Autism and Guilt

I’ve been doing work on a paper on the boundaries and nature of the moral community recently, and I’ve got a section in there on adults with high-functioning autism.  In trying to work out the relation between guilt, moral motivation, and moral responsibility, I’ve found I need to say something about the role of guilt in the life of the high-functioning autistic adult.  This should have been an easy empirical matter to sort out, but I’m having a lot of difficulty finding anything of value on this issue.  So I’m coming to you today, hat in hand, to see if you can help out in any way.  Do any of you know of any research on the existence (or non-existence) of complex social emotions like guilt, shame, remorse, and/or regret in adults with high-functioning autism (including Asperger’s syndrome), as well as its relation to motivation in them?  I’ve of course done the usual web searches, with little success.  I’m hoping, though, that there might be some research or discussion available in some books or unlikely sources that some of you may know about.  If so, I’d greatly appreciate your sharing it with me.

22 Replies to “Autism and Guilt

  1. I don’t know of any research, and I’m not sure what issue you’re looking at, but one thing might be worth keeping in mind. Some people wrongly think autism involves some sort muffling of emotion. I don’t think that’s accurate. I think it’s more of a decreased awareness of one’s emotions. The stronger the emotion, the more aware the person is, but it may be there nonetheless and may motivate the person in ways the person doesn’t realize.
    I have two autistic kids, and I’ve read quite a lot about the condition, even if they’re a little young still to be asking these questions about them. I myself have tested about halfway between the average male and Asperger’s, and I have a diminished emotional (speaking) vocabulary. I understand the fine-tuned words, but I’m less likely to apply them to myself. I don’t think about my emotions in as fine-tuned a way as most people do. But they’re there, and they motivate me. I’m just not aware of them with the same precision. What’s funny is that I do have a very good meta-awareness of my lack of awareness, but I haven’t made a good step from that to developing a more precise awareness of the emotions themselves. I imagine this is typical for people on the autistic spectrum who spend a lot of time understanding the condition.
    I imagine that with more extreme cases you have a seriously diminished capacity to reflect on the nature of one’s emotional state, but I don’t expect that there will be any reason to think guilt, shame, remorse, and regret will be less present in autistic people. I think it’s even observable that people with high-functioning autism and Asperger’s can be shamed. They’re often embarassed that their inability to read social signals will lead people to think they’re strange. That’s a kind of shame, anyway. There’s also tremendous resistance in adults with Asperger’s to anyone telling them there’s anything wrong with them. I think that’s a kind of shame. I have a friend with Asperger’s who was extremely guilty over a time when he seriously plagiarized, and he has many regrets. He’s particularly obsessed with it if he believes it to be a very serious wrong.
    So I suspect that these emotions, to the extent that knowledge of them motivates, might motivate autistic people less. To the extent that awareness of them is irrelevant to motivation, they would motivate just as much as in anyone else. I don’t think there’s any reason to think these emotions aren’t present. This is from direct observation of people I know and accounts I’ve read from doctors in autism books.

  2. I have just browsed this stuff to pump my thinking about the connection between empathy and moral judgment, so I’m no expert, but the papers listed below may be of interest, if you have not read them already. The first paper might be particluarly interesting to you; despite its title, it refers (in a number of places) to the autism literature. What an interesting topic!
    (1)”Brain activation associated with evaluative processes of guilt and embarrassment: an fMRI study” in NeuroImage 23 (2004): 967-74
    (2)”Beyond expectations: autism, understanding embarrassment, and the relationship with theory of mind.” in Autism (2002) Sep;6(3):299-314.

  3. Brad: thanks for the references. I’ve already got a copy of the first article you mention (the fMRI study). Although I’m a bit cowed by the technical lingo, there seems to be a bit of relevant information there. The second one I wasn’t aware of, so thanks!
    Jeremy: I appreciate the thoughtful remarks. What you’ve said is helpful, and it confirms what I’ve been able to gather from the relevant literature, viz., there is likely no diminishment of complex emotions for high-functioning autistics (albeit perhaps the emotions of those on the lower end of the spectrum may be less complex); rather, the diminishment is over the capacity to recognize and/or label the emotions in question. This then raises the question you articulate: if guilt has a motivational component, is it in virtue of its being mediated via recognition as such or is it via some more immediate noncognitive route? I suspect it’s the latter, although what may be more plausible is a kind of middle route, viz., it motivates via its representation as a “bad feeling” of some kind, a representation in cognition surely available to many autistic people. (Temple Grandin, a high-functioning autistic professor at U. of Colorado, I believe, asserts that she’s not morally motivated by guilt, but rather by a kind of intense fear of being caught if she’s contemplating doing something immoral.)

  4. David,
    Jeanette Kennett at Monash has done some work on this, and I highly recommend it.

  5. Thanks, Robert. I know of Kennett’s work; indeed, she’s my main foil in this section of my paper. She tries to distinguish the psychopath, who is assumed to be not morally responsible, from the high-functioning autistic person(HFAP), who is assumed to be morally responsible. One thought about psychopaths in the past was that they weren’t responsible insofar as they are incapable of empathy. But Kennett rightly points out that neither are HFAPs. So she tries to draw a distinction that preserves our intuitive judgments of the two by suggesting that HFAPs, while incapable of working out moral reasons by imaginative simulation of others’ mental states, can nevertheless work out moral reasons by *reasoning*, “as they would in other matters, on the basis of patient explicit enquiry, reliance on testimony and inference from past situations” (“Autism, Empathy, and Moral Agency,” p. 351). This thought leads her to offer a Kantian theory of moral agency: it is one’s disposition to duty that makes one a member of the moral community, a duty discoverable solely by reasoning, and the thought of which is capable of motivating all on its own, independently of sympathy and empathy.
    I have several problems with this approach, though, and here I’ll just mention one: psychopaths seem just as capable of reasoning their way to moral reasons as well. By all accounts in the psychological literature, psychopaths suffer no cognitive impairments, and they seem perfectly capable of grasping and applying moral reasons, of seeing that the interests of others give rise to moral (or at least to “moral”) reasons. This strongly suggests that the problem of psychopathy is *motivational*, not epistemological. In addition, what seems agreed upon in the psychological literature about psychopaths is that they lack the capacity for certain complex emotions, especially guilt, shame, and remorse. The natural thought, then, is that a crucial distinction between psychopaths and HFAPs has to do with their different emotional (and corresponding motivational) capacities. The key to making this move, then, is to be able to say something about (a) whether or not HFAPs experience these moral emotions, and (b) whether or not these emotions play a role in their moral motivation. But there is simply a dearth of literature on this issue; thus my query. From what I’ve seen (and in line with Jeremy’s comment above), there’s no reason to believe that HFAPs don’t experience complex emotions, but I was hoping for some empirical research that would make that explicit. As for (b), while empirical research would be great, there may be some philosophical maneuvers available to me as well.

  6. This really does sound like a promising topic. David, where did you find Grandin’s remarks about her experience of guilt (or lack thereof)? Is it in Thinking in Pictures?

  7. Just one question about your response to Jeanette’s views. Couldn’t it turn out that while psychopaths can reason their way to moral reasons, they have no disposition to act on those reasons. The difference then would have to be that HFAPs are so disposed. I realize this is arm-chair psychology (my favorite), but that may be why we distinguish the two cases.

  8. Justin: Her remarks were from a letter to the editor of New Scientist last year, responding to a critic. Here’s the link: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18725100.800.html. Interestingly enough, Grandin actually *denies* that HFAPs have complex emotions. (Yet she has reported elsewhere that she cried and cried when there was a flood at her university library and she thought of all those drowned books — sounds like a complex kind of grief to me….)

  9. Robert, yes, you’re right. But then (a) the distinction is still one of motivation, and not (as Kennett seems to think) one of the recognition or grasping of moral reasons, and (b) that disposition could be triggered by psychological elements other than the thought that it’s one’s duty, e.g., certain emotional states or reactions.

  10. David,
    I don’t know anything about this area, but my wife is a psychologist and she informed me that the lack of awareness of emotional states and appropriate reactions (both of oneself and others) characteristic of high-functioning autism is a phenomenon psychologists call “mind-blindness”. I wasn’t aware of the term, and I don’t know if you are. She thought it might be a good idea to look at studies focusing on that phenomenon.
    She also emphasized that there are some important differences between Aspergers and high-functioning autism. Those suffering from Aspergers, for instance, are often *much* higher-functioning. To some degree this inhibits the number of studies of Aspergers because they tend to compensate well and find positions that don’t require much social interaction. So it is not easy to know who the high functioning Asperger’s are. Anyway, for whatever it’s worth.

  11. Thanks, Mike. Yes, I was aware of the term, although I hadn’t been doing many searches on it because I was concerned less with the capacity to recognize the emotions than the capacity to experience the emotions. As for the Asperger’s syndrome cases, you’re right, and this is why it’s important to keep in mind that there is a definite spectrum involved here, and insofar as it pertains to the general thesis about membership in the moral community, membership most likely comes in degrees.

  12. Like another before me, I haven’t any research only personal experience. I think adults with Asperger’s often have issues with interpreting social cues. So, they might do something offensive, but be completely oblivious to it. I can make someone cry, and think something else must be bothering them. I know that if I’ve been made aware, told in clear, literal terms, when I’ve offended someone previously, I’m racked with guilt over it. I think I feel as guilty as anyone, and equally motivated to apologise, but I’m less aware of my guilty acts. And since I’m less aware of people in general, I’m more likely to offend by the mere absence of typical greetings, etc.
    Furthermore, if someone is blatantly cruel to me, it can take me days to register it. I’ll not react at all to the act, then days later, suddenly get that it was unkind. Minor tiffs with friends go on forever as each comment requires a lengthy sinking-in period.
    So, I think the experience of the emotion is the same as non-AS adults, but the recognition in others and expression in self is compromised.

  13. David,
    As my wife is a librarian, I feel compelled to suggest that you go to a librarian at BGSU and ask for help. Have you tried this? You might be pleasantly surprised.

  14. Thanks, Sage, that is very helpful. And it’s also suggested and hinted at throughout the literature but without anyone coming out and saying it directly.
    Scott: what’s a “librarian”?

  15. I don’t think high-functioning autistic people are incapable of empathy. It’s just much more difficult and is gotten at more indirectly than usual, sometimes with a stepwise process the person has to go through deliberately and explicitly (e.g. actively having to think about what they would feel like to have something done to them). If such a procedure does produce the right emotion, then it is empathy. It’s just not as immediate as it would be for other people.
    One further condition that might interest you is in some ways an inverse condition to autism, which interestingly seems to occur only or mostly in girls and women. I believe it’s called Williams Syndrome. Kids with this condition will have a very high emotional intelligence, can read social situations amazingly well, and will tell intricate stories when looking through picture books. They don’t develop reading skills very well, and mathematical abilities are drastically reduced.
    There’s an easy explanation of why Grandin thinks she doesn’t have complex emotions. She’s got a diminished capacity to recognize them as such, and she may not have trained herself to develop it much out of lack of interest.
    I do have an alternative analysis of the consensus on psychopathy. It may well be that what psychopaths can do is rehearse the moral reasoning they’ve heard before and will call it moral because that’s how they’ve seen the word. But maybe they’re incapable of grasping what morality is and just think of it as “whatever people tell them is wrong” with no further reality to it. I’ve heard of criminals actually talking this way in their explanations of why they do what they do. They say they know it’s wrong, and they can explain exactly how anyone else would argue that it’s wrong, but then they’ll act as if they’re moral eliminativists who think we might as well abandon the fiction (but without developing such a view explicitly). Maybe there’s evidence against this that I don’t know about, but this doesn’t necessarily conflict with the claim that there’s no intellectual deficiency in psychopaths, depending on how we arrive at moral knowledge to begin with (which there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on among philosophers).

  16. I really think that it would be unwise of you to assume to much similarity between Asperger’s syndrome and other forms of HFA.

  17. All the diagnostic criteria I’m familiar with are quite clear that the difference between Asperger’s and other forms of autism is that someone with Asperger’s has normal language except for some pragmatic delays and deficiencies. So, unless the diagnostic criteria are way off, any important ways that Asperger’s and other forms of autistic spectrum disorders will differ will have to do with language. If that can be made to do a lot of work with moral development, then it will be relevant to David’s project. Otherwise it isn’t a big difference.

  18. I don’t have any cited sources for you, but since I got HF-autism, i can give you a detailed account of the guilt issue if you would like

  19. I don’t have any cited sources for you, but since I got HF-autism, i can give you a detailed account of the guilt issue if you would like

  20. So sorry for the delay, Rannbo — I was at a conference.
    Yes, I’m extremely interested in your perspective on guilt for HF-autistic adults. If you don’t feel comfortable posting it, please feel free to e-mail me directly.

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