Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Autism, autistic empathy and Jean-Paul Sartre


Speech by Donna Williams  I was asked some questions by Elaine Meyer, a freelance journalist and student at Columbia’s journalism school, who was writing an article about autism as a metaphor in literature.  She explained that a literature professor at Cambridge named Andy Martin recently came out with an article comparing the writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in which he said Sartre’s writing and personality exhibited autistic tendencies and Camus’ exhibited what he considered opposite empathetic tendencies.  She said he cited Simon Baron-Cohen’s work as an influence and asked if she could ask me a few interview questions on the topic.  Here’s our interview:

Do you think autism is a useful metaphor? (In the article by Andy Martin, he says that Sartre’s alienation and even dislike of people meant he was somewhat autistic).


I think we need to distinguish autistic the condition from autistic the adjective.   Anyone can have autistic responses.  Anyone can have a relatively autistic personality.  Anyone can have an autistic phase of their life resulting from major life changes, trauma, even some kinds of sensory-perceptual, neurological or immunological accidents and many people with acquired brain injuries will experience a new phase of their life which may be relatively ‘autistic’ in the adjective sense of the word.

So Sartre’s alienation, his asocial even someone Schizoid nature, is really a personality thing and, yes, I’m happy to see that as him having a relatively autistic personality.   Certain personality disorders can have extreme detachment, lack of empathy and fixation on activities to a degree the social and human world is quite secondary with social skills and social communication being underdeveloped as a result.  For example, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Compensatory Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Sadistic Personality Disorder are all known for their lack of empathy.  Schizoid Personality Disorder (the extreme of the Solitary trait) is known for its emotional detachment and alienation.  Schizotypal Personality Disorder (the extreme of the Idiosyncratic trait of which Einstein was apparently archetypal) is known for retreat into one’s own world and inability to easily grasp any shared social ‘normality’.  Those with Paranoid Personality Disorder (the extreme of the Vigilant Trait) is known for great alienation and struggle to trust others.  The Artistic trait (called the Exhuberant trait)is known for preference for creativity and the sensory and natural worlds over the human and social world.   Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (extreme of the Concientious trait)is know for such fixation on the source of achievement that social niceties go completely by the wayside.

However that the bare minimum ‘fruit salad’ for a diagnosis of the condition of autism is more than having an ‘autistic’ personality.   Most diagnosed will also have a degree of Dyspraxia and with it have some level of sensory-perceptual disorders and reduced neurological integration making them process information in a mono-tracked manner, including struggling to hold a simultaneous processing of self and other which can look ‘autistic’.  Among those sensory-perceptual disorders may be things like social-emotional agnosia in which the person can’t process facial expression or body language, face blindness, degrees of visual and verbal agnosias (meaning blindness, meaning deafness).  And then a percentage will also have associated co-morbid psychiatric challenges of mood, anxiety or compulsive disorders or gut, immune, metabolic disorders, speech aphasia issues, Selective Mutism, Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder, any of which can contribute to developmental delay and developmental differences as well as exacerbating levels of personality disorder and increasing the degree of one’s ‘autistic’ presentation.

So when we confuse ‘autistic’ personality with autism the condition, at least half the population would be ‘autistic’ at some level.

Do you encounter people or media that use autism as a descriptive trait rather than as a condition that has been diagnosed?


Hmm, its used colloquially, sure.  And its bandied around by ‘Aspie spotters’ who like to see anyone ‘autistic like’ as having the condition.  I use autistic as an adjective because I like to find my shared humanity with all humans and it also humanises those diagnosed with autism as a condition.

If so, what do you think about it?


But I distinguish the two.  For example, I’m autistic by condition (my ‘fruit salad’ includes visual, verbal, body agnosias, a degree of Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Rapid Cycling Bipolar, OCD, Tourette’s tics, Exposure Anxiety, Agoraphobia, Social Phobia, gut, immune and metabolic disorders, a degree of Hypotonia, Semantic Pragmatic Language Disorder and I had phases of Selective Mutism into late childhood ), but I also have an autistic personality so my responses to challenges are often ‘autistic’ in nature.   You could say, where’s the ‘autism’?  Does it actually exist or are we in a foolish stage of history where we lack understanding of the interactions within many combinations of ‘fruit salad’ in those with ‘autistic’ personality packages?

Is it useful to say autism is at the opposite pole of a spectrum from empathy?


Not at all, and that’s a stereotype.  I’m involved with lots of adults on the spectrum through www.auties.org and associated dinner clubs and outings and have worked with hundreds of people on the autism spectrum.  A percentage will have the type of personalities that empathy is not in their nature.  Of the hundreds I’ve known and worked with I’d say this is perhaps 10%.

Others have big hearts and are very empathic but have social-emotional agnosia, are face blind or lack the ability to consistently process sense of self and other or are relatively meaning deaf or context blind or are challenged with mood, anxiety or compulsive disorders or simply lack speech or typed communication with which they can communicate their empathy any of which can make them appear to lack empathy when in fact they have plenty of it.   And when you have any range of these other challenges, the ways you show empathy will be different but the capacity for empathy is clearly still there.

If there are those diagnosed on the autism spectrum with Schizoid, Narcissistic or other personality disorders which reduce their ability to feel empathy, it’s really essential they stop seeing this as due to their ‘autism’ because its due to their personality and perpetuating these harmful stereotypes really does harm to the rest of the autistic population.

Donna Williams

author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter


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