The Problem with Theory of Mind (ToM) as it Relates to Autistic People

by Adina Levy

Theory of Mind (ToM) is a theory talking about the ability for people to understand another person’s mind, perspective, thoughts and feelings. 

The main idea that is now solidly refuted and debunked was this: Autistic people lack ToM skills, have disordered or delayed abilities to understand others’ minds, perspectives, thoughts. 

It’s simply not true.

The big idea here is summed up much better with the Double Empathy Problem – this theory shares that autistic and non-autistic (allistic) people are each better at understanding the minds of others who are more like themselves. It’s hard but NOT impossible for allistic people to interpret the minds of autistic people. And vice-versa. A perfect example of this is the simple existence of the ToM body of work —> Allistic academics assuming that autistic people don’t have skills to understand others’ perspectives! Hilarious, but damaging.

It’s easier for autistic people to understand the minds, thinking patterns, and perspectives of other autistic people. 

Let’s keep in mind individual differences – every single person has individual thoughts, experiences and perspectives. However there are patterns that people of similar brain-types share, and this can lead to an easier familiarity & connection between people of the same neurotype.

In short, autistic people absolutely can and do have empathy and ability to understand others’ minds & perspectives.

In some cases, autistic people feel emotions empathically so strongly, in a way that can be overwhelming or deeply in-tune with others. 

Where do we go from here?

Instead of focusing on the incorrect and outdated ideas of ‘Theory of Mind’ we should be turning our attention to the Double Empathy Problem, and seek to educate EVERYONE to understand each others’ perspectives. Let’s not assume autistic people lack empathy (it’s simply wrong) or lack perspective-taking skills (wrong wrong wrong). We ALL can do better to understand others’ perspectives, and it starts with communcation. Especially with listening to others who have different experiences than you, including different neurotypes.

If you’re a speechie and you’d like to learn more about Neurodiversity Affirming practice, check out my Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Workshop!