“Empathy has two distinct components: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings . . . Affective empathy is the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to what someone is thinking or feeling. . . Low affective empathy is a necessary factor to explain human cruelty. . . [P]eople with autism and psychopaths are mirror opposites. The psychopath has good cognitive empathy, that’s how they can deceive, but they have reduced affective empathy. People with autism have intact affective empathy but struggle with cognitive empathy for neurological reasons.”
—Simon Baron Cohen, TED Talk[i]
If autism is a different way of perceiving, it may not be accurate to think of individuals “as” autistic but only as capable of (or confined to) a particular way of perceiving. By the same token, so-called ordinary or neurotypical people would be equally confined to their own particular perceptual mode. The fact that the neurotypical mode is more efficient for functioning in our present society doesn’t necessarily mean it is more accurate, only that it’s better suited to the current social arrangement. But then, the current social arrangement is largely the result of a neurotypical perceptual bias, so naturally it would favor neurotypical ways of perceiving.
The autistic way of perceiving may be available to everyone or it may not be. People who appear to be confined to an autistic perceptual mode may be capable of other modes of perception or they may not. It’s too soon to reach any conclusions, since the idea of autism (or ordinary awareness) as a perceptual mode is still relatively new. What can be discussed here is what characterizes the different perceptual modes. Based on the evidence so far, people on the autistic spectrum are unusually sensitive, vulnerable, and impressionable people whose over-developed sensory capacities frequently result in a sensory overload. (This may include senses not yet recognized by conventional science, at least as anything but sensory dysfunction, such as synesthesia.) This can cause a variety of symptom-behaviors, ranging from emotional withdrawal to violent outbursts. Since the autistic perceptual mode includes enhanced senses, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, and other stimuli, etc., it’s fair to say that most autists try to avoid confrontation or any kind of violent interaction. Simply put, the autistic perceptual mode is firmly at odds with violent or psychopathic behavior. This doesn’t mean it is 100% incompatible with it, only that it’s unlikely there would be any direct correlation between the two. Even if we accept that Adam Lanza was the Sandy Hook shooter and that he was autistic (two questionable claims), it’s still a far cry from establishing any relationship between the two “facts.” If Lanza had been a homosexual or a Christian mystic, would anyone have tried to offer this up as an explanation for his actions? But since autism is understood by the general public as a form of mental illness, the connection is all-too-easy for those people to make.
The autistic perceptual mode is highly empathic, but the empathy it allows for is affective empathy and not cognitive. Typical of affective empathy is extreme sensitivity to witnessing acts of violence (real ones, at least; simulated violence may not have the same effect). Many individuals diagnosed as autistic have a strong aversion to seeing insects killed, never mind human beings. Psychopaths, obviously, have no such aversion. Yet as predators they are highly efficient, and that means they need cognitive empathy to anticipate and exploit the behavior of other people. An interesting example of this mirroring between autists and psychopaths is in their relationship to objects. A psychopath regards living beings, including human ones, as objects, and treats them accordingly. Autists are known to regard objects as living beings, and to develop relationships with them. We could posit from this that, while to the psychopath nothing is alive, to the autist, everything is. Such affective empathy is similar to the sort of animism attributed to primitive humans and especially shamanic cultures. The cognitive empathy of the psychopath appears to be specific to modern culture, with its emphasis on individuality and self-determinism. At the risk of sounding glib, the serial killer, like the hot dog, may be one of the few wholly original products of democracy.
[i] Simon Baron-Cohen is Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge and the author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, published as The Science of Evil in the US. He has also written books for parents and teachers such as Autism: The Facts. His current research is testing the “extreme male brain” theory of autism at the neural, endocrine and genetic levels.