How We Maintain Barriers to Empathy

My friends got a dog. Or rather, a chihuahua. “Not much of a dog”, someone might say. “Couldn’t they find a rat that was big enough?” Ouch. A bit mean, isn’t it?

But imagine they had actually got a rat instead. That conversation wouldn’t even happen. Unless the rat was very, very big. “Why didn’t they get a dog instead? A dog would do a better job at scaring people away.” Do rats and dogs exist on a spectrum? Where on that spectrum would a chihuahua live? Maybe somewhere in the middle, in the lukewarm gray zone?

Illustration 1: Chihuahua as “lukewarm” dogs/mice on a scale going from “mouse” to “real dog”

Autism used to be scary. Unfortunately it still is, to some people. Apparently the fear of the foreign kicks in when they are confronted with, for example, a child making loud noises while holding their ears. Even though we’ve known for a long time that it’s a coping mechanism for dealing with certain intense feelings, similar on some level to how a person might play with a pen or close their eyes when they are nervous or overwhelmed, it is often seen as something worth suppressing or fixing. But hey, what have I just done there? How can I say that those two things are similar? “Autistic people have it much harder and you shouldn’t trivialize their struggles!”, I hear someone say. Am I trivializing them?

Maybe you’ve met people who are “on the autism spectrum”, but you are confused as to what exactly that means. “So, like, are you, like, really autistic, or just a little bit? Because… to be honest I don’t notice anything weird about you.” No answer. Just a sigh. “Can we talk about something else?” The conversation moves on, but the question doesn’t go away and eventually the person who asked it (being selectively unaware of a searchable internet) constructs their own model of “the autism spectrum”, which looks approximately like this:

Illustration 2: The autism spectrum as imagined by some neurotypicals, going from “not autistic” on the left to “really autistic” on the right, with “a bit autistic” in the lukewarm gray zone between the two extremes

But then one day it happens. You were out spending time with a group of friends, including the person who you think of as “a bit autistic”. You’re at this hip new restaurant and everybody is ready to order. Except that when it’s your friend’s turn, they don’t seem to be able to order and just stare at the menu quietly. They look like they are about to cry, but they don’t. “What’s the matter? Are you okay?” No answer.

The next day you internally take out your little model of “the autism spectrum” and adjust your friend’s position to “sometimes autistic”.

Illustration 3: A refined “autism spectrum” as imagined by a neurotypical person, going from “not autistic” to “autistic” with “sometimes autistic” in the lukewarm gray zone between the two extremes

Will it change the way you look at them from now on? Will you change anything about your behavior towards them? If so: how exactly?

Humans tend to purify the concepts they use to make sense of the world. “A real man”. “A real dog”. “A real autistic person.” We are attracted to simple categories because they are effective at helping us orient ourselves in a highly complex world, most of the time.

But sometimes they fail. And when they do fail, rarely are we willing to take the step to fundamentally adjust our model. Instead, we create hybrids to bridge the gap between extremes. The extremes remain stable and are even solidified by instating them as reference points for explaining experiences in the lukewarm gray zone “between” them.

“Sometimes” is one of those qualifiers that are used to maintain the purity of extremes. If there is a temporal dimension to something, then it doesn’t qualify as an essential property of a person, does it?

I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight (or so). I switched to contact lenses a few years ago, so some people might not realize that I have poor eyesight. Does my poor eyesight make me disabled? Is there a spectrum of disability where on one side we have “normal” people, “healthy” people, “non-disabled” people, and on the other side we have “very disabled” people? Would I be trivializing the struggles of “real disabled” people if I considered my poor eyesight a disability? If I lose my contact lenses, does that make me “more disabled”, until I have them back?

What if I got in an accident and, instead of staying at home in my bed for a few months, I used a wheelchair to get around. Would I be “temporarily disabled”? Is a wheelchair fundamentally different than glasses or contact lenses? How so?

The threat of trivialization is mainly a threat to a model that relies on extremes to be stable reference points.

I am trans. That means that I don’t identify with the gender I was assigned with. “So what are you going to do about it? Are you considering surgery? Or hormone replacement therapy?” No, neither. I think my body is okay the way it is and I can live with the current level of harassment I experience.

“So you are not really trans — not like this person I know who has been on hormones for two years and is now considering facial feminiziation surgery…”

Welp. Let’s stop this series of examples here and think about the more general pattern and about intentions and effects.

“How can I support you?”

What is the effect of mentally putting people on a spectrum where on one end (usually the “normal” end) there is you, and on the other end, there is some extreme that doesn’t quite match the person you are categorizing?

The effect is that it provides a plausible reason for ignoring their specific needs, which might differ from your own needs in potentially very unintuitive ways.

Your friend who is “a little bit autistic sometimes”—a misconception as discussed earlier—has different needs than you. For practical reasons, let’s ignore all these clean-cut categories for the moment. In fact, let’s ignore the concept of a “spectrum”. Let’s instead think about the person’s needs. Did you anticipate their behavior at the restaurant? Did you understand what was happening when it happened? Did your empathy evolve with the person it was intended for? If it didn’t, then “the spectrum” might be partially at fault. Forget categories, including “the spectrum”, if it prevents you from building conscious empathy. And conversely, use categories, if they help you build conscious empathy, for example by reminding you that you need to listen and learn. It doesn’t matter so much how we achieve conscious empathy, but it matters that we do achieve it.

Let’s think about that non-binary trans person you know: do you know what they get anxious about and why? When do they need you the most? How can you be supportive?

And the person you know who uses a wheelchair: does their use of a tool that enables them to be more mobile make them “a disabled person”, someone who is somehow fundamentally in a different category of people? If it feels that way, you might need to let go of the category of “disability”, at least temporarily, and focus instead on needs and support. Do they need your support? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe they have their life figured out much more than you. Maybe they need your support in ways that you can’t imagine yourself.

Conscious empathy is important, because humans are social beings that generally have a hard time surviving in isolation. Empathy can be developed by observing, listening, learning. If the neat and simple categories we use to make sense of the world act as a barrier to supporting each other, let’s drop the categories, at least for the moment.

Of course it is much easier to keep constructing hybrids and use them as an excuse for not going through that learning process. Unfortunately it is only easier for those whose support is needed, not those who depend on it.

And we can take this line of thought even one step further: it is actually common for people to be in both categories, those who need support and those who can provide it, at least sometimes, or in certain aspects. So maybe those categories, while helping me make the previous point, are themselves also ultimately a barrier. But they can still act as a general reminder that our experiences as humans are varied, and learning and listening are more important than knowing.

Sources / recommended reading

The concepts of ‘purification’ and ‘hybridization’ and how they relate to conceptions of ability and disability are based on the book Contours of Ableism: The Production of Disability and Abledness by Fiona Kumari Campbell, 2009.

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