Biases in the perspective-taking statements of the EQ test
On the EQ test, what is the profile of the person whose perspective the respondent is asked to take? As in the section on nonverbal cues, it is assumed that the person observed is non-autistic and that the respondent should be able to take the perspective of the non-autistic person. A failure to do so contributes to a low empathy score. Of course, the test does not measure whether the respondent can take the perspective of an autistic person, nor does it assume that such a failure is a problem of empathy.
Take, for example, statement 36, “Other people tell me I am good at understanding how they are feeling and what they are thinking.” Who are these “other people”? They are, of course, the non-autistic majority. So, if you are in the non-autistic majority, it is far more likely that you are going to have other people tell you that you are good at understanding how they are feeling and thinking, because you share similar experiences and internal processes, and because there are simply more of you. On both counts, the odds that you are going to get it right increase significantly. And you will earn a higher empathy score as a result.
It is highly unusual for non-autistic people to tell autistic people that we are good at understanding how people are feeling and what they are thinking, which means that, regarding the statement at hand, an autistic person will earn a lower empathy score. Contrary to popular opinion, this state of affairs often does not derive from the failure of an autistic person to consider the perspective of someone else, but from projecting, as non-autistic people also do, from our own experiences. For example, I spent much of my life thinking that I understood how the majority experienced the world and trying to imagine all the different things that people might think, feel, and need. Based on my understanding, I went out of my way in my daily life to act with care and concern for other people, but was often told that I was getting it wrong — that they did not experience the situation as I did, and that they did not need what I thought they did. I was able to intuitively sense their emotions, but it grieved me that I was missing a sense of their perspective.
But now I understand. I was projecting how I operate, how I experience the world, and what I need onto people whose mode of processing is fundamentally different from mine, who experience the sensory and emotional worlds less acutely than I do, and who therefore have needs very different from my own. I tried to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” but it didn’t work — for the simple reason that, based on the ways in which I process information and experience my environment, what I need people to do for me is often the polar opposite of what they need me to do for them, under the very same conditions.
Before you suggest that I’ve just proven that autistic people lack empathy because we don’t intuitively understand the perspectives of “normal” people, let me point out two things:
a) Most “normal” people don’t intuitively understand the perspectives of autistic people, either. If they did, autism professionals wouldn’t need to run autism research projects, create EQ tests, speak at autism conferences, develop autism degree programs, or write books about autism, all in an effort to understand us and explain us to the non-autistic population.
b) Many autistic people work very hard to observe, to listen, to ask questions, and to understand the ways in which non-autistic people operate. Very few of us have consistently been the recipients of the same hard work from non-autistic people — which is the reason that, when I find a non-autistic person who wants to hear and understand my perspective, it’s a balm to my soul.
Underlying all the statements about perspective taking are a series of unequal assumptions. It is expected that “normal” folks should not be expected to easily understand autistic folks; this inability to intuitively “tune into” our perspectives, thoughts, and feelings is simply considered natural, and not evidence of an empathic failure. But the same rules do not apply to autistic people. It is expected that autistic folks should be able to easily understand “normal” folk. Our inability to intuitively “tune into” their perspectives, thoughts, and feelings is considered unnatural — evidence not simply of an empathic failure, but of a condition defined by empathic failure.
You’ll excuse me if this double standard does not sit well with me.
An example of the double standard is apparent in the following interchange between Karla McLaren and Professor Baron-Cohen that took place in a Q&A session sponsored by the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy and Compassion. Karla asked:
I have a question about the hypothesis that people on the Autism Spectrum lack empathy. I went into a job supporting college-aged Spectrum students, and I read everything I could get my hands on — most of which follows your hypothesis about low empathy and incomplete or missing theory of mind. From all these books, I thought I knew the kind of people I’d meet, but I didn’t see a lack of empathy — rather, I saw people who were often overwhelmed by incoming stimuli and who had a very hard time organizing and understanding emotional cues. I’ve since worked with many Spectrum people, and I really think the theory is leading the data-gathering.
Is it possible that people on the autism spectrum actually have a normal range of capacity for empathy, but are often overwhelmed and unable to organize incoming emotional and social stimuli ?
What I saw was that labeling Autism Spectrum people as unempathic obscures deeper inquiry. Sadly, that label also helps people treat Spectrum folks as aliens. The lack of understanding I saw “neurotypicals” show for Spectrum people made me ask: “Just who is the unempathic person here?” (Google Docs 2011)
Here, in part, is Professor Baron-Cohen’s response (I’ll be considering the rest of his response in Part 4):
You make an excellent point that empathy is a two-way street. So-called “neurotypicals” need to make an effort to understand what the world must be like for people on the autistic spectrum, and how to make people with autism spectrum conditions feel valued. (Google Docs 2011)
I find this statement to be quite interesting. There is absolutely no assumption that non-autistic people should be able to intuitively understand autistic folk. None at all. In order to come to an understanding about us, they “need to make an effort;” in fact, they are urged to do so. How exactly is making that effort any different from the ways in which autistic people must come to an understanding of non-autistics?
It’s not different in the least.
While Baron-Cohen acknowledges the need for greater emotional empathy and intellectual understanding on the part of the majority, he does not define the need of the majority to consciously and analytically understand our perspective — “what the world must be like for people on the autism spectrum” — as a failure of cognitive empathy. He simply assumes that it is natural that non-autistics would not naturally understand “what the world must be like” for us. The difficulty that “normal” people have in intuitively setting aside their own perspectives in favor of autistic perspectives, in intuitively understanding the sorts of responses an autistic person might have to any given situation, and in intuitively making a judgment as to the content of the autistic person’s mental state, is simply a given. After all, how could people possibly be expected to understand autism without the experts doing years of research and explaining it to them?
When autistic people lack the ability to intuitively understand what the world must be like for non-autistic people, it is a sign that we have a low-empathy condition. When non-autistic people lack this same ability regarding autistics, it is considered natural. It is on this double standard that the entire test rests.
- Rachel Cohen Rottenberg, http://www.autismandempathy.com/?page_id=1576
I’m at a loose end, and thought I’d post one of my favourite passages… ever, really. It’s part of a deconstruction of Simon Baron-Cohen’s famous Empathy Quotient test, and here it flags up a highly ingrained system of social inequality by making points which are more or less grounded in common sense- Cohen-Rottenberg is stating what, when you think about it, ought to be obvious. And yet, very few people spot this particular double standard, with the vast majority, including a large percentage of autistic people, simply never seeing it. It’s a prime example of how disablism works, and how damaging the deep entrenchment of the medical model of disability over the social model can be.