Autism, Empathy, and Something About Accountants

I finally watched The Accountant. To summarize, it’s a thriller movie with a bunch of the usual thriller tropes, except the anti-hero is an attempt at portraying diversity but instead ends up an amalgamation of clichés about people on the spectrum. Pro Tip: If you’re making a film with an autistic character, consider spending more time consulting with autistic people than time with neurotypical people.

Anyway, the film got me thinking about empathy. Especially the way in which people who do not appear to have much empathy are filed in with abusive spouses, serial killers, and those who maim kittens. While abusive spouses, serial killers, and those who maim kittens are often low on empathy, it does not mean that all who are low on empathy are any of those things nor does it mean that abusing, killing, and maiming requires low empathy. Empathy is not the same thing as compassion or sympathy or pity or loving-kindness or being moral or whatever other nice-sounding quality you think is associated with empathy.

Empathy is, per Merriam-Webster, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this”

Empathy can be broken down into cognitive (being able to take the perspective of real and fictional people), affective (being able to respond to someone else’s emotional state), and somatic (having a physical reaction). Deficits in these types of empathy are found in yes, autism, as well as anorexia, all personality disorders, psychotic disorders, OCD and a few of the related disorders – a significant number of people, the majority caring and welcome in society.

Deficits in empathy makes violence and cruelty easier, no doubt. What often happens, though, is that people with a lower ability to be empathic feel disconnected from others, lonely, and depressed. It is harder to communicate effectively with empathy is lower. People are punished for being being different, and those punished withdraw from others.




OCPD Legos and Building Change

(I give away the ending to The Lego Movie. You’ve been warned)

A local theater was showing The Lego Movie, with the proceeds of low-cost tickets going to charity. It sounded like fun, so my daughter and I went on a whim. I have reached point where I can generally ignore the part of my brain that is The Therapist, but sometimes it flips on anyway.

As we find out at the end, a young boy is playing with Legos and the tyrannical villain is inspired by his father. His father constructed an elaborate Lego city, which is meant for looking and not touching. Just as the father reaches for a tube of Krazy Glue to preserve the perfect city, he feels guilty, gets in touch with his value as a caring parent, and starts to play Legos with his son.

People with Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) can get caught up in how things should be. Like, really really caught up. As we see in The Lego Movie, which has a surprisingly good depiction of OCPD, getting caught up in how things should be results in a lot of anger, hurt feelings, and pretending like Everything is Awesome when it’s not. OCPD isn’t particularly fun for all involved.

The bright side is that people learn and grow and strive to live within their values. Most of us have a warm and fuzzy side, including adult perfectionists who want to use permanent adhesives to hold Legos together. And when our environments give us feedback that “Hey, not okay,” sometimes we get the message and respond accordingly.