An Interesting Theory: Do People with Autism Have TOO MUCH Empathy?
As it is right now, we define autism as a deficit-type of condition: while people with it often have their own unique strengths, the disorder itself is defined by things like social and communication deficits. It’s all very negative; people with autism are too often defined by the areas in which they are lacking.
But here’s an interesting question: what if the deficit model of autism were wrong? What if people on the spectrum experience too much rather than too little?
That’s essentially what the Intense World Theory of autism gets at.
What is the Intense World Theory?
The Intense World Theory was devised by the husband and wife neuroscientist team, Henry and Kamila Markram. They described that creating the theory was a bottom-up process—in other words, they first did the research and then came to their conclusions. While the theory may not explain every single case of autism, it attempts to be a unifying, overarching theory of the disorder.
The theory proposes that people with autism feel too much, sense too much, and perceive too much. And for that reason, they are fearful, anxious, and overwhelmed by their surroundings.
To escape from the sensory and emotional experiences that threaten to drown them, they withdraw into their own little world—the reason they’re often perceived as being “cold.” Routine, patterns, and repetitive behaviors offer a source of comfort and order in an otherwise chaotic world.
Because people with autism close themselves off to the world as a form of self-protection, they shut out communication and other people, which causes them to miss vital communicational milestones and fail to learn social cues.
The science of the theory is based around local neural microcircuits, which are “the smallest ecosystem of neurons that can support each other to carry out functions,” according to an interview with the Markrams.
Our brains are equipped with millions of these microcircuits, but those in people with autism are highly reactive, hyper-connected, and highly plastic little units—which basically means they excel at processing information, learning quickly, and remembering very deeply. So basically, these neural microcircuits are hyper-functional in people with autism, according to the theory. Too functional.
What Evidence Is There to Support It?
The evidence for this theory comes from a study of rats. The rats had been exposed to a chemical called valproic acid, or VPA, a medication for epilepsy and bipolar disorder that, when taken during pregnancy, has been linked to birth defects and autism development. The Markrams, as well as their student, Tania Rinaldi Barkat, found that the rats’ neuronal networks were in overdrive across a couple different brain regions, including the amygdala—the part of the brain involved with emotions, including fear responses. This research study was what started it all and caused the Markrams to form their theory in the first place.
And while it’s just a theory at this point, many people on the autism spectrum have said it was spot-on in explaining how they experience the world around them.
Other research also supports it. For example, one 2013 study found that children with autism have brains that, at a resting state, produce an average of 42 percent more information than those without it. Another study, supervised by Kamila Markram, also found that VPA rats were better able to handle stimuli when they were in a predictable, structured environment.
Those are a few examples, but if you’d like more and you’re not intimidated by scientific, peer-reviewed research articles, feel free to check out this journal article that explains and reviews the Intense World Theory. The paper mentions studies that support as well as contradict the theory.
Additionally, other aspects of human psychology agree with it—for example, we already know that a too-high empathetic reaction will cause people to pull away from a situation. For example, seeing a horrid car accident, seeing other people in severe pain, or even watching a movie with a torture scene can cause many people to withdraw—to look away, cover their eyes, or escape. So it also makes sense that an overabundance of empathy would cause people on the spectrum to withdraw, too.
What Are the Arguments Against It?
The theory has been met with criticism, however. For one thing, it’s not yet a proven theory. We need more research to see if the theory continues to stand tall.
Much of the research we already have on the theory is also based on rats rather than humans, too. Rats are not necessarily a bad test subject, as their brains are very similar to human brains…but still, they’re rats, not humans. That, in addition to the fact that not all cases of autism are caused by VPA, makes the conclusions drawn from the rat studies a sizable—but not impossible—leap.
On a separate yet related note, it is good to be careful of theories like this and not stake too much hope in them. This theory presents a much more positive side of autism—that people with it have too much of some very good things, giving just about all of them some sort of savant potential. It’s tempting to get sucked into this, but as Ari Ne’eman—the president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network—says, we need to remember that people with autism have innate value and worth in their own right, regardless of abilities. They are not worth more if the theory is correct. They are not worth less if the theory is incorrect. They have amazing value and worth simply because they are human beings—and that will never change.
This theory, if it proves to be true, could have major implications for how we treat autism, especially in the youngest children. But it is vital to stress that more research will need to be done before we start doing anything differently; again, this theory has not been proven. (So please—don’t do anything differently until we know more!)
For now, just take this theory as food for thought, or as a new and interesting perspective you may not have heard of or considered before. But remember—regardless of whether or not it is true, people on the spectrum are amazing. No theory will ever change that fact.