New Book a Disservice to Individuals with Autism

The Science of Evil

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.

13 Responses to New Book a Disservice to Individuals with Autism

  1. Asemp says:

    I have not read the book. However, from reading various reviews, blog and forum posts, I have gathered that while Cohen refers to studies such as Zimbardo and Milgram, he fails to consider more rounded theories of how detrimental behaviour occurs. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory of Moral Disengagement, and Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour are two examples.

    There is also some suggestion there is provided an “empathy questionnaire” for which a suggested use is within Human Resources, to select who to employ in care professions. If the questionnaire is sold in the customary way such Psychometric recruitment questionnaires are to companies, Cohen would stand to make a significant sum. Plus what type of people would such a questionnaire exclude from employment in care professions?! You guessed it, Autistic individuals – as if they didn’t have enough difficulty already!

  2. Susan says:

    Oh my, that’s truly scary…


  3. Edwin Rutsch says:

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    also, more on Simon Baron-Cohen

  4. Debbie K. says:

    This is very scary. My experience with my son, who is high functioning, is usually the opposite. He’s very sensitive and cries easily at times. At other times, he seems unaware of situations that would be hurtful to most people. He absolutely HATED the movie “Up,” which most reviewers raved over. He thought it was “too sad” (it was). He had to come home and watch “Kung Fu Panda” to cheer himself up!

  5. Susan says:

    I know what you mean, Debbie. Our kids are very complex!


  6. Susan says:

    Edwin, thanks for the links!


  7. JennyAllan says:

    This is hideous!! In his book Professor Baron-Cohen has ‘dehumanised’ persons on the autistic spectrum by claiming a perceived lack of personal empathy is synomymous with evil. It is true that SOME autistic persons appear to be emotionally impaired and egocentric, but this is also true of persons who are NOT autistic. I can think of quite a few examples of prominent personalities who exhibit both a lack of empathy and cruel tendencies.

    Perhaps Hitler is the most notorious example of a person obsessed with dehumanising certain sections of society, mostly Jews, gypsies and persons with physical and learning disbilities. Hitler was determined to kill all of them, as it was he killed millions of persons whose only crime was to exist. Perhaps Professor Baron-Cohen, who has a Jewish name, should reflect upon the REAL meaning of ‘evil’. Incidently, my autistic grandson is very affectionate and caring and always has been.

  8. Susan says:

    I agree. It’s frightening that this man is such a prominent figure in the world of autism and psychiatry.

  9. Another Susan says:

    As an older person who not too long ago learned that Asperger’s explains so much about my confused and confusing childhood and lifelong difficulties in certain areas, I’ve been pondering the whole “AS people are lacking in empathy” claim. I know it’s just simply not true. I can remember aching with mute, helpless sorrow and empathy for my entire troubled family and also recoiling in horror at cartoon footage of pain and violence that had my neurotypical peer group squealing with laughter.

    But I also know that Aspies express empathic feelings differently, or, sometimes, not at all, because in complex situations empathy is one more emotion in the cacophony of bewildering emotions swirling within us. It’s very often more than we can handle. We seem to lack the buffer, the layer of insulation, necessary to acquire a measure of distance, perspective, and personal control in interpersonal situations. So we either freak out or shut down entirely.

    I think many neurotypicals confuse feelings with the expression of feelings. I think this may be related to the difference between the ease with which neurotypicals translate inner experience into appropriate facial expressions, body language, and verbal language, and the difficulty Aspies experience in this area. This could explain Baron-Cohen’s understanding of empathy. This process of translation isn’t just “inner feeling to outer expression;” it has more steps than that. It’s more like “inner awareness to inner sensation, to inner reaction, to awareness of inner reaction, to selecting appropriate outer expression, to conveying outer expression.” A complicated process for some of us.

    I do, however, relate to his observation that Asperger’s people can be supermoral. All my life, I’ve simply assumed that,for some reason, God was holding me to a higher standard, and that this explained my confounding inability to manipulate, deceive, and do “whatever it takes” to get whatever I want. In the world, it can be quite a disadvantage, especially when one cannot very well explain one’s actions or lack thereof. I reconciled with this reality by forging what has felt like a closer relationship — a dependence, really — on God as a caring, loving, steadfast parent figure. But that’s just my solution — many people do not seek or need theological explanations.

    In my AS support group, I have often been struck by the quick, immediate, unmoderated displays of empathy I’ve caught in the facial expressions of other Asperger members. So far, I find them much easier to “read” than the average neurotypical.

    I also disagree with Baron-Cohen that evil is the lack of empathy. To lack empathy is to be essentially oblivious on some level. I have known a couple of evil people, and I got the distinct impression that their sadism was rooted in a very sharp, but perverted, sense of empathy. They knew full well the pain they were causing, and they enjoyed causing it. They weren’t the least bit oblivious.

    Okay, enough. Thanks, Susan, for this interesting, thought-provoking piece.

  10. dennis says:

    They (those ‘Normal’ entitled beings who think themselves morally superior) know *precisely* what they are doing, if one speaks of the realms of instinct. Much of what they say is a smokescreen. Instead of listening to their words, which are lies – watch what they DO.
    Remember: in the Normal world, “everything is social, and the whole of life is a matter of Power and Control.” Hence, what does S. B-C stand to Gain by what he’s done? Power – the capacity to influence / control people’s thinking? The Power to extirpate ‘Subhuman Objects’ that are not useful to him save as a means to his true ends?

  11. Susan says:

    I heartily concur.

  12. dennis says:

    My suspicion is that S Baron-Cohen believes – at the level of instinct, which is something he (or most people…) are not conscious of – is the following.

    Psychopath = ‘priest, king, and god’.

    Autist = ‘the manifested evil in all of nature’.

    Ergo, “humanize the psychopath, as everyone wishes they WERE him, while preach to the instinctual notion to scapegoat ALL autistic people prior to destroying them – as is appropriate for scapegoats.”

    Magical thinking – a Normalistic speciality – says that ‘once the evil things are gone and ROTTING IN HELL WHERE THEY BELONG, then the world will be right and everything will subject itself to our individual and collective will – which it would have done from the beginning had those #$%% autists never existed. Curse them!”

  13. Susan says:

    Interesting take…

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