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Empathy, Autism, and Geeks

LWN has a recent article titled “The dark side of open source conferences” which concerns sexual assault at conferences [1].

There are a significant number of comments with attempts to derail the discussion in ways that can really only be interpreted as attacks on Autistic people. The claims seem to be that the problem is not violent sexual assault at conferences, but guys on the Autism Spectrum who hit on girls when they don’t want it. Naturally no supporting evidence was made for such claims. But that doesn’t stop the discussion which has a logical end-point of excluding people like me from conferences.

The Irony

I think it’s ironic that those who are making claims about what they call “empathy disorders” have failed to be Empathic by not realising the following things:

  • Women who start a discussion about serious sexual assault probably aren’t going to be happy if someone starts talking about chat-up attempts. While unwanted chat-up attempts are unpleasant they are in a different category and mixing them seems to be diminishing the significance of violent attack.
  • Most members of a minority group (in this case women in the Free Software community) probably don’t want discussions of how to help their group diverted by discussions that attack another minority group. What looks a lot like a “divide and conquer” attack against minority groups isn’t going to be appreciated by members of either group – and probably members of other minority groups who see what’s happening aren’t going to like it.
  • There is no reason why people should require significant exposure to members of a minority group to treat them in a decent manner. The claim that we need more women at conferences so that men can get used to them and not treat them badly is ridiculous. Among the many stupid aspects of that idea is forgetting the fact that women comprise 52% of the population in first-world countries and we all deal with women every day. Women at IT conferences are not fundamentally different from women in the rest of society.
  • When most people interpret your writing in a way other than what you intended it seems to be a reasonable assumption that you failed to explain things clearly. Telling everyone who disagrees to “get therapy” is unlikely to help convey your point. Telling people to “get therapy” is particularly likely to get a bad reaction if you are discussing something that actually involves dealing with psychologists.
  • When there is an obvious resource on the Internet relating to a topic it’s a good idea to read it instead of just making stuff up. Failing to do so will be taken as an indication that you aren’t trying to be Empathic. The Wikipedia section on Autism Spectrum Disorders has a lot of useful information [2]. Please read it before making comments about Autism and Empathy.
  • Having to be told how other people feel is not inherently a sign of a lack of Empathy. Asking people how they feel because you can’t work it out is a sign of Empathy as it indicates an acknowledgement that other people have different emotions and you probably don’t understand them all. The people who know that they can’t understand other people and listen when told are probably better than average when it comes to Empathy.
  • Finally what people say about themselves and their own experiences should be taken seriously.

Some Final Points

Instead of talking about how some other people should be more Empathic it seems that a better idea would be to try and demonstrate Empathy. Set a positive example.

I did a Google search for “Empathy Disorder” and found this interesting article [3]. It’s about how Neuro-Typical people (people who aren’t on the Autism Spectrum) can learn to be more Empathic, it’s probably more relevant to the issue of Empathy in the free software community than discussions of Autism.

I think that the experience of a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum is similar to mine. It’s not that we can’t work things out it’s just that it takes a lot longer. For things that can’t be worked out in real time we have rules based on past experience. Naturally the rules include “don’t touch people” and “don’t try to chat up women at conferences“.

Here is a link to my previous post on this topic [4].

Update: I’ve clarified some of the writing and added an extra point about having to be told how others feel.

7 comments to Empathy, Autism, and Geeks

  • Russell, this is my favorite quote for today: “The claim that we need more women at conferences so that men can get used to them and not treat them badly is ridiculous.”. Very well put.

  • Good insights! Thanks for sharing!

  • Jaime

    “I think it’s ironic that those who are making claims about what they call “empathy disorders” have failed to be Empathic by not realising the following things”

    I wonder how much this is due to “psychological projection”…

  • etbe

    Lars: That bit wasn’t as well written as the rest, I should have noted that women seem to want to do the same things as men at conferences (IE learn about computer stuff, meet people who they only know by email, etc). They probably don’t go to the expense and effort of attending a conference for the opportunity to teach men things that were taught in primary school.

    Jonathan: Glad you like it.

    Jaime: Reasonable point. If the LWN discussion in question had been started by someone saying “I think I may be Autistic and I have trouble empathising with other people” then things would have been quite different.

    It’s a well known meme that people who strongly oppose Gay rights are self-repressed homosexuals. I wonder if we have something similar with some of the older and higher functioning Autistic people (ones who could survive school without getting diagnosed).

  • Pashupati

    This article makes me feel good about myself.
    Thanks.

  • Christopher Lane Hinson

    Thank you for this.

  • Pashupati

    Hi,
    # Women who start a discussion about serious sexual assault probably aren’t going to be happy if someone starts talking about chat-up attempts. While unwanted chat-up attempts are unpleasant they are in a different category and mixing them seems to be diminishing the significance of violent attack.
    # There is no reason why people should require significant exposure to members of a minority group to treat them in a decent manner. The claim that we need more women at conferences so that men can get used to them and not treat them badly is ridiculous. Among the many stupid aspects of that idea is forgetting the fact that women comprise 52% of the population in first-world countries and we all deal with women every day. Women at IT conferences are not fundamentally different from women in the rest of society.
    *a When most people interpret your writing in a way other than what you intended it seems to be a reasonable assumption that you failed to explain things clearly. Telling everyone who disagrees to “get therapy” is unlikely to help convey your point. Telling people to “get therapy” is particularly likely to get a bad reaction if you are discussing something that actually involves dealing with psychologists.
    *b Having to be told how other people feel is not inherently a sign of a lack of Empathy. Asking people how they feel because you can’t work it out is a sign of Empathy as it indicates an acknowledgement that other people have different emotions and you probably don’t understand them all. The people who know that they can’t understand other people and listen when told are probably better than average when it comes to Empathy.
    *c Finally what people say about themselves and their own experiences should be taken seriously.
    * I think that the experience of a lot of people on the Autism Spectrum is similar to mine. It’s not that we can’t work things out it’s just that it takes a lot longer. For things that can’t be worked out in real time we have rules based on past experience. Naturally the rules include “don’t touch people” and “don’t try to chat up women at conferences“.

    #Parts I just like
    *Parts that make me feel great aout myself
    For *a, *b, *c, it’s mainly because people seems to think(*a)/say(*c, *b) they think the opposite.
    Hope I make myself clear enough.