Autism, figurative language, empathy, and “autistic culture”

(Cross-posted at

This post is a sequel to my September 7th post on an article by Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit entitled “Who’s Missing the Point? A Commentary on Claims that Autistic Persons Have a Specific Deficit in Figurative Language.” This post is also the latest installment in my series on a set of FC-friendly articles by Morton Gernsbacher.

As discussed in my previous post, the first part of Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit’s paper attempts to argue (1) that autism does not involve deficits in socio-communicative uses of language and (2) that difficulties with figurative language are caused only by linguistic deficits. As I noted earlier, however, difficulties with figurative language also stem from autism-related deficits in joint attention, in social inferencing, in using broader context in text inferencing, and in socially learned worldly background knowledge.

MissLunaRose12, Wikimedia Commons

In the second part of their paper, Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit turn to the claim that autistic individuals lack empathy. To some extent, this claim is a strawman characterization of what researchers have actually said: autism experts have long acknowledged that basic empathy is often intact in autism. What’s challenging for autistic individuals, rather, is higher-level empathy: working out, for example, how to respond appropriately when someone is upset.

One instrument that purports to measure this sort of empathy is Baron-Cohen’s Empathy Quotient test. Referencing some of the survey questions on that test, Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit characterize the alleged higher-level empathy deficits in autism as merely reflecting the challenges of figuring out what to do in a broader culture that is dominated by a non-autistic majority. As they put it:

When a member of any other minority agrees that it’s sometimes “hard to know what to do in a social situation” populated by members of a majority group; that he’s not always “good at predicting” what members of the majority group will do; that social situations with members of a majority group can be “confusing;” and that it’s not always “easy [to] work out” what a member of the majority group might want to talk about, we interpret those statements as honest reflections of the difficulty a minority member experiences when interacting with members of the majority. We don’t interpret those statements as indicating that the person lacks empathy.

The problem with this take, however, is that it assumes that there is a contrasting minority culture to which autistic individuals belong and in which they have no trouble knowing how to behave or predicting one another’s behavior. Some autism researchers, notably Damian Milton, known for his Double Empathy construct, have made precisely this argument. However, to the extent to which the argument holds, it appears to hold mainly for high-functioning autistic individuals who share common interests. Unlike, say, with Deaf culture, there is no evidence of a general autism subculture with its own ways of interacting. There is no evidence, in other words, of an autistic subculture that

(1)   includes individuals across the entire spectrum

(2)   has its own social conventions and rules for interaction, and

(3)   shows autistics across the spectrum responding more appropriately and empathetically to one another’s behaviors and emotions than they do to those of neurotypicals.

Of course, some have tried to argue that autistic individuals, like Deaf people via sign language, form a “tribe” of sorts, or at least a group of “tribes.” But this notion is challenged by the existence of profoundly autistic individuals who mostly have minimal independent communication skills. The notion that such individuals nonetheless fit into a broader “autistic culture” depends, in part, on the notion that all (or most) minimally-speaking autistics can communicate their own thoughts through one linguistic medium or another—if not by signing or typing independently, then by typing via one or another form of facilitated communication.

Consider, for example, FC-promoter Vikram Jaswal, He has involved himself with a group of minimally-speaking autistic adults who he claims call themselves…“The Tribe.” Besides using them in his highly problematic FC-promoting eye-tracking study, Jaswal also has used them in a year-long partnership with students at the University of Virginia—in part to break down tribal barriers between autistics and non-autistics. Accordingly, Jaswal’s students, by spending time with this group and by hearing their typed output read out loud to them by facilitators like Elizabeth Vosseller, “learn” that autistic individuals don’t “display interest in a neurotypical way”—e.g. by displaying “neurotypical” behaviors like eye contact. (To those who’ve heard that, around the world, different cultures use different patterns of eye contact, this presumably has some ring of truth—even though probably none of them can cite a single bona fide culture that uses hardly any eye contact at all).

Even if you accept all this on faith, however, there’s no evidence that Jaswal’s Tribe spends much time socializing with higher functioning autistic individuals—or that it does so any more willingly and easily than with the (presumably mostly non-autistic) University of Virginia students to whom Jaswal assigned them.

Where higher functioning autistics are concerned, returning now to Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit and figurative language, we do find one on-target observation: the creativity of some of the metaphors devised by the more verbally articulate denizens of the autism spectrum. This skill has been observed as far back as Kanner (1946), and yours truly has a paper about it as well (Beals, 2011). It is certainly the case that different ways of seeing the world, along with less tuning in and less conforming to conventional linguistic patterns, can open up all sorts of possibilities for verbal creativity.

Gernsbacher and Pripas-Kapit conclude on another reasonable note: an argument against the existence of dedicated “Theory of Mind” regions of the brain—regions that would presumably look different in autistic vs. non-autistic people. Generally, when researchers have tried to argue for dedicated brain regions for complex cognitive processes, they haven’t gotten very far.


Beals, Katharine, 2011. Conventionalization in Indirect Speech Acts: Evidence from Autism. In Pragmatics and Autolexical Grammar: in Honor of Jerry Sadock. Benjamins.

Gernsbacher, M. A., & Pripas-Kapit, S. R. (2012). Who’s Missing the Point? A Commentary on Claims that Autistic Persons Have a Specific Deficit in Figurative Language Comprehension. Metaphor and symbol27(1), 93–105.

Kanner, L. (1946). Irrelevant and metaphorical language in early infantile autism. The American journal of psychiatry103(2), 242–246.

One thought on “Autism, figurative language, empathy, and “autistic culture”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s