Autism and Empathy
drafts 141206, 171118

Dai Davies

Recently, psychologists have relabelled Asperger's Syndrome (AS) and placed it within the autism spectrum. This change may have some technical merit, and I'm not questioning that, but there are significant broader implications that need to be addressed. The autism spectrum is also called the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a 'disorder' is a very different thing to a 'syndrome'. This is an example of a recent trend in psychology to label every variation from 'normal' behaviour and world-view as a disorder to be stigmatised and treated.

Apart from the obvious motivation of territorial and commercial expansion of the profession, this has more sinister implications. The characterisation of deviance from a real or ideological norm as pathological is a central characteristic of totalitarianism.

AS is not simple, and has wide variations in both degree and style. While ASD in its more extreme form probably has, perhaps, some genetic foundation, AS is likely to be predominantly or wholly developmental or environmentally determined. While ASD in extremes can lead to a life of incapacity and dependency, AS can lead to savant level achievement and in the extreme of the 'idiot savant' where lack of social skills and understanding of the world can be debilitating, the extreme mental skills that can be achieved provide a stunning insight into the capabilities of the human brain.

AS and ASD are quite vague and abstract concepts to most people – and to many psychologists, it seems. Since I've had a strong AS side to my personality since childhood I'm going to lay some foundations for the rest of this article by putting myself on the dissecting table and look into my own upbringing. I want to get away from the abstract and into some observation, description, and even some prescription.

By the time I reached school age I was living in a new suburb of rapidly expanding post-war Canberra. It was, in the words of the day, a 'nappy valley' with young couples – many of whom had been unable to start a family in the war years – keen to settle down and enjoy the progress and prosperity they had been promised as a reward for the trials of wartime. There was no shortage of company and groups of up to a dozen kids played together in backyards and roamed the quiet streets in safety. Having a family car was still a luxury.

When we became bored with conventional games we made up our own. We caught tadpoles in the nearby creek and watched them grow into frogs. Above all, we socialised in a free and childishly innocent way, dealing with the cultural diversity that came from a large part of the population being refugees and immigrants from war-torn Europe.

The upshot of this was that having lead a physically active and relatively adventurous early childhood I'd developed a need for constant action. There was no television, so by the end of a wet weekend or school holiday, I was driving my mother 'to distraction'. There was no thought of this being a pathological condition. I was just a boy. I'm sure that if there had been a diagnosis of pathology and a pill for treatment back then she would have ignored them. She saw it as her job to deal with the situation and did – calmly, confidently and professionally.

One approach she used to great effect was to challenge me to try some 'grown-up' activities. She drew on what she had at hand – knitting, sewing, darning, and even a little crocheting. I spent hours intently engaged, and when I'd mastered the basic skill, could think quietly about other things as I continued. Except for the crocheting, they were also quite useful skills.

I still sew occasionally to mend clothes – loose buttons and small tears. I darned a sock or two and in my early twenties, and knitted a Dr Who style scarf finding the activity so relaxing that I kept going until it was impractically long. When I learned about Buddhism and meditation it made obvious sense to me but by then I found it quite easy to slip into a quiet relaxed state if I was somewhere peaceful. The addition of slow deep breathing seemed to help. Down the track I found I could slip into a brief few seconds of relaxation in most situations – handy in the last half of a two hour lecture after giving the class something to discuss amongst themselves – me staring at my notes with an appropriately studious expression.

I was never particularly close to either of my parents, which is not particularly unusual, but for my early years they provided a secure and stable environment in which I thrived. Most of what I know about their past comes from photos and a few comments my mother made. I rarely spoke with my father, but he made his reactions to my behaviour known through his body language, which was valuable general training in empathy.

The observations I've made from my own life seem to apply to a variety of personal and social problems – and their traditional solutions. It doesn't surprise me that people are starting to talk about mild autism reaching epidemic proportions among children. I've met people who's chaotic, undirected activity was ruining their lives and the lives of those closest to them, and people who's preoccupation with their work has had similar consequences.

Academia, in particular, teems with people who may be successful in their career aims, but who's marriages and family lives are a mess. For a while in my early school days I waited for the school bus with an boy who was going to a special school nearby, and picked up some understanding of him. I later heard that he was autistic and that I knew his father, a senior academic, by reputation. That reputation included an inability to deal with people. I was also told that he had another son who was also autistic. How much the condition is due to genetic influences, and how much it stems from environmental factors is still an open question that I will return to.

We're conducting an experiment – and I do mean 'we', having been a working single father. Children have been brought up in any manner of situations in the past, and by and large they cope remarkably well with adversity if they have strong continuous thread of support from people, or a person, they trust. If that thread is broken, or was never fully established, they tend to retreat into a world of their own. Depending on their immediate social environment, that world can be creative or destructive or a mixture of both.

Little that children experience today is really new – though in some ways television may be an exception. Children have been sent off to boarding schools at an early age and lived happy and productive lives, but those institutions have evolved experimentally over many generations. Children have been handed over to the total care of nannies, though here tradition dictates stability and continuity and that the role of nanny be considered a serious and skilled vocation based, again, on accumulated wisdom of generations.

These traditions, practiced in an extreme form in Spartan culture, have deeper roots in genetics and instinct. Boys and men have always been expendable to some degree where war was an inevitable part of life. As the Spartans recognised, close personal attachments to anything other than the survival of the society as a whole weakened a soldier. The Spartan's success in battle stands as a stark testament to the truth of their belief, but I suspect that their extreme ideological views created a society that was, in the long run, unviable. Ideology inevitably embeds the view that if a little of something is good then lots of it must lead to perfection.

Part of the role of the traditional Public School has been to produce people who devoted their lives to the service of the nation – in peace and war. Though constrained versions their Spartan predecessors they were a tough, and by contemporary standards, even harsh environment physically and mentally that produced people that could cope in extreme situations – not only war but disasters of any kind – small or large.

Contemporary western society seems to be heading rapidly in the opposite direction with serious detrimental consequences. In some circles this has become an ideological imperative and, just as the Spartan extreme failed this will too, leaving many lives ruined in its wake. Many people, even those in high positions of responsibility, are incapable of dealing with quite minor crises.

Recently, while taking my small fluffy dog for a walk in a lead, a young woman gave us a wide berth and said, 'Oh, I'm afraid of dogs'. She was smiling and showed no sign of fear. Rather, her manner clearly showed that she was proud of her claim – it made her special. I was unimpressed. There is nothing to be proud of in irrational fear – even less so, its affectation.

We are creating a society where genuine individuality is stigmatised and pathologised. Meanwhile, diversity of character is being replaced by drumming into children a vacuous sense of being 'special', and being replaced by the politics of group identity – the group being stereotyped, and conformity to that stereotype being covertly and overtly enforced.