The Empathy Question, Revisited: Theory of Mind, Culture, and Understanding

The recent opening of Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s new Autism and Empathy website has started me thinking about the whole empathy question in regards to autistic people again. In my first post about autistics and empathy, I mentioned Theory of Mind issues as one of the possible reasons why there is a perception that autistic people lack empathy. With what I had read about Theory of Mind at the time, I’m now reexamining the concept and wondering if I had gotten it slightly wrong, especially in light of the recent challenges that other autistic writers have made to the prevailing ideas about autistics and Theory of Mind.

The Sally-Anne Test

The Sally-Anne Test

The prevailing idea about autistics and Theory of Mind goes something like this: having good Theory of Mind means that a person is able to determine the contents of both one’s own mind and the minds of others; conversely, autistic people are unable to determine or reflect on the contents of other people’s minds. In short, the idea is that autistic people are unable to understand other people’s minds and know that others think differently than they do. This idea was put forth in Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2001 paper on the subject, and I’m sorry that I didn’t unpack it a little further before writing my first post about empathy and autistics. Now that I have, I again have to say: what a load of bullshit.

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