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

by Nicole Nicholson

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.

Cracks in the Edifice

To me, possessing a Theory of Mind means that one is able to get inside someone else’s head – and dare I say, heart – and understand what he or she might be thinking or feeling. This practice can be evident in many applications, both practical and creative. For example, my craft as a poet – especially one who frequently writes persona pieces in the voices of other individuals – requires me to get inside someone else’s head in order to write. The words, idioms, and imagery may have been generated by me, but I do this whilst wearing the “skin” of someone else. According to Dr. Baron-Cohen, I should not be able to do this at all, due to an “impaired” Theory of Mind. But I do, and do so frequently. How does one explain this?

It might be easy to explain me away as an anomaly: a possessor of Raven Medicine (if you are into Native American Spirituality), or perhaps someone who has learned how to do this by mimicry. However, I do not believe I am alone in my capabilities to do this. Other autistics are stepping forwarding and speaking about their own perspectives and experiences empathy as well as their abilities to discern what others are thinking or feeling: Cohen-Rottenberg debunked the idea on her Journeys with Autism blog and Yusuf Smith systematically took apart Dr. Baron-Cohen’s ideas on his blog.

Other autistic writers are questioning the very nature of empathy itself. Aspie Rhetor discusses an article by Dennis Lynch, “Rhetorics of Proximity: Empathy in Temple Grandin and Cornel West” which argues that true empathy requires a “bodily displacement” – in other words, to walk in someone else’s shoes, you literally must remove your feet from your own. Aspie Rhetor also states earlier in her post that “empathy… can only be remotely successful when engaged between people with similar backgrounds, people who occupy similar social stations”. Considering these points, one has to wonder if true empathy is ever possible: how able or willing are we to remove ourselves from our own shoes and truly understand the viewpoint of someone else, especially if they are fundamentally different from us?

Culture Clash

Aspie Rhetor’s statements intrigued me and I started to think about the issues of empathy and culture. The reigning experts on autism may not be taking cultural differences into account with the whole empathy question – and by culture, I do not simply mean race (which is NOT a biological truth but a sociological and cultural construct anyway), ethnicity, religion, etc. One must broaden the connotation of the word “culture” when considering this question.

To begin, how do we define “culture”? The World English Dictionary includes the following definitions in its entry for that word:

“1. the total of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values, and knowledge, which constitute the shared bases of social action 2. the total range of activities and ideas of a group of people with shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group: the Mayan culture”

If we accept this definition as valid, then we must think beyond the general idea of culture and consider non-traditional connotations of the word. Organizations have their own distinct cultures – for example, I can identify and describe the distinct culture of my place of employment. One could argue that each family has a culture. Both entities fit the second definition’s requirement of having “shared traditions, which are transmitted and reinforced by members of the group”.

Now, let’s expand this out to the idea outward and generalize it a bit more. What if neurotypicals could be considered part of a wider “culture”, and autistics part of another? While I realize I am stretching this a bit, I ask you to consider this idea for a moment. As Aspie Rhetor and others have suggested, neurotypicals may have schemas of what is considered “correct” empathy – which is an inherited idea by other neurotypical individuals. Those who do not display empathy according to these schemas may be labeled as “lacking empathy”. However, I think of many people who have left comments on this blog who have discussed their own experiences with expressing and possessing empathy, as well as some of the writers on the Autism and Empathy website who describe not only their own empathetic reactions but those of their autistic/Aspie children. Additionally, I think of Laura Nadine’s video, “My Violin Cries” in which she talks about how she dealt with the loss of her violin teacher and mentor, as well as this short video by AspergerSquare8, “Autistic Awareness – Empathy”. All of these individuals attest that at least some of the autistic population possesses empathy.

So, given the above, could it be that what is often misconstrued as a “lack of empathy” is simply the failure of one wider “culture” to understand another? In other words, could the consistent claims of lack of empathy on the part of autistics be the result of neurotypical researchers/scientists/psychologists/etc. judging autistic empathy by neurotypical standards?

Wearing the Other’s Shoes

I recall when the movie Avatar was released that there were many who were critical of the whole premise of the film, which chronicled the desire of a member of a dominant culture wanting to become the “other”: a human becoming a Na’vi and then eventually wanting to join them. Race relations were discussed in light of the film, suggesting “White arrogance” and parallels to Dances with Wolves. After hearing and reading some discussions, and reflecting on these discussions, it is easy to wonder if it is ever possible to wear the shoes of another…especially if it’s someone from a perceived “majority” culture trying to understand someone from a perceived minority. By extension, it’s also easy to wonder if most neurotypicals will be able to understand or empathize with autistic people.

What I might term “dominant culture arrogance” is present in many forms and in many civilizations. For example, one might example caste relations in India and conclude that some arrogance exists on the part of those in higher castes which would stand in the way understanding or empathy – for example, a Brahmin attempting to see the viewpoint of or empathizing with a Harijan. Or, if I wish to avoid the “majority/minority” dialectic, I might suggest another term: “cross-cultural arrogance”. In this case, it could be defined as the tendency to consider one’s own culture/group/etc. to be universal, natural, or even superior versus that of another. But in either case, the arrogance would exist.

What would cause such arrogance? One might conclude that this arrogance, along with prejudice and biases, were inherited from parents of other family members; unless one choses to reject them, they remain with an individual throughout adulthood. Included with this arrogance would be a natural tendency to look down on those from a different, or perceived “minority” culture (the “other”).

Additionally, another factor which could stand in the way of empathy is simple ignorance – a lack of knowledge or understanding about the other culture in question. This kind of ignorance may be caused by a lack of exposure to the “other”, possible due to a lack of opportunities (e.g. not actually knowing an autistic person, thus being ignorant of what one would be like). What’s also interesting is that another cause of this kind of ignorance would be the very prejudice and arrogance I spoke of earlier – such characteristics would cause a person to not want to get to know the “other”, thus the ignorance continues.

The Requirements of Empathy and Understanding: Truth Versus Fiction

It is easy to wonder if one can truly remove oneself from one’s own shoes to truly experience the world through the eyes of another. This, I would think, would require one to leave one’s own culture, upbringing, personal prejudices, mental filters, and even perhaps one’s own identity behind to do this. For many, this is certainly no small task – it is easier to empathize with someone that you can easily identify with. Yusuf Smith gives the example of the attitudes of French feminists towards Muslim girls who wish to wear veils, stating, “they identify with the girls who do not want to, and insist that their right not to wear the veil comes before the right of those who insist on wearing it to receive an education or, in some cases, employment”. In other words, this would be a form of flawed empathy, and I would imagine it would be very hard for those feminists to imagine themselves wanting to wear a veil. This would require those feminists to leave behind their own ideas, beliefs, and mental filters.

Similarly, it is easy for neurotypicals to imagine a hellish, painful existence as an autistic, basing their assumptions upon their own ideas/beliefs/prejudices. However, in his article, “Don’t Mourn for Us”, Jim Sinclair says that “the tragedy is not that we’re here, but that your world has no place for us to be”.  I know this is true from personal experience, as my personal pain related to Asperger Syndrome has nothing to do with the Asperger’s itself but more to do with its encounters in a neurotypical world, which include emotionally painful things such as misunderstandings and prejudice as well as physically painful things such as sensory overload.

However, once prejudice and arrogance has been removed and any “culture clash” I spoke of earlier has begun to melt away, I believe that successful acts of understanding and empathy can occur. First of all, we must remember that the human existence can be summarized by basic needs and desires. I think of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in which specific needs fall into five categories: physiological (sleep, food, drink), security (financial stability, a safe neighborhood), social needs (belonging, love), esteem needs (self-esteem, personal worth), and self-actualization needs (personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential). While some of these basic needs might manifest differently with each individual, I would argue that these categories are very basic and could encompass many different specific needs and desires. Even beyond these five categories, it might be possible to define the human experience with need and desire as two distinct states of being:  the joy, satisfaction, or feeling of security in having one’s needs met versus the pain, sorrow, frustration, or anxiety at either losing something that meets a need or not having a need met at all. I think that the understanding of these two states – the joy and the sorrow – is the basis of empathy, unclouded by prejudice, unclouded by personal belief, and unclouded by specific personal desires.

Second, since any act of empathy must begin with the other person in mind, we must attempt to understand the other person with whom we are attempting to empathize – in other words, trying to find out what he/she wants or needs. This can be as simple as asking a question. Depending on the situation, the question might be, “do you need a hug?” Or, “how are you feeling?”, Or even more basic, “What can I do to help?”

Beyond Theory of Mind

Given what I believe that acts of empathy (at least expressed empathy) require, it would seem to me that Baron-Cohen has incorrectly expressed his idea of what Theory of Mind is. I believe that his “Theory of Mind” should actually read more like this: it is the ability of a person to determine the contents of one’s own mind as well as the ability to correctly assume – using current beliefs, shared cultural artifacts, and basic cultural assumptions – what the contents of another person’s mind would be. And according to this definition, this means that anyone – not just autistics – would be likely to have impaired Theory of Mind if they are blinded by prejudice, ignorance, incorrect cultural assumptions, and even a lack of respect for the other person.

As documented above, empathy does not require that someone be skilled in this particular “Theory of Mind” and simply requires a desire to understand, put away personal prejudices, and reach out to the other is required. Judging from my own experiences, as well as the experiences of other autistics, I am certain that autistic people are capable of this kind of understanding and empathy. The prevailing definition of “Theory of Mind” be reexamined and considered. Its continued perpetuation will continue to be damaging to autistic people and unfortunately continue to promote the “lack of empathy” myth which continues to plague the autistic community.

About the Author: Nicole Nicholson is an adult with Asperger’s who prose appears at Woman With Asperger’s, and whose poetry appears at Raven’s Wing Poetry. The Empathy Question, Revisited: Theory of Mind, Culture, and Understanding appears here by permission.



7 thoughts on “The Empathy Question, Revisited: Theory of Mind, Culture, and Understanding

  1. Yusuf Smith says:

    for example, a Brahmin attempting to see the viewpoint of or empathizing with a Harijan

    This term “Harijan” is no longer used (it was coined by Gandhi but is now rejected as patronising). The term used today is “Dalit” which means oppressed.

    Thanks for the link, by the way.

  2. Here ya go, as for the ToM test of SBC.

    A 4 year old child with Autism may not have even understood the meaning of the preposition “in”.

    It’s like saying a person given a test in English has a very low IQ. You might not mention that they only understood Chinese, but the “tests prove” they have an intellectual disability. They could be a rocket scientist in China.

    I’m jus’ sayin’, for God’s sake!

    I could be wrong, I’m not a scientist. I”m in it for the kids.

  3. Barbara says:

    Thank you for writing this very interesting post.

    I am an NT, a retired research scientist who happens to have read a great deal about autism because of an avocational interest in psychology.

    My understanding of the Theory of Mind is quite different from what I understand yours to be. To me it simply means that other people are just as real as I am. It means that just as I have all sorts of internal states and internal thoughts, other people have them as well. I have never ever thought that I could determine the contents of someone else’s mind and never thought they could determine the contents of mine. I have never even thought that this is something that humans are supposed to be able to do.

    Of course, sometimes I need to know what is going on with another person. Obviously the best way to find out would be to ask them directly. However that is not always possible: they may not be someplace where I can contact them, they may be too busy to answer at the moment, I may feel that asking them is inappropriate to the situation, etc. In this case I may attempt to guess what is going on with them.

    All types of different information might go into such a guess: thinking how I’d feel if I were in their situation, their body language, things they’ve told me about themselves in the past, etc. But I try to remember that my guess could be wrong since I have no way of determining the contents of their mind.

    • Hello Barbara:

      Your understand of Theory of Mind makes more sense than SBC’s definition. Although I hadn’t quite verbalized it in this post, something like that is what I had in mind when I was writing. As I mentioned, SBC’s definition requires us to assume we know the contents of someone else’s mind: and how do we truly know without asking them? Assumption always has the potential to lead to a wrong answer.


  4. Hello Yusuf: Thanks for the clarification. I’ve heard both terms used. My future F-I-L was born and raised in Gandhi’s India, so thus “Harijan” was the term my fiance and I heard first. I’ll have to do some more homework.


  5. Ignacio says:

    Hello Nicole

    I believe that SBC goes into quite a lot of detail on how the TOMM (Theory of Mind Module) is constituted, and what are the early stages of ‘mind-reading’ such as the ID (intentionality detector), or the SAM (shared attention module). He is also very careful about specifying the degrees to which such ‘mind-reading’ occurs. Of course there is a difference between ‘mind-reading’ someone’s intentions to leave the room out of seeing that person stand up and put a coat on, and ‘mind-reading’ someone’s views on immigration, democracy and globalization.

    Of course, in principle TOM can be explained as the capacity of thinking of other people as real as we are, and to attribute them intentions, feelings and opinions. However, as we focus on detailed examples we might also consider other aspects such as the interpretation of body language, speech nuances, and contextual social dynamics.

    I totally agree with you that a deficit of the resulting ’empathy’ allegedly enabled by a working TOMM is not something that is in any way purely associated with Autism. Further, Autism is more of a somehow problematic blanket term which is used to describe a huge variety of ways of being and experiencing the world and, of course, an even larger number of individuals with their own ways of feeling, seeing and constructing reality. I also completely agree that ’empathy’ involves the interpretation of cultural artefacts and the understanding of social codes that can (sometimes)inform different behavioural treats. Of course, ignorance and prejudice can have a devastating effect on someone’s capacity to show empathy, and it is absolutely unacceptable that autistics (to use your term, which I prefer to ‘people with Autism’ despite it usually being considered more politically correct)are essentialized as people lacking in empathy’.

    It is fairly clear,however, that SBC was referring to a modular brain function which he related to specific areas of neural circuitry. In other words, not a ‘skill’ or outcome of ethical or educational background but an ingrained capability that developed over hundreds of thousands of years of humankind adapting to and shaping its environment. In other words, the capacity to conceive and explore’otherness’ to different degrees, which some theorists have linked to the development of language, though there is no agreement of whether language skills were a prerequisite for the development of theory of mind or whether it was theory of mind that provided the motivation necessary to develop langauge skills. SBC explores these issues as well, revisiting theories by Chomsky and others.

    I think that the most sensitive issue here is that when making associations between TOMM and Autism, SBC has certain types of autistics in mind, which he is quite clear about, and as readers we should bear that in mind in order for our critical approaches to have real value.

    So even though I greatly value your text as a valid contribution to the series of writings that challenge the links between Theory of Mind and Autism, or Theory of Mind in general, I believe it is based to some extent on a slightly biased and overly simplistic assessment of SBC’s work. I still think, however, that you have provided some new context from which to assess his work and if it is combined with a more informed account of the theoretical framework and methodology behind it, it can hopefully be an agent in the further opening of our minds to different ways to understand and examine this very important issue.



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