An Empathic Debunking of the Theory Of Mind

Simon Baron-Cohen, the man who has single-handedly done more damage to the perception of Autistics than any other human being (though there are arguably a number of people vying for that title), depresses me.

I need to say that before continuing.

Simon Baron-Cohen developed the “Theory of Mind” based on the results from the now famous “Sally-Anne” test.  The Sally-Anne test, where the child is shown two dolls, is an example of dubious “science.”  Sally has a basket in front of her, while Anne has a box.  Sally, presumably made to move by an adult, which further complicates the test, puts a marble into her basket and leaves the room.  While she is gone, Anne takes the marble from Sally’s basket and places it in the box.  When Sally returns, the child is asked, “Where will Sally look for the marble?”  Only 20% of the Autistic children were able to correctly answer the question – Sally will look in her basket.

Emma, typically, when asked what one of her doll’s name is, will reply, “Doll” or “girl.”  This is just one example of Emma’s literal mind at work.  She is not wrong, her doll is a doll and yes, she is a girl.  To take away any other conclusion from her answer would be ridiculous.

Yet, from this “test” Simon Baron-Cohen concluded, “that the core problem in autism is the inability to think about other peoples, or one’s own thoughts.”

Except that his test did not take into consideration the level of anxiety, stress or mood of the Autistic participants at the time of testing.  Nor did it take into account the language issues, pronoun challenges or literal thinking many Autists have, which the test inevitably presented.  In addition Simon Baron-Cohen based his theory, which is taken by many as proven fact, on assumptions that the Autistic participants understood the question.  He then set about publicizing his theory, which inadvertently or not, is used by many in the neuromajority to abuse and mistreat the very people whom he categorizes as lacking empathy.  Does anyone else see a problem here?

When Emma was diagnosed I came upon the Theory of Mind paper early on in my research.  I remember thinking that this explained why, when any of us were upset, Emma seemed oblivious.  But as I continued along the road of educating myself, coupled with observing my daughter, I began to question his theory.  I read about Autistics who avoided looking in people’s eyes because it was too intense.  One Autist described it as akin to seeing into a person’s soul.  Other’s talked about how they could sense immediately upon entering a room, the various occupants emotional state and became so overwhelmed they would seek refuge in a corner, try to leave or would stim as a way to counter the intensity of what they were experiencing.

There are times when Emma will, with outstretched arm, put her hand out in front of her face like a shield.  Often it is done, I believe, as a response to the intensity of feelings, either hers or others or both, or as Jessy Park, Clara Claiborne Park’s daughter was quoted as saying, “It’s too good.”   Landon Bryce over on his terrific blog, thAutcast has a wonderful video of an Autistic artist, Tina, who talks about how she trained herself to look into people’s eyes because she paints portraits.  It is a beautiful video, as is she.

What struck me, after reading half a dozen articles and interviews by and with Simon Baron-Cohen, is the damage he is doing.  His most recent book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, (which I am not providing a link for on purpose) where he includes Autistics along with psychopaths and borderline personality disorder as examples of groups who lack empathy will further the suffering of Autistics.  For a man who claims Autists lack empathy, he is bizarrely unaware of his own lack of empathy.

For those who would like to read an opposing theory and one that seems much more in keeping with what I see demonstrated by not only my daughter, but the many Autistics I have had the honor of getting to know, read this interview with Henry Markram.

30 responses to “An Empathic Debunking of the Theory Of Mind

  1. Bravo! I hope this goes super viral in the autism community — this is a message that really needs to be heard!

    • I just updated the post as I’d left out a couple of key points. The Sally Anne test is just one of many “tests” he used to bolster his claims. I am incredulous that his theory is still being tossed around as though it were fact. Ugh.

  2. I have to admit to not reading too many of these academic / medical theories. My Son is who he is. But it does seem to me that suggesting it is a lack of empathy is just a cop out and a way of ‘blaming’ the autistic person rather than accepting difference and, that as members of society and community, that we all have a responsibility to acomodate and value that difference.

  3. Violet, you’re probably better off as so many of them are ridiculous. (I was just reading your post about a guide dog being delayed yet again! How awful. I know of a couple of people who have guide dogs for a variety of reasons and they all LOVE them, cannot believe they went for so long without, etc) I’m hoping D. gets one soon.

  4. The way he measures empathy I do indeed score low so despite having held a job for 24 years which requires a fair bit of empathy. I sometimes feel like I actually have too much empathy and many of the autistic people I know in real life and online seem to suffer more from caring too much than too little.

    That lumping is in with psychopaths and BPD will do damage is a given. So much in the history of autism has been damaging though that it really remains to be seen whether these latest popular theories will be the most damaging. Certainly many of the earlier ones were pretty hurtful all around.

    At Friday night services last week for reasons I don’t fully understand we were in place of our usual things given the exercise of lighting another person’s inner candle. The way we were instructed to do this was by eye contact. I was already struggling with the amount of change in that particular service. The rabbi immediately came over and put his head against mine telling me it was okay etc… but nevertheless there seemed to be some expectation I do this thing. I couldn’t. I was already feeling utterly miserable but yet I was also aware of how uncomfortable my inability to do it might make my prospective partner. Were Cohen right I shouldn’t have known that. I wound up in tears because of all the references to the link between soul and eyes and wound up feeling broken which isn’t usual for me at this stage of my life. Again I was accutely aware of the concern this stirred around me but I couldn’t help it.

    Someone should have explained a long time ago to Dr double barrel last name and all his kin that just because something isn’t expressed the way it is in the neurotypical population it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist for the person with autism.

    • There is so much in your comment that I will have to re-reread. I hate that just because Emma cannot verbalize what she is thinking and feeling that the assumption is that she isn’t thinking or feeling anything at all. Along those lines because the Austistic children didn’t respond the way a neuro- typical child would, (as well as the Down’s children) the conclusion is faulty.
      Your story about being told to look the other person in the eye during services was powerful. This idea that if you just tried harder you could, as if there’s a choice that’s being made, this is what I find infuriating. Thanks so much for sharing this. Really appreciate it.

    • As I understand it, Autistic people lack cognitive empathy but still feel compassion, whereas people with major personality disorders are the exact opposite. Also, as far as I can tell, people with BPD lack self-control, not empathy.

  5. Wonderful entry Ariane! I find Emma’s “hand up” interesting as Brett does something similar. He puts his face in to his hands. He is usually in a very good mood when he does this and smiling. I think too, that it is too much happy! :O) I just watched one of Carly F.’s videos today and heard her say that she takes like 1,000 pics of a persons face when she sees them which is why she has issues with eye contact…..makes total sense to me. How overwhelming that would be!! So often these “scientists” have never spent any quality time with any of these kiddos they describe. It’s sad. If people would just spend time observing and see all the qualities they have to offer…..take the time to REALLY get to the know the individual! Sad.

  6. You, Ariane Zurcher, are a credit to the human race.

  7. Aw… Ibby, what a lovely thing to say.

  8. Pingback: How I failed the Sally-Anne test and my autistic son didn’t | Outrunning The Storm

  9. Excellent article Ariane (along with the rest of your blog). It makes me ashamed that (as a social worker in a parenting advice service) I didn’t know about Intense World Theory sooner. Also embarrassed that Theory of Mind has been a component of every single piece of training I’ve ever had on working with people on the spectrum.

    I see parallels with Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive People (I score highly on her self-test and identify strongly as a HSP). HSPs are frequently misunderstood and perceived as odd or anti-social (particularly the introverts) because we have to find ways to reduce and manage the level of stimulation we receive from our environment.

    I already knew I had a lot to learn, but after reading your blog for the last few weeks I feel both less expert than before but also better equipped to support families of children with autism. Your writing is an incredible resource to anyone who wants to actually understand this.

    • Hi Nicole,
      So glad you reached out. The most noble people I’ve met in the world of Special needs and special ed. have been those who were willing to admit they sometimes didn’t know. If you haven’t taken a look at some of the blogs I list under my blogroll, I really encourage you to, as these are the Autists who have taught me more than any specialist or NT in the field of autism.

  10. I just now watched Landon Bryce’s video singing “Proud of Your Boy” and I not only had tears in my eyes then, but when I just think of his wonderful voice now, I can hardly see the computer for the blurred eyes.

    Thank you for putting me on to him. He is a treasure and brings out so much that is locked within autists.

    xxoo Granma

  11. My understanding of my son is that, far from lacking empathy, he finds it difficult to process the feelings and emotions that come as a consequence of his empathy. He is a genuinely caring soul and it is only when his own senses are overwhelmed or his perceived needs are not being met that he appears self-centred.

  12. Can’t say it is how I perceive current autism thinking. Maybe it is because I was just diagnosed 10 months ago (at 41), because it’s different here in Belgium (one diagnosis for ASD in general – seen as an information processing disorder on a strictly neurological level), or because I’ve been reading an enormous lot lately.

    That said, on a broader scale, with the general public, there is still some misunderstanding that comes from popular media and that reinforces the cliche of the emotionless savant.

    So I do agree this is a good post to help ammend that and I will share. Thanks.

  13. I read this again this morning and there is another reason why this test is flawed that no one else has ever mentioned before as far as I know, but it is always what I think of when I read about it. Here is what would have gone through my mind if I were part of that study.

    The researcher would set up the test, and then ask me where the other kid would look for the ball. My mind would have raced through its usual sets of combinations and permutations and a logical consideration of the question. But I would not be thinking about what researchers would have expected me to think about. I would have been thinking things like, “Why are they asking me this? Sally and Anne don’t even exist. I have no way to know where people would look for a ball, and even fewer ways to know where non-existent people would look for it. Even if the person were real, I have no information about their intelligence or their sanity, and no reason to assume they would look in any particular place. Nor do I care. Furthermore, there is no consequence for guessing the wrong answer and no reward for guessing the right answer, so it doesn’t matter what answer I give at all.”

    When I was a kid, those thoughts would have gone through my mind in a couple of seconds. But I would not have expressed any of those thoughts. I would have said as little as possible and probably made no eye contact whatsoever. I probably would have felt uncomfortable being there.

    I probably would have thought the researcher was both stupid and insane, and he was assuming that I was both stupid and insane as well. I might have felt a little nervous about being around someone who asks such senseless questions. I might have tried to make like an ostrich and bury my head in the proverbial sand so they would just leave me alone, but that would probably not work. In that case, I would have given them any arbitrary answer that would get them to leave me alone as fast as possible so I could return to my own thoughts.

    That’s mostly how I treated schoolwork too. I knew I was smarter than most people (even my teachers), but I had no interest in proving it to anyone. I was a genius (by IQ) but I did not do well in school most of the time. I did what I needed to do to get them to leave me alone, that’s all. The Sally-Anne test was based on the false assumption that autistic kids are eager to share their ways of thinking with researchers, but in reality I think most of them would rather just be left alone. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of the autistic kids who participated in the Sally-Anne test probably put almost no thought into that researcher’s question, nor did they have a reason to.

    Like the old saying goes, “if you ask a stupid question, you’ll get a stupid answer”.

  14. AspieKid, this is such a great reply. I have read it several times since you left it. It never occurred to me that this might be another flaw in an already very flawed test! Yet another example of NTs limited thinking when applying their ideas on Autistics.

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  16. This article is an outrage. To say that Simon Baron-Cohen has done more damage to the perception of Autistics than anyone else is akin to admitting that you have never seriously read about him or his work. In other words, your article is an egregious display of ignorance. I will bring up just three points of criticism here for the sake of succinctness.

    First, when Baron-Cohen says that autism is characterized by a lack of empathy, he is speaking of cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy differs drastically from how most people conceptualize the everyday meaning of empathy, which he refers to as ‘affective empathy’. Specifically, people with autism have a hard time understanding other people’s intentions and beliefs about the world. This is very different from not caring about others’ feelings, as psychopaths are known to do.

    Second, you are wrong when you say that Baron-Cohen’s theory is accepted as a fact. Far from it! Neither he nor anyone working in the realm of cognitive science are certain about what constitutes autism. Scientists are critical thinkers who constantly revise their theories based on new evidence. If you do a quick Google Scholar search for journal articles on Theory of Mind, you will have no difficulty in finding any that discuss the controversies over the contributions of Theory of Mind deficits to autism.

    Third, you are wrong to say that Simon Baron-Cohen lacks empathy when it comes to people with autism. He is renowned for his deep caring approach to studying autism not just from the view of a scientist, but from the view of a person. He has made significant contributions to the special education of those with autism.

    Now that you are informed of this new information, I am curious as to whether you are going to remain clinging to your ardent opposition against Baron-Cohen or if you’ll accommodate the information into a new perspective.

    • Eric, you bring up an excellent point – “Cognitive empathy differs drastically from how most people conceptualize the everyday meaning of empathy, which he refers to as ‘affective empathy’. Specifically, people with autism have a hard time understanding other people’s intentions and beliefs about the world.”
      Except this last sentence should be amended to say – people with autism have a hard time understanding neurotypical people’s intentions and beliefs about the world.”
      Had you written it this way and were SBC to concur, I would completely agree. This sentence (with the word neurotypical replaced with Autistic) would also apply to neurotypicals. Only you did not say this, so what you have said, while being an important point about delineation, was actually not what this piece was about, nor is it a delineation that is explained to the media or all the people who have simply heard that “Autistics lack empathy”. A belief that has and does cause tremendous damage to Autistics. All anyone need do is listen or read about the recent Newtown killings to hear how often this so called, “lack of empathy” gets pulled out to justify all kinds of prejudice and misinformation. Which brings us to your second point, which again, is important, but the media and those tuning into the six o’clock news are not “scholars” nor are they thinking like scholars.

      And lastly to your third point, I do not doubt for a second that SBC cares deeply about the plight of Autistics, in fact he commented on an article I had published, “…all of this research is conducted with an overarching aim, which is to help understand and support people with this special condition of autism.” Those are his words and I absolutely believe him. However that does not take away from the fact that SBC’s TOM works from a “deficit model” regarding Autism. What I have encouraged, what I continue to encourage is that SBC look at Autistics, not with Allistic or neurotypical neurology as the end goal, but with the open ended, unbiased curiosity of a scientist who has no neurological preference. Were he to do that, we might actually get somewhere.

  17. You are wrong to say that Simon Baron-Cohen lacks empathy when it comes to people with autism.
    No, Ariane isn’t wrong. In fact, if ‘lack of Theory of Mind’ equates to ‘lack of empathy, then Baron-Cohen definitely lacks empathy. I should know, I was able to prove his lack of Theory of Mind of Autistic people.
    He is renowned for his deep caring approach to studying autism not just from the view of a scientist, but from the view of a person.
    I’d ask you to prove that assertion, but it’s apparently impossible to prove a negative.
    He has made significant contributions to the special education of those with autism.
    Actually, no he hasn’t. What he has done is force his crackpot theories on the world such that the Sally-Ann Test is used even during Autism assessments of adults, greatly retarding useful research with only the few true experts willing to pursue more useful theories.
    BTW, the vast majority of Autistic people prefer identity-first language. Please respect our choice in how to self-identify by at least using a 50/50 mix of identity-first and separationist languages.

  18. I am autistic. In all of my years, if one person, just one… would have told me their feelings in a direct and honest manner, I would have had “empathy”. I assumed that others were like me (which is what neurotypicals assume) and if someone was upset, he or she would tell me. I was in my mid 30’s before I found out that people didn’t automatically tell their feelings to others. Instead, they either hide it, hint at it or wait to be asked, which seems completely alien to me. All this time, I had no idea what people meant when they would say I was selfish or that I made things “all about me”.

    I actually feel angry at neurotypicals now. I have had to suffer for years under their anger and disgust, all because of some stupid social rule about not being literal and direct about feelings. Also, I wish they could see how ridiculous and unempathetic their social hierarchy looks to me. Their feelings cloud their judgment.

  19. unorthodoxplatypus

    I’ve long held the belief that Simon Baron-Cohen is actually a sociopath who lacks empathy himself. He saw a field where he could victimise people for his own advancement and took it. He clearly has no understanding of how to empathise with autistic people, and why shouldn’t empathy extend to autistic people?

    You can clearly extend empathy to autistic people, so why couldn’t he? I stand by my perspective that he’s a sociopath.

    It’s actually coming to light lately that there are a lot of sociopaths in the field of psychology because a.) it’s a great place for them to hide, and b.) it allows them to shape things so that they’re more favourable for sociopaths and less favourable for people that sociopaths don’t like (usually the ones that can’t be easily manipulated).

    It’s a huge problem and one that needs to be researched more thoroughly. I genuinely believe that before publishing works in the field there should be a necessity for brain scans and personality testing just to make sure that the person publishing the paper isn’t a sociopath doing the exact sort of thing I’ve described.

    As a higher-functioning autistic person, I and the others I’ve spoken with over on the forum Wrong Planet all understand that we don’t lack empathy (as even some here are suggesting) but that we have too much of an excess of it. In fact, neurotypicals (extraverts) don’t attach thoughts to emotions in the amygdala in the way autistic people do, only to actions. In this sense, a neurotypical person has less of a capacity for empathy than an autistic person.

    And in my research this is exactly the conclusion others have come to. Autistic people isolate themselves because the emotions are simply overwhelming. Autistic people (due to the higher brain activity in what’s known as ‘resting state’) are prone to hypersensitivity of many kinds. Such as photosensitivity, hyperacusis, and physical sensitivity. For example, an unexpected grab can cause a hypersensitive autistic person genuine pain.

    And just as they can feel physical pain, they are able to feel massive amounts of emotional pain as a response. So sometimes we hide from sources of great emotion simply to deal with how much it can hurt us. This is very contrary to what Baron-Choen has proposed. But like I said, he cared little for autistic people and only for his personal advancement.

    If you’re unsure as to whether to believe this? Here’s an enlightening article:

    It’s happening more and more often that we’re realising that people in various mental health fields are actually sociopaths (or psychopaths, if you prefer). So it’s worth being careful what you read. There was one sociopath who tried to pathologise introversion in the DSM by claiming that it was a mental illness, and it almost even passed through. It’s terrible.

    You have to be very careful what you believe considering the sociopath influence in psychology. And in conclusion, I have very good reason to believe that Simon Baron-Cohen is a sociopath. So take anything he says with a grain of salt.

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