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.
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.
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
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 hyper–empathy?
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:
- Non-autistics are “mind blind” when it comes to autistic people.
- Non-autistics judge autistics more harshly just with a glance at a face.
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?