David Brooks recently wrote an article titled, “The Limits of Empathy,” where he pointed out the increasing interest in the subject of empathy.
We are surrounded by people trying to make the world a better place. Peace activists bring enemies together so they can get to know one another and feel each other’s pain. School leaders try to attract a diverse set of students so each can understand what it’s like to walk in the others’ shoes. Religious and community groups try to cultivate empathy.
He made the observation that empathy has become all the rage, begun trending, and seems to be the idea of the moment.
As Steven Pinker writes in his mind-altering new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” There are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.”
Then he points out an area of concern about empathy.
The problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action. Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action.
His concern leads to my question. Does the empathy people might feel toward those with Autism or other disabilities lead to real and viable action, the kind that improves their quality of life?
My wife and I have received incredible support helping our children with special needs, but this seems the exception more than the rule. I think people are beginning to have some level of empathy for those with disabilities, but are experiencing difficulty turning it into action. This is exactly what Mr. Brooks is suggesting about human nature, that we can have empathy, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to action.
Empathy orients you toward moral action, but it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. You may feel a pang for the homeless guy on the other side of the street, but the odds are that you are not going to cross the street to give him a dollar.
Turning empathy toward people with disabilities into action is as urgent an issue in America as any, but very few are talking about it, or seeing the depth of the challenge.
America Is Not Ready For Adults With Autism
Inclusion of children and adults with disabilities is one of the most important issues of the 21st century. One reason for this is the proliferation of Autism, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report as being 1 in 68 children as of March 2014. A Washington Post 2015 article reported a jump to 1 in 45. The most underrated observation about these numbers is we are on the cusp of an explosion in the number of adults with Autism (Adult, Autistic, and Ignored).
This country is not ready for an exponential increase in the number of people with Autism, nor is the rest of the world. Why? The truest and simplest answer is we have no idea how to define or implement inclusion. Socially, even if someone with Autism is a top rated software engineer, we still don’t know how to include them.
Good Feelings Are Not Policy and Attitude Changes
As I have already mentioned, empathy is an essential concept and character trait for the success of inclusion, and we are seeing a great deal more in our society. For instance, the television show Parenthood included a character with Autism named Max, who answered questions, warmed hearts, and made Autism understandable to the average person (How Parenthood Broke Down The Autism Awareness Barrier).
While the empathy we are seeing toward those with Autism onscreen and in our daily life has increased, my question remains, how much of this empathy is becoming action? This is not a criticism as much as an observation about the important work ahead.
We cannot mistake good feelings for policy and attitude changes. For instance, how rapidly are public schools embracing inclusion, especially inclusion where those with disabilities are embraced by their school community? How much effort is being made to educate typical families and educators, so we can create inclusive cultures in schools? What about government policies to ease the financial strain on families with disabilities, make public facilities more inclusive friendly (similar to sensory friendly movies), and move beyond basic physical access to emotional inclusion (The Five Levels of Inclusion)?
I wonder when the empathy will become action, the kind of action that comprehensively improves the quality of life for everyone with disabilities. This is the important work ahead, and we must begin before we experience the inevitable explosion of adults with Autism.