Theory of mind is declared the native domain of neurotypicals; a kind of transcendent ability that is regarded the basis for communication and, in more inflated estimations, is celebrated as the very thing that defines us as human. A lack of theory of mind, or “mind-blindness”, on the other hand, is attributed to autistics as a kind of deficit. This supposed deficit is expressed as a lack of empathy on the part of autistics, sometimes carefully parsed as a lack of cognitive empathy (the ability to know what another person is thinking/feeling), but far too often, sloppily conflated with a lack of affective empathy (the ability to feel compassion for another person).
And in pragmatic terms, autistics are indeed frequently unable to discern or know what another person might be thinking, while a neurotypical person is often able to discern what another neurotypical person might be thinking or feeling. As I have noted in previous entries in this blog, this works between two neurotpicals, not because they have insight into the thoughts or feelings of other people, but because there is a statistical likelihood that they would be thinking or feeling the same thing. They are sitting in adjacent wells, describing bits of sky that share the same cloud. Or we might say that their individual experiences of their respective beetles are similar enough that the value, utility and dangers associated with those beetles correspond sufficiently to prevent disrupting the perception that meaning, but also experience, is shared.The belief in a theory of mind is a disability
In the middle of 2018, a group of academics came together, with the realisation that we were all, separately, contributing to a new way of thinking about autism. In various ways we had – implicitly or explicitly – developed a quantiative and experimental test of the predictions of the Double Empathy Problem.
There was also something quite meta at play, I now realise. In the delightful yet serious game of self-identification with the group, there also exists the teasing possibility of intuiting what autistic culture/s might be collectively speaking. Not wishing to be divisive, or pin down a beautiful butterfly, it matters greatly to know this and to be able to articulate it. Yet it is a very tricky area precisely because of the double empathy problem.
I think, particularly from our study, it shows the importance of things like autistic-led spaces and the value that can have, and that the need to create these spaces where autistic people can be comfortable amid themselves and talk to other autistic people is really important—whether that’s as part of schools and education, whether that’s in post-diagnostic support, opportunities for adults, things like that.The Problem With Autistic Communication Is Non-Autistic People: A Conversation With Dr. Catherine Crompton
I think it’s really important to make sure that opportunity is available for people. The last thing I want people to think we’re suggesting is that we should ghetto-ize autistic people. “You go and talk to the people who are like you.” That’s absolutely not what I’m saying and not what we would want at all. But I think creating these spaces that aren’t led by someone who’s telling you what to do, who doesn’t know what your experience is, is really, really important.