Do I Lack Theory of Mind?

Non-autistics confuse me. They say “don’t bother” when they mean “I want a grand gesture.” They say “I don’t mind” instead of “yes” or “no.” They want you to agree with them, but then they’ll stop and get mad if you agree too much. And they’ll get angry at you in secret and then yell at you all of a sudden when you had no clue what was going on.

An Autism Professional with Many Framed Papers On The Wall might read that paragraph and say that no actually, the problem is me, because I lack something called “theory of mind.”

Do I? Do I really? (Or is it just you neurotypicals who don’t make sense?)

First let’s define theory of mind.

While I am a giant nerd, I intend to keep my blog beginner-friendly. So this is for everyone who is scratching their heads and saying “What?”

Theory of mind is essentially the ability to recognize that other people are thinking their own thoughts in their heads. It means realizing that these thoughts may be different from your thoughts, and also that these thoughts could be incorrect if the person has limited information.

Here are some examples in which people use theory of mind:

  • Amil is buying a candle. Amil doesn’t care about smells, but he remembers that his roommate Bob likes the smell of cinnamon. So he buys a cinnamon candle. Amil thinks Bob will be pleased.
  • Charlotte sees her wife Danni carrying a heavy box. Danni is muttering and trying to open the bedroom door using her elbow. Charlotte thinks that Danni must be having a hard time. She walks over and opens the door for Danni, and Danni smiles at her. Charlotte hopes that this helped Danni feel a little less frustrated.

And here’s an example in which someone doesn’t use theory of mind:

  • Emmett wants whipped cream on his pie. He goes to the kitchen and takes out the container of whipped cream. But when he looks inside, he realizes his daddy put leftovers inside. So he puts the container back in the fridge. Then, Emmett’s big sister Fatima comes and gets some pie too. She walks to the fridge. Emmett doesn’t understand. There is no whipped cream in the fridge, so what is she doing?

Essentially, theory of mind involves reasoning that…

  • I have thoughts, desires and feelings.
  • Other people have thoughts, desires and feelings too. Their thoughts, desires and feelings are different from mine.
  • I can make choices (like buying a certain candle or opening a door) based on knowing what other people think and feel.

Babies are born with no theory of mind. It’s something that develops as children grow older.

Theory of mind in autism has been misunderstood for a long time.

Broad claims

According to one of Simon Baron-Cohen’s pet theories based on a study of 20 autistic kids, autistic people lack theory of mind. Supposedly we do not understand that other people have thoughts and feelings different than our own.

This has been used to dehumanize and dismiss autistic people:

You have a deficit in understanding. You contradict the people in charge because you are not empathetic enough to understand them. You dislike it when people talk negatively about you because you cannot understand what a burden you are.

Or as Simon Baron-Cohen put it:

A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human. …The theory of mind difficulties seem to be universal among such [autistic] individuals.

Simon Baron-Cohen in his book Mindblindness

Hmm. So theory of mind makes people human, and autistics apparently don’t have it, so we’re not human I guess. (Shh, don’t tell him that chimpanzees and dogs show signs of theory of mind.)

What about literal thinking, stress, and other factors that could influence autistics’ understanding of a situation, especially in an unfamiliar testing environment? What about the fact that when you give autistic kids a reason to get the correct answer on a theory of mind test, the majority of them get it right? What about the fact that some autistics experience hyperempathy?

Developing theory of mind might be delayed in some autistic people, but that doesn’t mean it never exists.

I think that Simon Baron-Cohen thought that I can’t think like a human, and I think Simon Baron-Cohen has thought multiple poop ideas, and I think that other autistic people think that I am correct in thinking that Simon Baron-Cohen thinks things that are incorrect (not to mention incredibly rude).

Uh-oh. I better stop saying stuff like this, or they’ll come take my autism license away.

The double empathy problem

Recently, researchers have begun to wonder if maybe not all the problems that autistic people face are our own fault. Maybe, just maybe, the problems aren’t all inside our brains, but also outside in the world.

And the research shows:

Apparently we aren’t the only ones who are “mind blind” and “lacking empathy.” Perhaps, instead of blaming autistics for not understanding, we could more accurately say that autistics and non-autistics struggle to relate to each other.

Let’s move beyond the myths.

While some autistic people are late to develop theory of mind, that’s hardly universal. Much of our difficulties could be attributed to the natural disconnect between autistic and non-autistic people.

We have to work harder to understand people when they are different from us. That fact is universal regardless of autism. Instead of claiming that the fault lies with the minority, we can acknowledge that it takes two to bridge a gap.

We can understand each other. We just need to mutually listen, show respect, and make it clear that we care. We need to repeatedly choose to make an effort.

I’m willing to do it. I’ve been doing it for years.

What about you?

7 thoughts on “Do I Lack Theory of Mind?

  1. There’s a concept related to ToM that I really like: “Intuition of Mind” (IoM). Like, I know that other people have thoughts and all that jazz. And I can do an okay job at figuring out what people want or think. But none of that comes intuitively. It’s like trying to understand a language you’re only sort of okay at. Sure, I can understand French, but it takes a lot of effort trying to figure out what things exactly mean, and I don’t have the same “feel” for the exact connotations of a certain phrase that a native speaker might have.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Intuition of mind.” I like that.

      I feel like autistics have “intuition of mind” with other autistics, and non-autistics have “intuition of mind” with each other. But when two people of different neurotypes meet, it’s not there, and so it’s easy to misunderstand each other. We’re just naturally different from each other, so we both have to work harder at it.

      When I first met other autistic people in an autism-related setting, I remember being so excited because these people made so much sense. In a life filled with non-autistics, I hadn’t really had that before. I suppose it is something that non-autistics take for granted.

      If you assume that most people’s brains work similarly to yours, and you’re non-autistic, then you’re likely to assume correctly. If you’re autistic, then you quickly realize it doesn’t work that way, so you try to adapt and study to make up for it. And then when you meet other autistics, you’re like WHOA.

      If you’re comfortable saying so, are you autistic too, or just otherwise neurodivergent?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m autistic.
        I’ve only ever talked to autistic people online – I’ve never had the pleasure of interacting with other autistic people IRL*, so I’ve never really experienced that WHOA moment you speak of.

        But what you say makes sense – that people tend to have better IoM with people who have a similar neurotype.

        *not that I know of, at least

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I hope you find the opportunity to meet autistics in person sometime. It was really exciting for me. I had the chance at a club at my school, and also at the yearly wikiHow meetups. It’s so much fun to talk to someone who thinks like you. Neurotypicals take it for granted.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. LunaRose:

    Love your commitment to keeping the blog beginner-friendly.

    I also have had reason to explain theory of mind and other cognitivist aspects to behaviourists and allied health professionals who worked in education technology.

    I wondered if an autistic character in a creative non-fiction book possibly had a theory of mind because there were gaps in her behaviour.

    Sadly – a lot of autistic people are acknowledged to have theory of mind only when they manipulate someone’s thoughts and feelings more or less successfully.

    This is not comfortable; it’s not good for ethics; it doesn’t encourage people to use theory of mind more and more.

    When you said –

    “What about the fact that when you give autistic kids a reason to get the correct answer on a theory of mind test, the majority of them get it right?”

    I had not really seen that study – the proposition does make sense.

    It may have seemed like cheating or hacking – the latter Francesca G E Happe [contemporary of Baron-Cohen] examined.

    I thought it was a reasonable accommodation to autistic cognitive styles and can be adapted and modified.

    And we also talk about mirror neurons where people’s thoughts and feelings are relatively the same and transferred.

    Thank you again for discussing the recent research and the double or multiple empathy problem in particular.

    I think theory of mind is like a skateboard jump or a wedge.

    As you have said here:

    We have to work harder to understand people when they are different from us. That fact is universal regardless of autism. Instead of claiming that the fault lies with the minority, we can acknowledge that it takes two to bridge a gap.

    We can understand each other. We just need to mutually listen, show respect, and make it clear that we care. We need to repeatedly choose to make an effort.

    I’m willing to do it. I’ve been doing it for years.

    Yes. We can start with the ways we think about minorities, particularly those whose ways make us uncomfortable or interrupt or disrupt us.

    And listen; respect and clarify.

    It seems people find clarifying the hardest when it comes to fine detail and things which are semi- or unconscious.

    Someone on a message board who wrote lots of wonderful book reviews gradually came to hold people accountable when it came to dropped contexts [an Ayn Rand concept which is good elsewhere in philosophy and the Internet].

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I think that theory of mind is often misunderstood.

      I feel like some non-autistics have focused too much on the pathology paradigm to understand autism. When we don’t understand them, it’s because we “lack theory of mind” or “lack empathy.” When they don’t understand us, it’s because we are “mysterious,” “puzzling,” or “bizarre.”

      In reality, we’re just different, and we both need to put in more effort to understanding each other. Neither brain type is wrong. Both groups just need to remember that we can’t intuitively understand each other, since our brains work differently, and then we can listen and clarify as needed.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It is interesting to hear others’ perspectives. 🙂

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s