Yes, We Autistics Do Have Theory of Mind

One of the theories of autism is that those on the spectrum do not have a Theory of Mind. However, as I have read more and more examples of the evidence that supposedly supports that view, I have to come to the conclusion that it is the neurotypicals who believe this who don’t have a proper Theory of Mind.

If you have Theory of Mind (ToM), you believe that others have a mind like yours. Please note that anyone who has ToM believe others have a mind like THEIRS. If you’re neurotypical, you believe others have a mind like your mind, and  we with ASD believe others have a mind like our mind. However, we are both wrong. We are both overgeneralizing.

One can view the human ToM as an evolving history of ToM. People believe that those in our tribe have minds, but people in other tribes do not. Those in our extended culture have minds, but others do not—or theirs is not as developed. Read some of the work by European scholars prior to the 20th century, and you will see a great deal of ink spilled on the “fact” that primitive peoples do not have minds like the more advanced Europeans. This, of course, is false. But it took a long time for people to come to realize this—and there are those who still do not believe it.

More recently, we have come to understand that animals have minds as well, even if they are not as complex—or at least the same—as human minds. We moved from treating animals as automata to treating them as being vaguely aware to treating them as having varying kinds of consciousness.

It seems that with the theory that ASD is a problem with having ToM we have another version of the above. The problem is that it’s working both ways. Since people with ASD are treating everyone as though they have the same kinds of minds as them, and neurotypicals don’t recognize themselves in the way they are being treated by those with ASD, the theory (developed by neurotypicals studying ASD) that ASD is a ToM deficit emerges. The problem is that each side is looking at the other and thinking, “What’s wrong with them?” The problem is that both are wrong to think that way.

What I am suggesting, then, is that we have two different groups—neurotypicals and autistics (including Asperger’s)—with two different kinds of minds, each theorizing everyone has the same kind of mind they have, and coming into conflict. Many of the comments made by autistics that are interpreted by neurotypicals as rude or arrogant are perfectly well understood for exactly what they are by fellow autistics. In the same way, things that seem bizarre or a waste of time to autistics (like small talk) are perfectly well understood by neurotypicals for what they are by other neurotypicals.

Given that neurotypicals far outnumber autistics, it is the latter who have had to do most of the adjusting. However, as the number of people recognized as being autistic seems to be rising, the adjustments might soon have to be more mutual. And if neurotypicals don’t want to miss out on all of the benefits that come with hiring autistics, the adjustments will have to become more mutual. Those neuroptypicals who figure this out will be the ones profiting most.

3 thoughts on “Yes, We Autistics Do Have Theory of Mind

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