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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
Age: 65
Gender: Male
Posts: 30,375
Location: Long Island, New York

22 Jul 2022, 9:10 am

Nancy Doyle for Forbes
I am the Founder of Genius Within, a company specializing in neurodiversity and disability inclusion at work. We deliver coaching, training, assessment and universal design audits as well as systemic inclusion for whole company inclusion programs. I am also a Research Fellow, exploring the impact of neurodiversity inclusion on workplace productivity and performance. I developed the international docu-series 'The Employables / Employable Me', focusing on the journey of people with autism and Tourettes into employment, featuring my pioneering approach to positive assessment.

Historically, Autism has been associated with lower levels of empathy – there was an assumption that Autistic people were less able to determine what others were thinking and therefore less responsive to their needs, in daily interactions. This is known as “cognitive empathy,” and it is distinct from “affective empathy,” which is the extent to which one can emotionally relate and respond to another person's emotions. “Theory of Mind” includes these two types of empathy. Theory of Mind (ToM) represents a critical point in child development, wherein an individual realizes that their internal worlds are not the same as those around them, that individuals are distinct, and having their own experiences as “I.” Diagnoses of Autism have previously relied on observations that a person lacks ToM and that this is a defining characteristic.

Since the advent of Autism online advocacy and the neurodiversity movement, Autistic people have increasing challenged ToM assumptions. Many autistic people report being sensory and emotionally hypersensitive, experiencing deep cognitive and affective empathy with those around them and the world at large. Critically, however, they may lack the ability to communicate their experience and therefore may appear unresponsive or disengaged. Many autistic people experience “Alexithymia” which means that they can’t identify the right words to communicate emotions. So ToM, which is assessed by clinical observation and self-report, may not be an accurate measure of internal experience. This very assumption causes many Autistic people to be stereotyped and discriminated against, as people assume they don’t care rather than assuming they are finding it difficult to communicate their caring.

Dr Damian Milton observed that while Autistic people may appear to lack empathy for non-autistic concerns, indeed non-autistic people lack empathy for Autistic concerns. He called this the “double empathy problem”. Milton’s critique has gone on to support rising awareness of how much Autistic people have to “mask” their true communication styles to reduce stigma and fit in at work. Autistic community activist Whitney Iles of Project 507 points out that this can result in “double or triple masking” when Autistic people are also female, people of color, from LGBTQ+ communities, in a different class or age bracket, which can further compromise inclusion and belonging.

While all this research has been going on, other studies have found that Autistic people can display highly altruistic traits. Critically, Autistic people are more likely to display altruism when they aren’t being observed – i.e. they are less hypocritical. So where am I going with all this? Here’s the point: The evidence that Autistic people are less empathetic is shaky. The evidence that Autistic people are less dependent on passing opinion and more likely to stick to their values is developing. These traits are useful in a strong, diverse leadership team.

Magnus Hedemark is an openly Autistic Leader who has worked in a variety of companies, both start ups and large corporates. He speaks frankly about his experiences of empathy and altruism for his staff and work.

“What motivates me is finding, exploring, and nurturing hidden potential. Both in myself and in others. And, taken in meta, the hidden potential of groups of people. It's probably fair to say that I was always curious about a lot of things. But this took a bit more direction when I found out late in life that I am Autistic. Now a lot of the direction is figuring out how to be a better human being, and to help others to do the same.

At work I've become a bit of an organization "fixer". That is to say, I'm drawn to dysfunction. I roll up my sleeves, so to speak, and start cleaning up the dysfunctional bits so they can run more effectively. Seeing dejected, disengaged people find their spark again brings me a lot of joy.”

With every minority neurotype, there comes strengths, values, ways to be in the world that add value to our communities and families. The overriding message to refrain from making assumptions when interacting with disabled people, give us the benefit of the doubt and amplify our strengths. Disabled people are a fact. We are, and have always been, part of human communities and progress.

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman