Rethinking Theory of Mind

There are some interesting dialogues/debates going on regarding the Theory of Mind... uh... theory, in regards to individuals with autism spectrum disorders and ability to share perspectives and emphasize with others.

Here is an interesting article from the Autism Support Network, which discusses the linguistic and behavioral complexity of a classic Theory of Mind task:

Here is a excerpt from a response to Simon Baron-Cohen ( a co-author of the first study that proposed individuals with autism have a deficit in Theory of Mind)  written by Rachel Cohen Rottenberg, a woman who identifies as being on the autism spectrum:

In The Empathy Quotient: An Investigation of Adults with Asperger's Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism, and Normal Sex Differences, Simon (Baron-Cohen) and his colleague Sally Wheelwright draw on a definition of cognitive empathy as "using a 'theory of mind' (Astington, Harris, & Olson, 1988; Wellman, 1990) or ‘mindreading' (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Whiten, 1991)." In Theory of mind in normal development and autism, Simon defines the term "theory of mind" and specifically describes it as a core component of humanity that is impaired in autistic people:

A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human (Whiten, 1993). By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and other's minds. Difficulty in understanding other minds is a core cognitive feature of autism spectrum conditions. The theory of mind difficulties seem to be universal among such individuals." (Baron-Cohen, 3)

In his response to my post, and in numerous other pieces of writing, Simon asserts that both theory of mind and cognitive empathy rely upon an ability to see and to read nonverbal signals. If a person can't do so, but relies upon verbal language or another form of communication, then that person has an impairment in theory of mind and in the cognitive empathy that depends upon it, resulting in a deficit in "one of the quintessential abilities that makes us human."

It's my contention that calling a physical inability to see and to interpret nonverbal signals a failure of any kind of empathy is to make an unmerited interpretive leap. After all, people who are blind cannot see and interpret nonverbal signals — they rely upon spoken language and/or Braille text — and yet, to my knowledge, no one has alleged that blindness is a low-empathy condition. Blind people come to understand the mental states of other people through other means, just as autistic people do. And yet, for an autistic person, a problem seeing and interpreting visual phenomena — and the necessity of taking alternative routes to acquiring the information expressed by such phenomena — is the basis for defining autism as an empathy disorder.

Please note the double standard at work.

I like the way in which Rottenburg highlights the sensory components often involved in autism spectrum disorders - factors which are often divorced from discussion of perceived Theory of Mind or empathetic breakdowns. You can read the entire post here.  And here is a link to Simon Baron-Cohen's response. More than anything, I think these dialogues serve as a cautionary tale - be careful when attempting to make broad, blanket statements about something as subjectively diagnosed, multifaceted, and spectrum-y as autism. Some individuals with autism spectrum disorders may have a deficit in taking on another's perspective, some are adept at reading non-verbal cues, and yet others just wanna play Cut the Rope.