even, in a hypothetical scenario that does not involve them, have no difficulty in seeing both points of view. However, when the scenario is switched to involve them, their thinking becomes self-focused and there is no room to think about other people’s feelings. Their own feelings are always prioritised over that of others. These children may be thought of as “narcissistic” and may grow up to have personality difficulties.
Finally, there are children who have no problem with empathy but choose to behave in a hurtful way to other people for their own reasons; they gain pleasure from being in power and deliberately causing pain, to gain membership to a culture or subculture, to extort money, to gain respect or retribution to name a few.
Hopefully, by now, you may have a better chance of determining which of our “animal killers” is the most likely to have an autistic spectrum disorder. Scroll down, to see if you are right.
Case (a) by ascribing intent to the hamster is in possession of basic theory of mind (a more clearly autistic response in this situation would have been to say “The hamster was hurting me so I stopped it from hurting me”); in this case additional examples of behaviour would need to be examined to argue a case one way or another. Case (b) has autism. There is clearly no theory of mind going on here, the squirrel was a mere target for target practice and may as well have been an inanimate object. Case (c) is definitely not autism as cooperating to torture a cat requires social skill between the two boys, unless there is a clear “leader” and “follower”. By attempting to deceive people by denying knowledge of what happened implies quite a sophisticated theory of mind. They would need to realise that you did not know what really happened, and that if they denied knowledge, they may be able to convince you that they were not involved.
Autism has several other criteria (the formal definition of autism being of “a triad of difficulties in social interaction, communication and restricted and repetitive interests”), so you would never make a diagnosis based on something as simplistic as the above. It is however useful to illustrate the importance of detailed information in assessment of every single feature of autism as scenarios which present behaviourally in a very similar way (e.g. killing of an animal) may have very different causes. A typical autism assessment involves information gathered from multiple sources and in depth interview and observation by a multi-disciplinary team.