In keeping with the Theory of Mind hypothesis (Baron-Cohen, 1995) subsequent research like that conducted by Smith (2009) , Silani et al. (2007)  and others ,, have declared that persons of the Spectrum display an “imbalance” or even an inability to have empathy for others. Alexithymia and lack of empathy are supposedly correlated, indicating a link between understanding one’s own and others’ emotions. I find these points-of-view particularly curious ― as an AS counsellor, who believes, that I’ve shown much empathy for my clients.
I’m very keen on adhering to the words of Jesus as a plumb line in my therapeutic approaches. One such axiom is His greatest commandment ― to “love our neighbour as ourselves. Even a preliminary gloss of this basic axiom is that it binds Christians to a love that can say “This person claims my love, no matter what” my own interests are in describing the situations to which Jesus’ teaching binds us, specifically in terms of the challenges autism throws up for Christian love.
Few would debate that loving those with autism has its own special demands, and calls forth a special sort of patience and empathy, even suffering. Saint Paul with his thorn in the flesh called this process “sanctification.” In sanctification, our self-satisfaction, illusions, and pride are revealed for what they are—barriers to love.
One of my favourite authors, Neil F. Pembroke (2007, p. 287)  wrote about his unique view of empathy as living the love commandment:
The strong interest in empathy shown by mental health practitioners represents an attempt to strengthen the human element in the clinical (therapeutic) relationship. There is debate, however, over exactly what form clinical empathy should take. On the one hand, there are those who view empathy as a purely cognitive understanding of the subjective experience of the client. The purely clinical (psychotherapeutic) aim here is to relate to the client with a ‘‘detached concern.’’ The other view is that clinical empathy involves both cognitive and affective elements. In line with this view …empathy is more than simply labelling a feeling state. Genuine empathy involves recognizing what the suffering of the client actually feels like.
Empathy requires a reaching out to the Other. It is an imaginative projection into their inner world of experience. In the Western religious traditions, going out of the self has been referred to as ekstasis. Ekstasis has as its goal the establishment of communion. God reaches out to the world through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit ― calling people into fellowship with Him. In living the love commandment, do human persons go out to others to join in communion with them…and can this concept of ekstasis make a unique contribution to our understanding of empathic attunement in the therapeutic encounter?
Can ASpies truly love? Can they understand the concept of loving another person selflessly? If so, then by Pembroke’s definition, can ASpie’s have empathy in the form of ekstasis? If any readers are ‘Spectrumites’ or live with or know well other ASpies, do you have any viewpoints on this topic? Care to share your views with other readers?
- Smith A. (2007). “Empathy Imbalance Hypothesis of Autism”. In The Psychological Record, 59: 489-510.
- Silani, G., Singer, T., Bird, G. et al. (2007). “Levels of emotional awareness and autism”. Social Neuroscience, 3: XX-XX.
- Fitzgerald, M., Bellgrove, M. A. (2006). Letter to the editor: “The overlap between alexithymia and Asperger’s syndrome.” In Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(4): 573–76.
- Guttman, H., Laporte, L. (2002). Alexithymia, empathy, and psychological symptoms in a family context. In Comprehensive Psychiatry, 43(6): 448–55.
- Hill, E. L., Berthoz, S., Frith, U. (2004). “Cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and their relatives”. In Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34: 229–235.
- Pembroke, N.F. (2007). “Empathy, Emotion, and Ekstasis”. In Journal of Religion and Health, 46(2): 287-98.