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Weak theory of mind?

Published: February 17, 2019
Last updated on March 5, 2021

Let’s examine the proposition that neurotypicals have a great theory of mind and are highly empathetic, and that Aspies/Auties have a weak theory of mind, and weak or no empathy. Might there be a double empathy problem at play?[1]Autism and the double empathy problem: Implications for development and mental health (Mitchell, Sheppard & Cassidy, 2021)

Dissimilar brains

Recent studies have indicated that while neurotypical brains tend to be very similar, people on the autism spectrum tend to have brains very different from neurotypicals, as well as from each other.[2]The idiosyncratic brain: distortion of spontaneous connectivity patterns in autism spectrum disorder Read more about that here:

Autistic brain differences pt. 1 – Connectivity

Research shows the wiring of autistic brains is highly individualized:

As far as general wiring goes, the brains of neurotypical individuals is fairly standardized. This is not the case for those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Some studies have found that ASD brains have higher connectivity, while conflicting studies have concluded that they have fewer connections.

A new study might be able to reconcile those opposing results, as it has found that ASD brains are not only wired differently from neurotypical brains, but have a number of idiosyncrasies when compared to one another as well. This could help explain behaviors at different points on the autism spectrum.[3]Wiring of Autistic Brains Shown To Be Highly Individualized | IFL Science

The more dissimilar the brain, the more it tends to be misunderstood. Historically this has been especially true when it comes to minorities such as us.

Theory of mind

I put to you that neurotypicals think they have a great theory of mind, and they think they are empathetic because they judge their theory of mind against other neurotypicals. But just how hard is it to put yourself in someone else’s place when they think and react very much as you do?

Why, then, are neurotypicals so spectacularly bad at this when it comes to anyone neurodiverse? In other words, anyone who doesn’t think just like they do? It seems like a Dunning–Kruger effect, if you’ll excuse the misuse of the effect.


I grew up surrounded by people who don’t think like me. I had to work at reading them, observing them, figuring them out. As a result, I think I’ve gotten quite good at it.

It really isn’t correct to say “put yourself in their shoes”. It really should be “imagine what it is like to be that other person in that situation”. Imagine what it is like to have grown up differently, to be of a different level of intelligence, and to have different likes and dislikes. I have practiced this all my life. It is quite a bit more challenging than just “imagine that was me in that situation”.

Seeing emotions

In fact, I have come to realize that part of the challenge I have with responding to people is that I can see the emotions they don’t put up for public viewing. I have had many times where I’ve asked a coworker if another coworker is OK; they’ll say they haven’t noticed anything wrong—then later I find out the person in question has had some upsetting upheaval.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to discern the intended public face versus the intended-to-be-hidden feelings. For example, someone says “good morning” but seems angry behind the polite smile, in which case I can’t tell if they are angry at me, or if it was something else. I have also found that people very often resent having their nonpublic emotions pointed out when I ask if they are OK. I’ve had people get defensive and angry just because they could see by the way I was looking at them that I was worried—and therefore had noticed—and afraid of having their pain exposed.

It causes me pain that they are in pain, and it causes me pain to know that they are afraid I will embarrass them. It is part of why I find direct eye contact too intimate outside of people I feel very close to. I find that neurotypicals are overwhelmingly prone to misread what I am feeling/thinking during direct eye contact.

As a result, I try not to look too closely at people unless I am close to them; I try not to take notice of anything they are trying to conceal. I have practiced a long time to be able to focus 2–4 inches in front of their face so I appear to be making eye contact, but am not.

Learning empathy

It has been my experience in speaking to and observing neurotypicals and autistics, that many neurotypicals seem to lack empathy for anyone not just like them, and that autistics are much more likely to have an excess of empathy for people and other animals. Keeping in mind that members of a labeled group are never identical.

Babies/children must be taught empathy. “How would you like it if someone took away your toy?” That is empathy at the most basic level. It seems to me that most parents never go beyond that level, because they were never taught further than that.

Aspies/Auties live the School of Hard Knocks. If we’re fortunate, we’ll have a parent that will teach us empathy at a higher level; imagining not just what it would feel like to have your toy taken from you, but imagine being another person that had different experiences. Maybe that kid that really loses it at every frustration has an older brother that is mean to him whenever their parents aren’t watching, and breaks all of his toys. So you relate to that other person in a different way.

If you are not fortunate enough to have such parents, then you learn on your own. That’s what I had to do. I grew up when there was no common diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, and I wasn’t autistic by the definition used then.

I know fully grown adults—neurotypicals well over 30—who still have a child’s level of empathy; only able to imagine themselves, and considering anyone even slightly different “weird” and to be avoided. Unable to understand that other people don’t know things they do, and other people know things they don’t.

Embrace Autism | Weak theory of mind? | portrait SJ GreenfieldLargeBlue

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