Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Theory of Mind and the Austim Spectrum

One of the theories of autism -- including Asperger's -- 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.

Those who have Theory of Mind (ToM) believe that others have a mind like theirs. Please note that those who have ToM believe others have a mind like THEIRS. Neurotypicals believe others have a mind like their mind, and  those with ASD believe others have a mind like their mind. However, both are wrong. Both are overgeneralizing.

One can view the human ToM as an evolving history of ToM. Those in our tribe have minds, but others 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 humans 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 being vaguely aware to having varying kinds of consciousness.

It seems that with the theory that ASD in a problem in ToM we have another version of the above. The problem is that it's working both ways. Since those with ASD are treating everyone else as though everyone else has 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 AS) -- 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 neurotypcials.

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 with autism seems to be rising, the adjustments might soon have to be more mutual. And if neurotypcials 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.
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