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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More Myth-Busting: New Autism and Empathy Website

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg of Journeys With Autism has created the new Autism and Empathy website to “undo the myths about autism and empathy that have stigmatized autistic people for so long”. She and other writers featured on the site will be speaking about autism and empathy from personal perspectives as well as exploring the question in terms of the medical and scientific.

I encourage you to check out the site. She has already posted an excellent article which breaks down empathy in terms of its three types: cognitive, emotional, and expressed empathy. My poem, “Color (A Modest Plea)” also now appears there as well.

-Nicole

Attention Autistic Poets/Writers! Call for Submissions (Journeys With Autism)

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, author of the Journeys With Autism blog, is welcoming submissions for an upcoming anthology of poetry and prose by people on the autism spectrum aged 35 and over. She says below:

I welcome all pieces of writing about your feelings about being autistic, your experiences, your sense of yourself, your view of the world, your work history, your relationship with your family, or any other area of interest to you. You can write about your life pre- or post-diagnosis, you can share your experiences as a child or as an adult, and you can take a personal and/or a political point of view. The possibilities are as varied as your feelings, perceptions, and life experiences.

I welcome submissions from those who are self-diagnosed as well as from those with an “official” diagnosis.

The deadline for submissions is March 31, 2011. Pieces must be emailed to rachel AT journeyswithautism DOT com. For further information and submission guidelines, please visit her call for submissions page.

-Nicole