Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. How are you all? Before I get into the nitty-gritty of this week’s blog, a couple of quick chatty bits.
Firstly, on a personal front, my shoulder problem seems to be improving nicely. I saw the physio on Friday, and I’ve been given the all-clear to start gentle, light muscle work from next Friday. This made me a happy boy. However, it has been made clear to me that I will never be quite the same, and I cannot expect to get back to the level of weights training I used to enjoy years ago. I have to accept this. In my head, I’m still that lean guy with the six-pack and broad shoulders of yesteryear. But in real life, I’m an out of shape fifty-something guy who needs to start mitigating his long-term health risks.
Secondly, an issue I feel I have to mention. My home city of Sheffield, UK, hosts its famous live music festival, Tramlines, this weekend. It’s expected there will be crowds of around 40,000 attending the gigs each day. No masks are required, and there will be no social distancing enforced. Attendees have to be either double jabbed, or pass a lateral flow test, with results logged on the government website (I can’t see that getting faked). I fully expect this travesty to be a health disaster for my city. I might be wrong. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But from what we know about the Covid-19 variants, and the sudden 50% increase in infections in the city, the omens do not look good. I find myself wondering how many of those awesome, fun-loving kids are going to die as a result of this event. How many will pass the virus on to family and friends who will go on to die? None of the justifications I’ve heard for having this festival add up, for me. “We can’t stay in lockdown forever!” True, but that doesn’t mean the only alternative is holding a super-spreader event. “People have waited long enough and they deserve some fun!” True, but that doesn’t mean the only alternative is holding a super-spreader event. Etc. It boggles my mind the way people will justify things to themselves. I know someone who has spent a lot of time stressing over people being careless around covid – really getting wound up about it – and this person is attending Tramlines. I despair. Anyway, on that somewhat downer of an introduction, let’s get on with the show.
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Something I’ve found myself thinking about a lot recently is the prevalence of myths about autism, and autistic people. As you know, in recent blogs, I’ve had something to say about the myths of black and white thinking, and turn-taking in conversation. They were something of an iceberg tip, because there are so many harmful and inaccurate myths out there that it is difficult to grasp the scope of the problem. I could talk about why I think we have a situation in which those myths emerge and gain traction – and believe me, I have my ideas – but I’m going to do more research on that over-arching issue, before I blog about it. Instead, this time I want to talk about one more specific issue that I believe to be something of a myth about autistic people. I am talking about the notion that deficits in theory of mind constitute a defining characteristic of autism.
I’m going to start with a very brief definition of theory of mind (ToM) so that anyone not familiar with the issue can jump straight in. Then I’ll point out a few caveats before I explode the myth.
ToM is the name given to the ability people have to recognise that other people have their own minds, feelings, autonomy, and so on. Rather than assuming everyone else is an automaton, we assume other people are like ourselves, with their own independent thoughts and inner lives. We engage with other people on that basis, and share joint experiences with them, because we possess what the psychologists call a theory of mind.
Now we have something like a very brief, but workable, definition of ToM, I need to say this: ToM comes from the field of psychology. I am not a psychologist, so what the hell gives me the right to think I can go around shooting down well-established psychological theories? There are countless highly skilled psychologists who have written god-only-knows how many peer-reviewed papers and books on the subject. They know their stuff, right? Well, yes, of course. And also, no.
Back in ancient times, there was a belief in certain quarters that Earth lay at the centre of the universe, with the sun, moon, planets and stars orbiting it. And astronomers in those ancient times, such as Ptolemy, created mathematical models of a geocentric solar system (excuse the oxymoron) that worked. I mean, sure, there was a little mathematical, *cough* creativity, *cough* with things like epicycles, but the model made some surprisingly accurate predictions about the positions of planets, and so on. The model was, to a certain extent, internally consistent, which gave it validity. If you wanted to know where to look for mars at a certain time, your friendly neighbourhood geocentric model was on hand to help. But ultimately, it wasn’t quite accurate enough, because it was, well, wrong. And that was why it was superseded by the heliocentric model. Things have moved on, and relativity has made some interesting changes to how we see things, but, whoops, autistic digression, we’ll stop right there. My point here is that a theory can be internally consistent, and logically valid, but still be wrong (or, in logic terms, it fails to be sound). Ptolemy’s geocentric model was a work of genius, make no mistake. But it was wrong. You can guess where I’m going with this. My argument here is that something similar has happened with the notion that ToM deficits are a defining characteristic of autism. It’s wrong.
Brief curveball: I believe it is possible for some people have theory of mind deficits. Certain brain injuries can cause this, for just one example. And autistic people are not immune to brain damage any more than non-autistic people are. My argument is not that there is no such thing as ToM deficit. I’m just damned sure that ToM deficits are not a defining characteristic of autism.
But even with all that in mind, what is it that qualifies me to challenge this established theory in psychology? Well, I’m not actually going to challenge this theory on its own turf. I don’t actually need to engage with the psychology research, jargon, and authority to make my point. Ptolemy could point to his model and crow about its (limited) accuracy, but today, modern astronomy shows it to be wrong, without having to engage with the Ptolemaic model itself.
My brain works a certain way. Ideas form a certain way. I think both verbally and conceptually. I see broad strokes, big pictures, and I join dots. I am no genius, believe me. There is not an ounce of the stereotypical autistic savant in me. But there doesn’t need to be, because the point I’m going to make is so stunningly simple, it’s mindblowing that the notion of ToM deficit being a sign of autism holds any academic water at all. I realise I’m building myself up for something dramatic here, having loaded all these verbal bullets, but before I really pull the trigger, we need to talk about the language that is confuddling the issue to begin with…
People don’t always think clearly. They don’t always think things through. We often use heuristics – mental shortcuts, rules of thumb, etc – because sometimes there’s either no obvious gain to be made from thinking too hard, or because we’re just plain lazy. We accept received wisdom. We bow to arguments from authority – something that held back science for hundreds of years (I’m looking at you, Aristotle). In addition to this, we use slippery language that often affects thinking in unexpected and unintended ways. And so we have the term, theory of mind, from psychology. Hmm. Psychology… it’s got an -ology, so it must be scientific, clever, and authoritative, right? And theory of mind, well, that’s a theory, and theories are scientific right? Well, no, and many people will instantly understand that when talking about ToM we are not talking about a scientific theory. But at the same time, the connotations of the word theory, and the -ology add a kind of sly academic gravitas that will encourage people, without them even realising it, to take the concept of ToM deficits in autism seriously. Because that is the way language works; language affects everyone like this, daily. No one is immune. Except maybe me. Actually, no, not even me.
The term, theory of mind, is problematic, because it suggests, when you first come across it, that it refers to a scientific theory; a psychological explanation of the mind. But that’s not it at all, as we’ve seen from the above definition. ToM is simply a reference to how we expect other people to have minds like ours; if you believe other people have their own minds, feelings, agency and so on, you have a theory of mind. We need a new name for this concept because, in the context of psychology, it blurs with the scientific use of the term theory, when it is actually a very casual deployment of the common use of the term, in which theory basically means idea. Like, I’ve got a theory that Tramlines is going to result in unnecessary, preventable covid-related deaths.
When we decide that other people have minds, agency and individuality like our own, and we engage with them on that basis – an approach we usually develop in childhood – we are not creating a scientific theory. At best, it is a vague, unprovable hypothesis. Logically, we can’t be certain other people really do have minds of their own – Descartes knew that – but we hypothesise they do, and act on that basis, and when we do that, the psychologists say we have a theory of mind. Are we good so far? I hope so, because I haven’t even begun to make my central point yet. Stay with me.
Interlude: A brief message
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I’ve introduced the term hypothesis into this discussion deliberately. You see, although ToM is not a theory in the scientific sense, the notion that ToM is a defining characteristic of (or even indicative of) autism could be seen to be a theory. Y’know, like, a theory of theory of mind. Now, there is a difference between a hypothesis and a theory. Your hypothesis is your idea about what something is, or how something works; a potential explanation. To move that to an actual scientific theory, certain things have to happen. You have to find a way of testing your hypothesis, to see if you can prove it wrong. You have to be able to use your hypothesis to make predictions that can be verified. If you can’t prove your hypothesis wrong, and you make accurate, verifiable predictions with it, you’re on your way to a theory. That’s the scientific method. So, is there actually a scientific Theory of ToM? I’m going to stick my neck out and say at least some psychologists will say, yes there is. They might qualify that by saying psychology isn’t the same kind of thing as physics or chemistry, so their theories don’t work the same way. But still, psychologists have tried to be scientific about ToM deficits in autism, and have concocted tests, such as the infamous Sally-Anne test. In this test, a child has to watch two characters, Sally and Anne. Sally has a basket, Anne has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket, then leaves the room. While Sally is away, Anne takes the marble out of the basket and puts it into her own box. The child is then asked where Sally will look for her marble. The idea is that if the child understands Sally has a mind of her own, they will say Sally will look in the basket. But if the child thinks Sally will look in the box, then this is seen as an indicator the child lacks a fully formed ToM. While there can be different reasons for ToM deficits, failing this test is often seen as a sign of autism, and autistic people are often assumed to have ToM deficits, leading to the popular notion that ToM deficit is characteristic of autism. There are other tests in the same vein as the Sally-Anne, but they all suffer from a central problem, which is this: It could just be that the autistic child doesn’t understand the test, or the question asked. Autistic people have brains that work differently from what is considered the normal or typical, so that in itself should be a red flag in regards to over-simplistic inferences drawn from these tests. Ironically, this could mean that tests like the Sally-Anne might play a part in identifying autism in a child, but it does not logically follow that failing the Sally-Anne test is an indicator of ToM deficit. The whole issue of ToM deficits in autism owes a lot to the problematic, well-known face of autism research, Simon Baron-Cohen. He’s seen as an authority on autism, but his work and conclusions have been regularly and robustly challenged. Various researchers (the likes of Helen Tager-Flusberg, Francesca Happe, and others) who have taken account of factors such as language issues, verbal ability, and social interaction issues have strongly cast doubt on the ToM deficit inferences. But there’s more to this.
Having a ToM, by definition, involves a kind of projection. You look at the behaviour of others, and compare it with your own behaviour which you are always seeing in the context of your own thoughts and feelings. From there, you infer others have thoughts and feelings. You may be right in the broad sense, but anyone, autistic or not, can make errors when it comes to knowing the exact detail of the specific feelings currently being experienced by another person. You basically make an educated guess based on their behaviour, but that method is grossly unreliable, and many a writer of romcoms has made good money from this unreliability. Put simply, no one can read minds. And yet that is exactly what the likes of Simon Baron-Cohen were doing when they inferred a ToM deficit in autistic kids. They’ve looked at a behaviour – failing the Sally-Anne test – and inferred with almost zero logical connection that such failure indicates a ToM deficit. And then, because it has been a test by someone with an -ology, it’s been widely accepted as science.
Is that it? Is that my takedown of the ToM deficit in autism trope? A dodgy test that has already been repudiated from within its field? No. There’s more. But I want to stay here for a little while longer. Tests like the Sally-Anne may well have been widely discredited in terms of the ToM deficit in autism claim, but the discredit has not entered the public consciousness, whereas the old ToM deficit trope remains there. The average person on the street with little or no experience of autism might not use the term, theory of mind deficit, if they are asked what they autism is, but the trope that autistic people are in some way robotic, emotionless, lacking in empathy and engagement skills, is entrenched. This is important because ToM is widely considered to be related to empathy – empathy deficits being another characteristic widely ascribed to autistic people. But the lack of empathy in autism is at the very least a partial myth, and it is way more complex than many people realise (I talked about it in an old blog, here).
You only have to talk to autistic people, and listen to what they say regarding how they feel about their loved ones, to understand empathy of at least one of the various types is present. And furthermore, you can talk to autistic people about people they don’t like; the behaviour that makes them angry, and you’ll soon find in their anger that they will be questioning the motives or agenda of the offending person; something that could not happen without a theory of mind. It’s a more lateral approach than the shallowness of the Sally-Anne test and other similar tests, but it seems obvious on a basic level: If you feel empathy for another person, you must possess some ToM. And if you question the motivations of someone who has hurt you, or made you angry, or done something to make you distrust them, this is ToM by definition, surely. Now, I said earlier that the point I was going to make in this discussion today is so stunningly simple, it’s mindblowing that the notion of ToM deficit being a sign of autism holds any academic water at all. We have reached that point, although by a necessarily circuitous route: The normal daily behaviour of autistic people naturally demonstrates a working theory of mind. It just does. And this goes to prove the importance and truth of a phrase that is constantly being repeated by autistic people the world over: If you want to know about autism, speak to autistic people.
But wait, is that really it, Darren? You’ve spent all this time coming to the conclusion that autistic people don’t have ToM deficits because they act like they don’t have ToM deficits? Kind of, but there is a little more, yet. I’m going to offer a brief summary of what I’ve said so far that will neatly contextualise all this, but first, here’s a plot twist:
I said at the beginning of the blog that I am talking about the notion that deficits in theory of mind constitute a defining characteristic of autism, and I said I would explode that myth. I’ve gone on to talk, very briefly, I know, about psychologists and their approach to the subject. But I can imagine any psychologist reading this blog so far would be absolutely furious on one particular point: There will be many of them, I’m sure, who will say that it has never been claimed in psychology that ToM deficit is a defining characteristic of autism. They might say I’ve made a straw man of their conclusions. My answer to this is that they’ve missed my point. I have to underline that, while I had to at least look sideways at the psychology aspect, my real target here is public understanding of autism. There is a myth about autistic people, and it is being fed by the ToM deficit trope. Whether any given psychologist who pushed the ToM deficit trope meant that they see ToM deficit as a defining characteristic of autism is irrelevant. What is relevant is the effect on public perception. So, let’s move to a summary…
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Theory of mind is the ability to see other people as beings with their own thoughts, feelings and autonomy, and to engage with them in this way.
There is a commonly held belief that autistic people have a theory of mind deficit. In fact, theory of mind deficit is seen as a defining characteristic of autism.
This aligns with a common misconception that autistic people are robotic and lacking in emotion and empathy, particularly as empathy is seen as key to having a theory of mind.
The term, theory of mind, carries some academic gravitas that might encourage the less informed to believe the theory of mind deficit in autism trope is solid science. However, it is not really a scientific theory, and it has been roundly repudiated in the field of psychology, anyway.
But still, the misconception remains in the public consciousness, and that misconception perpetuates a harmful, dehumanising stereotype of autistic people; that we are less than fully human; that we are so self-absorbed we don’t even realise that other people are people.
If the repudiations of theory of mind deficit in autism in the field of psychology itself aren’t good enough for you, then the real antidote is stunningly simple. Speak to autistic people, interact with them, and you’ll see their theory of mind at work before your very eyes.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.