Tag Archives: Simon Baron-Cohen

Do We Really Believe the Things We Tell Ourselves?

There was an exercise I was told about in high school.  I was told to hold my arm out, while repeating to myself, “I am strong, I can do it, I am strong,” while the other person tried to push my arm down.  Then I was told to rest for 30 seconds, and hold my arm out again, but this time repeating, “I can’t do it, I’m a failure, I can’t do anything,” while the other person tried to push my arm down.

Have you ever tried this?  If you haven’t, do.  It’s an amazing example of how powerful self talk is.  (Richard just came in and I tried it with him.  “Wait do it again,” he said.  We did with the same results.)   I was able to push Richard’s arm down both times, but it was much harder when he was repeating to himself that he was strong and could do it.

It made me wonder how that same exercise would work if the other person said, “you’re strong, you can do this,” even if I didn’t say it to myself.  So I tried that and it helped a little, but not as much as when I said it.  As I was thinking about all of this, I thought about how Emma will often walk away if asked a question I know she knows the answer to.  Such as, “Emma what color is the 4-wheeler?”  She will walk away, as if to say, “Why are you asking me such an idiotic question?  Why should I even bother answering this question?”  I don’t know that this is what goes through her mind, but recently AspieKid wrote in a comment (he gave me permission to reprint his reaction to Simon Baron-Cohen‘s flawed Sally-Anne test) the following:

“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”.

This comment from AspieKid was beautiful in it’s explanation of how we NTs “dumb down” our language, assume incompetence in the face of silence.  Assume someone does not understand the question when in fact, as AspieKid so eloquently states, this is not the case at all and is quite the opposite.  How do years of these kinds of interactions effect someone?  How do you believe in yourself when everyone around you assumes you’re incompetent.  How do you fight against those perceptions?  Do you even try?

How do we instill positive self talk in another?  Is it enough to tell another person they can do it?  Is our belief in them enough?  When we model that kind of belief in ourselves, are our children able to see that and incorporate those behaviors?

Laura Nagle, Vectors of Autism and Other Exciting News

In response to my post – Losing Sleep, Autism and Strange Noises in NYC – I received a great comment (all the comments I get are great) but I’m referring to one specifically.  It was about the Theory of Mind as well as lack of empathy conclusions Simon Baron-Cohen and others like him have made.  The person who is autistic, wrote:  “But we are not being laughed at, dismissed or ignored anymore. People are arguing with us. That means they hear our message and they are aware that it conflicts with what they have been taught. Their confusion will diminish over time. The people who need to be told what to think will always listen to, and agree with, the loudest voices. And our voices are becoming louder. If we perseverate, then we will persevere.”

In keeping with this thought, you must watch this YouTube video –  A preview for the upcoming “Laura Nagle: Vectors of Autism.”

The 50 minute documentary, which this video is a preview to, will be awaiting me when I return to NYC in July.  I will be reviewing it here and for the Huffington Post.  Leah Kelley has been posting about the documentary and Laura for a while now on her blog – 30 Days of Autism.  In this brief preview Laura talks about how quickly she can read, she says, “I’m good at that” (pause and then laughs) “I’m not good at life.”    I won’t say more as I really want everyone reading this post to please take 5 minutes to watch the video, it is wonderful.

I also want to urge all who are as fascinated and disturbed by some of the various “theories” out there about autism as I am, to go over to the blog – Autistic Hoya.  There are so many terrific posts it was difficult to decide which to add links to, but to begin here are two of my favorites (but the whole blog is an education)  The Dangers Of Misrepresentation and The Other Side Of Disclosure.

I will be covering the Aspen Ideas Festival for the Huffington Post from June 27th – July 3rd, unrelated to autism, but still very exciting.  I have no intention of shirking my posting responsibilities here on Emma’s Hope Book, but may be posting on the run as they say, so please forgive typos and seemingly random thoughts.  On second thought you probably won’t even notice as that’s pretty much the norm for me anyway!   I have been asked to cover the icare4autism conference in Jerusalem, July 31st – August 2nd.  I have accepted their generous offer and am very excited!  A quick back story – when Richard and I first heard about Henry Markram and his Intense World Theory for Autism (this link is an in depth scientific paper.  It is not light reading, but if you’re interested, it is very interesting), we read that he would be giving a talk in Jerusalem in August.  At the time, now more than seven months ago, we joked – wouldn’t it be great if we could go to Jerusalem to hear him?  Just over a week ago I received the invitation and learned that this was the conference he will be presenting at!

And finally, I am including two, completely arbitrary and utterly unrelated photos…  just because… well, because I can and I felt like it and they make me smile and maybe they’ll make you smile too.  Please ignore the dust.

Merlin and the Gator

For a little perspective…

Related articles

Losing Sleep, Autism and Strange Noises in New York City

I’m operating on about three hours of sleep.  The piece I rewrote about Simon Baron-Cohen and The Theory Of Mind for the Huffington Post was published yesterday evening.  I knew I’d get some opposing views.  I’m used to that.  I understand that by putting my thoughts out there,  people will and do disagree.  So irritating when people disagree with me.  Eye roll, sharp intake of breath.

When I began writing at the Huffington Post I submitted a piece about Emma and her interesting use of language.  It was not a scholarly piece, (none of my pieces are, it’s not what I write)  just some observations and thoughts I had.  Once the piece was published I received a couple of scathing comments, many of which were marked as “abusive” and were removed, but one that remains, was from a retired speech pathologist who wrote,  “A jewelry designer (author of the article) who has bizarre ideas about language development should be countered by an expert opinion.”   I imagined as she wrote that comment she was looking grim and making tsking sounds.  I felt as though I were back in first grade being scolded for not paying attention.

Another piece I submitted about Emma’s painting, a number of people made derogatory comments, which were removed.  One of those comments was,  (I’m paraphrasing here) Oh great!  Stupid references to Dr. Seuss, Autism and painting all in one sentence.  How is this news?  

News?  I was supposed to write a journalistic, investigative piece?  Shit!  Where was I when that memo got sent?   I thought I was writing a piece about the joy I felt watching my daughter paint.

It’s anxiety causing to get such contemptuous responses, but over the years I’ve developed a “thicker skin” though I’m so literal-minded that phrase strikes me as really creepy.  Still, in this last piece it is I who am attacking someone else.  And while I’m sure Simon Baron-Cohen wouldn’t lose any sleep were he made aware of my rant about his questionable test and the even more questionable conclusions he’s drawn, it’s not in my nature to attack others.  I don’t feel comfortable doing it.  Against my better judgement I submitted the piece anyway because I believe strongly in its message.

As I reiterated in a comment I made to another person’s response –  SBC  is presenting himself as an “expert” on autism. It isn’t as though he was the parent of an Autistic child, had a blog and wrote the occasional piece for the Huffington Post, while making inflammatory statements, which everyone could read, laugh, argue with and forget. He has made a career for himself, based on his academic achievements. His theories should and must be held to a higher standard. His words and ideas have tremendous power. It is irresponsible to be in such a position of power while basing ideas and theories on faulty tests with no consideration of the implications. I, too, could cite many examples of my daughter’s actions, which could then be used to (erroneously) support SBC’s various theories. That doesn’t make his theory correct, it brings into question my thinking.  I urge you to read Dr. Henry Markram’s alternate theory – http://www.wrongplanet.net/article419.html – I can find many more examples of Emma’s behaviors, which support his theory. The TOM theory is a dangerous one because of the way it can be used to justify the negative perceptions of Autistics. If someone has little or no empathy, we are much more likely to behave in a less caring manner toward them. We may insist this isn’t so, but there have been studies suggesting otherwise.”

As a result of all this I’ve paid the price by getting very little sleep.  Ask me about the traffic patterns on 7th Avenue between the hours of 2 and 4.  And exactly what was going on with that woman who kept shouting WooWoo at around 3:30AM?  Was she celebrating?  In the beginning stages of labor?  These are the questions plaguing me at the moment.

Emma making her silly face, which pretty much sums up how I’m feeling at the moment.

((((((Emma)))))), Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Other Joys

When you look at the title to this post do you read it to mean – Hugging Emma, Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Other Joys?

(If you answered yes, you are correct.  ((((Insert name)))) = Hugging.  The more parentheses, the bigger the hug.)

Within the autism community where Facebook reigns as the ultimate gathering place, the use of emoticons, ways of expressing emotions and physical actions, are commonplace.  I would argue that within the autism community the use of emoticons is more prevalent than within the neuromajority population.  But I need verification from my Autistic friends before I make such a statement.  It’s a thought based on my observations and interactions.  Which, by the way, speaks as much against Simon Baron-Cohen‘s various theories about Autists lacking empathy and a desire for interactions as it does to the level of support, gestures of kindness and friendships that are developed and maintained over the internet.  (I just submitted an amended version of my recent post – An Empathic Debunking of the Theory of Mind – to Huffington Post so he’s very much on my mind these days.  I’ll give an update when I see if and when it’s been published over there.)

Facebook, a crowded virtual space where conversations overlap, people you’ve never met interject themselves into a conversation before moving on, friendships are formed, rekindled and developed, strangers “poke” you to say hi, even if the only connection you have is that you both occupy space in that crazy mosh pit that Facebook single-handedly created.  If you think about it in these terms, Linkedin has a more conservative, suit and tie required at the door feel to it, I haven’t figured out where twitter falls in all of this, maybe it’s akin to speed dating, while blogs are the mothership, making the insanity over at Facebook all the more raucous and surprising.

It must be said, I hated Facebook when it began.  I refused to join, I felt indignant when people would discuss their “friends” or about something that had gone “viral.”  Who cares?  Who has the time?   I scoffed.  This is just a bunch of people with way too much time on their hands.   And then I would settle back to my tenth game of Spider, while reminding myself that I really should get some sleep.  But eventually I joined.  For business reasons, I told myself.  This is a pattern for me.  I observe, remain on the side lines, dip a toe in the murky waters, sit back, observe some more and then dive head first into the deep end, blissfully unaware of any rocks that may lurk under the surface.  I’m not encouraging this approach, it’s just an honest assessment of what I have a tendency to do.

Yesterday I was a mess.  For those of you who reached out, thank you.  I was teetering on the edge, trying to keep it together, not doing a great job, but doing my best to work, taking on one small task at a time.  And then my friend stepped in and held out her virtual hand.  (((((( Insert Name ))))))  Like a life line, she held her hand out and gently pulled me off the ledge.   Lots of emoticons were used.  I’m not fluent in emoticon, but she’s been a kind and patient teacher.  Did I mention she’s Autistic, not that it matters, except that it does, if only for this reason:  Autistics aren’t suppose to be like that.  That’s what we neurotypicals are taught.  Right?  It’s what all those autism specialists tell us, right?

She sat with me, literally, while I wept.  ((((((((((Insert my friend’s name)))))))))   She said all the right things and by the time we both went back to work, I was laughing.  But wait, that can’t be right.  She must not be autistic, because she doesn’t fit the mold.  Right?  Isn’t that what we do when someone defies a stereotype, instead of re-examining the stereotype, we relabel the person?  Can we all agree to toss this insane theory about Autists lacking empathy, lacking a desire for interaction and friendship?  Can we please just stop it?  Imagine if you tried to reach out to someone, only to have them reject you because of some mistaken idea they had about who you are and how you are supposed to behave?

Which brings me back to Emma.  My beautiful daughter.  I don’t know if she’s already aware of these stereotypes and how they apply to her.  My guess is, she is.  It’s one of the many things I wish I could control and change.  But I cannot.  What I can do is make sure she knows that I am here, supporting her, encouraging her, with my arms open for those times when she needs to feel them wrapped around her securely in loving embrace, just as my friend did to me yesterday.


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.


Emma’s friend, Charlie was upset yesterday.  No one knew what was wrong or why he was so sad.  However Emma went over to Charlie and comforted him.  These are the kinds of things parents are always pleased to hear.  As our children grow older, we come to expect such displays of empathy, even questioning our children when they do not respond this way.

In 1985 Simon Baron-Cohen developed a theory he called mindblindness, suggesting that children with autism have an impaired ability to make sense of others and their own feelings.  He has since amended mindblindness to E-S theory (empathizing-systemizing theory.)  Many people, when confronted with an autistic person’s inability to acknowledge or respond appropriately to their emotional state, assume that person does not care.

Before Emma was diagnosed, I learned of a friend’s death and was crying.  Nic ran over and immediately asked what was wrong and why was I crying, while Emma continued to look at a book.  At the time I thought she was more interested in her book or perhaps didn’t notice I was upset, but I remember feeling a certain uneasiness about, what I believed was, her lack of empathy.  As I have read more about autism and the problems in reading people’s emotions, I see her non-responsiveness as an inability to make sense of  my emotional state rather than indifference.  As Emma grows older, she has become increasingly curious about emotions of all kinds.

“Rip Good Night Moon, make Becky angry.  No you cannot rip Good Night Moon!”  Emma has said, referring to something that happened well over a year ago at her school.  One of Emma’s favorite books is “The Way I Feel.”   A book describing emotions with illustrations reflecting those feelings.  When Emma’s brother Nic is upset Emma, much to Nic’s annoyance, will attempt to make sense of Nic’s upset. “Nicky’s crying.  Nicky wants to go on the carousel,” Emma will say.  Or “Nicky’s angry.  Nicky doesn’t want to go to bed.”  Emma will apply her own reasons for being sad or angry with things that make her feel those things and becomes confused when we explain that Nic is upset or angry about something entirely different.  Still, she is doing her best to make sense of what she is seeing.  She will almost always try to comfort Nic, even if she has come to incorrect conclusions regarding the reasons for his feelings.

For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism, go to:   Emma’s Hope Book