Rude and cold? Hong Kong’s cruel myths about autism go against ideal of inclusive society

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 10:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 10:04pm

Some psychologists in Hong Kong have suggested that people with autism have difficulties making friends and will tend to talk only about their interests, because they lack empathy and do not consider the feelings and thoughts of others.

This is a misstatement. The claim that autistic people lack empathy has been challenged by leading autism experts and more recent research.

To say those with autism lack empathy is not only untrue but is also misleading, as such a statement implies a person with autism does not care for the feelings of others. This could not be further from the reality.

People with autism may appear rude and cold; that is because they lack social instincts and struggle to recognise social cues, have difficulties conceptualising the thoughts of others and identify the different states of emotions.

Having difficulties imagining what others are thinking and feeling is not equivalent to a lack of empathy and to imply an absence of empathy is a terrible injustice to them.

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Such implications also increase the stigma of autism and leave people with autism vulnerable to teasing and bullying, which may lead to feelings of low self-worth and other mental health issues that are not too uncommon among autistic individuals.

It has also been suggested by some that autistic people have to learn to behave themselves in a way that is deemed acceptable by others in order to be successful at making friends, and that social skills training is required.

This ignores the values of an inclusive society, one that embraces and cultivates the understanding and appreciation of diversity and involves the collective responsibility of everyone in the community, not just autistic people alone.

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The first step towards building an inclusive society is to raise the awareness and understanding of autism, which includes dispelling the common myths about it. Generalisations such as the ones I mentioned are unfortunately raising awareness in the wrong way.

Empathy is a skill we all need. The society will benefit if we all exercise more empathy and consider the impact of our words and conduct on others.

Y. Cheng, Kennedy Town