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Writing and Cognitive Empathy

Since completing my doctorate, I haven't had a compelling reason to read much about the psychology of autism.

When I read scholarly articles in psychology, they tend to be connected to economics or politics. You might imagine that economics and policy, so connected to rhetoric and persuasion, would delve into empathy with some depth, but most behavioral economics I read is macro in nature. Even psychology texts about business, including suggestions that traits of sociopathy are common in banking, don't discuss types of empathy in great detail.

Recently, though, a comment posted about writing fiction and autism led me search out scholarship on cognitive and affective empathy.

The research I located indicates cognitive empathy is impaired among study subjects with autism, and self-cognition is also impaired. Emotional, affective empathy is the same as or more entente than that of control subjects in some studies, too.

So here is the challenge with writing that I was trying to explain, in light of reading what few good peer-reviewed articles I located….

Dissociation of Cognitive and Emotional Empathy in Adults with Asperger Syndrome Using the Multifaceted Empathy Test (MET)
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
March 2008, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 464-473
Date: 08 Nov 2007
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-007-0486-x

Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism
Simon Baron-Cohen, et al
Published: September 12, 2007
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0000883#pone-0000883-g006

Who Cares? Revisiting Empathy in Asperger Syndrome
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
April 2007, Volume 37, Issue 4, pp 709-715
Date: 12 Aug 2006
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10803-006-0197-8

I do not understand the why, the motivations, behind some actions. Therefore, I have to study and analyze what people say and do. I try to find patterns, something that might help me solve the puzzle behind why one person attacks when insulted and another cries. What series of thoughts leads to different reactions to external events?

Like many people, I cannot understand why humans fail on massive scales, like not stopping various genocides throughout history. What were/are people thinking?

At the same time, when I think about situations, I get overwhelmed. I get angry watching movies. Recently, I watched the animated film Thunder and the House of Magic. It opens with his "owners" tossing a jingle ball from a car, tricking Thunder. Then, they drive away, leaving the kitten by the road. I stopped the movie twice.

How in the world could anyone abandon an animal? That's how my wife and I assembled our feline family. People are cruel and stupid, in my mind. But, what if people have "good" reasons for what brings me to emotional collapse? I just can't easily think "like" other people.

For a writer, this explains why I use interviews and research to compose fiction. I have to base characters and action on things that have been explained to me.

I might never get instinctively what motivates people, but that does not mean I lack empathy. It means I struggle with the cognitive aspects of inferring or (from my perspective) guessing what other people are thinking.

I still contend that my need to research and carefully study people does help my characterizations and overall writing.

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