Many autistic people lack cognitive empathy– the ability to accurately understand other people’s emotional states. We might have a hard time telling from someone’s face whether they’re happy or sad, predicting whether a blunt statement of “your hat is very ugly” would be read as an insult, figuring out what sort of present another person would want for Christmas, or saying something that would comfort someone going through a hard time.

In my experience, a lot of adult autistic people develop what you might call “cold” cognitive empathy, in contrast to the “hot” cognitive empathy non-autistic people usually have. Hot cognitive empathy is an intuitive sense: you look at someone and just know that they’re sad, you easily grasp that calling someone’s hat ugly is an insult, and you see a present and can easily recognize that it’s the perfect present for another person. Conversely, cold cognitive empathy is rational and deliberate. If you have cold cognitive empathy, you might have certain rules: for instance, you might pick a Christmas present by listing out all the things the person likes and what they might need, or you might comfort someone by fetching them tea and offering them a hug. You might deliberately put yourself into their shoes, imagining what you would feel like in that situation: “well, her dog just died, and I would be sad if someone I cared about died, so I bet she’s sad.” I tend to think about people’s personalities the same way I’d think about what a fictional character wants and how they’d react to things, but then I spent a lot of time writing fanfic as a teenager.

(If you’re familiar with the terminology, hot cognitive empathy corresponds to System 1, while cold cognitive empathy corresponds to System 2.)

Of course, a person can develop both hot cognitive empathy and cold cognitive empathy. But I think having severely impaired hot cognitive empathy is a spur that makes people develop their cold cognitive empathy more strongly.

I feel like cold cognitive empathy can give you a lot of insight into how society works. A person with well-developed hot cognitive empathy, when asked something like “why do people like wearing band shirts?”, says “uh, because they’re cool”. A person with well-developed cold cognitive empathy says “because they’re indirectly communicating to others that they like the band”. A person with well-developed hot cognitive empathy, when asked why one shouldn’t proposition strangers, says “it’s creepy”; a person with well-developed cold cognitive empathy says “engaging in behavior that it is generally off-limits, particularly in a sexual context, communicates to other people that you don’t care about boundaries– including more important ones like ‘don’t rape people.'”

I also think that cold cognitive empathy works better for dealing with diverse groups of people. People with high levels of hot cognitive empathy and low levels of cold cognitive empathy, in my experience, tend to fall into this failure mode where, when people don’t behave the way they predict, they assume the person is behaving the way they predict anyway. If they misread a person as being sad, then that person must secretly be sad, however much that person protests otherwise. If they think a person wants chocolate for Christmas, then that person must want chocolate, no matter how often the chocolate sits in the back of the cabinet unopened. Some people wind up having entire relationships with fictional people that bear only a passing resemblance to the actual person they believe they’re interacting with. Cold cognitive empathy, because it’s conscious and rational, is more open to deliberate correction when one discovers that it is in error.

The big problem with cold cognitive empathy is that hot cognitive empathy deals with a lot of complexities in human interaction subconsciously, where the person doesn’t have to think about them. Representing all those complexities consciously through a process of rational deliberation is really hard. Think about it like throwing a ball: your brain is doing a bunch of subconscious trigonometry to figure out what angle to throw it at, which you don’t have access to. You might not even know how to do trig. If you had to calculate it all yourself, throwing balls would take a really long time and you probably wouldn’t be any good at it.

It doesn’t help that– since most people have fairly high levels of hot cognitive empathy and don’t bother to develop cold cognitive empathy to as high a degree– a lot of explanations of why people do things are really unsatisfying. Imagine if you were talking to a hypothetical alien who had to do trig to throw balls, and you were giving advice like “just look at your target!” or “I don’t know, I just throw it.” That’s the reason that a lot of neurotypicals wind up explaining why you shouldn’t do things with such non-explanations as “that’s wrong”, “that’s creepy”, “that’s impolite”, “that’s lame” and so on. Their brains are doing really complicated game theory and psychology and such on a level that they don’t have access to.

Because most people tend not to accept unsatisfying explanations, you get the stereotypical autistic behavior of going “it’s this way because neurotypicals are STUPID and IRRATIONAL and DON’T MAKE ANY SENSE and EVERYONE SHOULD STOP.” While that’s sometimes true, it’s often simply a failure of cold cognitive empathy.