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Through A Glass Darkly

April 17, 2011

For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known. 

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Watch the full episode. See more PBS NewsHour.





Robert MacNeil is hosting a series of six reports on autism on the PBS Newshour; autistic self-advocates are protesting the lack of interviews of autistic individuals, with several autistic bloggers writing about the series. Lisa Jo Rudy has a lively (as usual) discussion going on over at About.com concerning the first part in the series.

The first part covers Robert’s grandson and how autism has impacted the family. Robert’s daughter blames  three vaccine shots at fifteen months for her son’s autism, seizures, and gastrointestinal issues. What is perhaps most interesting is MacNeil’s assertion that “Now, more doctors say it often involves serious physical illness.” Dr. Timothy Buie’s presence in the segment seems to give credence to this assertion, but it’s not one Buie’s actually made. It’s apparent that Nick, MacNeil’s grandson, has more than just autism going on. What follows is MacNeil’s question to Buie and Buie’s answer:

ROBERT MACNEIL: Dr. Buie found changes in the lower GI tract he called lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia — inflammation and damage in his small intestine.How does that affect the life of a child like Nick? For instance, does it give him pain?

DR. TIMOTHY BUIE: I think it can give pain. And I think pain in a child with autism is a very difficult thing to assess because a child with autism can’t vocalize that. He will very often not come to you and say, “I’ve got a bellyache.” He can’t use those words. So he may exhibit that as a child who doesn’t sleep well. He may exhibit that as a child who has a lot of increased agitation or hyperstimulatory-type behaviors.And part of the problem with that is that we’ve accepted that those are behaviors that we often see in children with autism, and we’ve written it off to their autism. So it’s very difficult to think through whether that’s a marker for pain in some of those kids if we’re unwilling to look for other reasons.

While there are limitations in what can be said in a fifteen minute segment, MacNeil puts out an unsubstantiated claim that many doctors believe autism to be a “serious physical illness” without providing evidence, and without acknowledging that this is not the mainstream scientific consensus about autism. In other words, he provides a segment based not on what is known about autism as a whole, but on a subset of children with autism and other issues (it appears the grandson also has a mitochondrial disorder: “Nick has serious physical illness: in his digestive system, his mitochondria, the energy needed by his cells for normal activity, plus frequent small brain seizures, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound”).

Will the remaining five segments widen this perspective? We’ll have to wait and see.

The Science of Evil

Onto another area where people see through the glass darkly. Simon Baron-Cohen is a controversial figure in the autism community due to his theories about what is behind autism and that there is a failure of theory of mind in autistic children (and a failure of empathy). He has a new book coming out in the US in May, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, which is already available in the UK under the title Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (disclosure: I have a review copy of the US title). 

On Friday, Baron-Cohen wrote about his new book and his theory of empathy erosion in the Financial Times. A reviewer there used Baron-Cohen’s work as a launching point to discuss his own beliefs regarding evil, charging that Baron-Cohen’s work reveals “a certain philosophical naivety.” And perhaps it does, but that misses the point, as did the reviewer on Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy.

Baron-Cohen isn’t interested in metaphysics and when reviewers (or readers) place their definitions over Baron-Cohen’s, they’re not critiquing his work based on his definitions. In his new book, Baron-Cohen defines empathy in two parts: “Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to those thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.”

The reality is we all have failures of empathy; we may indeed recognize what another person is feeling (but that alone is not empathy); we must care about it enough to respond appropriately. It is this second component which is vitally important, and to leave it out, when it is a fundamental part of what Baron-Cohen is talking about is to argue a strawman, whether intentional or not.

And, I think, it reveals, a critical issue at stake when we’re discussing things in the autism community (and the wider world): we often do not take the time to check our biases at the door. We often can’t, and so we read blog posts, comments, articles, emails, etc., through our own unique lenses. We see what we expect to see and we use our own definitions, and it means that our communications are a series of miscommunications more often than not.

We need not just to teach this two step component of empathy (and the third, unstated component, appropriate action, which appears to be subsumed under appropriate emotion) as Baron-Cohen argues we should:

“Empathy can even be taught through learning how to compromise, or learning how to put your point of view across more diplomatically, thereby thinking about how your words are received by the listener. There is a wide variety of ways to teach this, and schools need to make as much space in the curriculum for emotional literacy as they do for other kinds of literacy. And because of the empathy spectrum, such teaching materials are likely to benefit not just the kids who are at the extreme of zero degrees, but also many throughout the broader population.”

We also need to be deliberate and careful when we respond to other’s work that we are taking it in and using the same definitions when we argue against their positions. We should remember we all see through a glass darkly.


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