The Loss of Empathy in Autism

Parenting Children With Asperger's And High-functioning Autism

Working with Autistic Children

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The previous example indicates how metaphor can be degraded as a consequence of traumatic experiences. The loss of the "as if" reflects an impairment of the imagination, as imagination requires metaphor. Simon Baron-Cohen (1999) has presented studies that demonstrate that the major deficit in autistic individuals consists of what he called "mind blindness"—the inability to identify with the other. This deficit appears to be innate. Baron-Cohen reports the following experiment. Normal children around the age of three or four are presented with the following visual scenario: Sally places her marble in a basket and then leaves the room. Ann enters the room and then transfers Sally's marble to a different location. The children are asked, "Where will Sally look for her marble?" The usual response of normal children is that Sally will look for the marble were she left it, in the basket. Only a small minority of children with autism gave the response that Sally would look where the marble really was. It was clear that most autistic children could not identify with Sally, could not imagine what was going on in Sally's mind. To identify with Sally, one must be able to accept the "as if," the paradox that one can think like Sally and yet not be Sally.

Autistic and normal children were shown a sponge that was painted to look like a rock, made to look "as if" it were a rock. They were then asked, "What does this look like?" and "What is it really?" Normal children between the ages of four and six could say that the object looks like a rock but that it really is a sponge. Most autistic children could not do so. When shown a stone that looked like an egg, normal children would say, "That looks like an egg, but it really is a stone." Autistic children would say, "It really is an egg" (Baron-Cohen 1999). I would interpret this experiment as further evidence of the loss of metaphoric capacity in autistic children. To reiterate, the acceptance in imagination that something "both is and is not" requires the capacity for metaphoric thought, and the absence of this cognitive capacity helps to explain the inability of autistic children to empathize.

Oliver Sacks (1995) presented a remarkable portrait of an autistic adult, the gifted engineer and professor of animal husbandry Temple Grandin. He described her inability to empathize or imagine other minds. Temple could not understand dissembling and pretense and could never quite understand other people's responses to her. When she was younger, she was hardly able to interpret even the simplest expressions of emotion. As a child, she could not enter into imaginative play. Literature that depicted other minds bewildered her. She was confused, she said, by Romeo and Juliet: "I never knew what they were up to." She could not empathize with the characters or follow the intricate play of motive and intention.

Sacks described an episode in which Temple learned how to make blueprints. She watched how a draftsman did it and then she said, "I appropriated him, drawing and all." She swallowed him whole: she became the draftsman. Again, this total identification with the draftsman lacked the "as if" quality of the empathie imagination.

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