Hello WWA readers!
I’ve posted this on my Facebook page and have tweeted it on Twitter, but in case you haven’t seen this yet, the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism republished one of my WWA posts, “The Empathy Question, Revisited” on their blog on May 24. Go check it out.
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 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.
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.