A new book, The Science of Evil, is certainly not doing any favors for the autism community. Written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Cambridge and director of the university’s Autism Research Center,
the book has a central premise that evil can be scientifically defined as a lack of empathy. Lack of empathy or a “Theory of Mind” is also described as a core feature of autism. Baron-Cohen writes:
"A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human (Whiten, 1993). By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds."
Now my hackles are already up because if a theory of mind makes us human and individuals with autism are said to lack it, then that makes people with autism less-than-human.
Baron-Cohen goes on to propose that evil is an absence of empathy, exacerbated by negative environmental factors (usually parental, sometimes societal) and a genetic component. When these three exist simultaneously, they result in what he terms a Zero-Negative personality. Zero-Negative takes at least three forms: Zero Type P (psychopathology), Zero Type B (borderline disorder) and Zero Type N (narcissism).
Whereas psychiatry groups these three loosely under the term “personality disorders,” Baron-Cohen views them in terms of empathy, resulting in “very different treatment implications." Psychopaths aside, people with low degrees of empathy can be taught empathy and treated with standard psychiatric approaches.
In addressing his theories in relation to Asperger’s Syndrome, he draws the conclusions that people with Asperger’s syndrome also fall on the zero end of the scale, but they are Zero Positive. Zero Positive is almost always accompanied by high scores on the systemizing scale (and can lead to genius). In addition, the way “their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral.”
Baron-Cohen’s assertions that the compensatory faculty of systemizing the world results in a rational supermorality rather than an immorality in individuals with autism neglects some vital truths and does people on the autism spectrum a grave disservice, forever conflating their lack of classical empathy with his new definition of evil.
While those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) lack cognitive empathy or the ability to predict how people will behave in response to their emotions, there is overwhelming evidence that they are hypersensitive in feeling the emotions of others, or affective empathy.
Numerous studies draw these conclusions:
* High-functioning autistic children display more emotion than typical children in response to empathy-inducing scenes.
* The faces of autistic adults demonstrate heightened electromyographic responsiveness to expressions of fear and happiness on the faces of other people.
* When looking at images of people suffering distress, autistic children have normal electrodermal responses.
* Adults with Asperger’s syndrome suffer personal distress in response to the suffering of others.
Those who work with, live with and care for individuals on the autism spectrum report that they are exceptionally sensitive to other people’s emotions.
Individuals with ASDs may learn to suppress or avoid their empathic responses as a means of self-protection, leading theorists to believe that they lack emotional empathy. Their insensitive statements or actions, often stem from an inability to predict the impact such statements or actions will have on others, rather than a desire to be cruel. When they discover they have hurt someone’s feelings, they can be overwhelmed by regret.
Often, individuals with autism avoid distressed individuals because their empathetic response is so strong that they themselves may be too traumatized or confused to be emotionally presence for the other person. They may socially withdraw, behave inappropriately or obsessively attend to details in emotionally charged situations to protect themselves against extreme emotional arousal. Mistaken to be uncaring, they actually care too much and experience difficulty separating their feelings from those of others. ASD individuals absorb and reflect back the energy of their environment, making it essential for those that live and work with them to keep as positive a vibration as possible.
In my son’s last school debacle his teacher would tell him that he was upsetting the entire class with his emotional outbursts. She believed he didn’t know or care and that he would control himself if it was brought to his attention. In point of fact, my son was excruciatingly aware of his impact on others already and when publicly castigated for upsetting his classmates he would run screaming down the halls and out of the building.
Imagine the disastrous outcome if this teacher reads the latest book from Baren-Cohen and draws the conclusion that her next Asperger’s student is actually evil as well as unmanageable.