Empathy vs. Theory of Mind

cat scared of cucumber

Is it true that people with autism lack empathy?  It’s not true that they all do.  Some may suffer from an excess of it.  For one thing, autism is a nebulous diagnosis so it’s hazardous to assume things about people once you know or perhaps deduce that they have autism.  An analogy would be that you can’t predict exactly what behavior alcohol will produce.  There are patterns, but you’d be a fool to bet on it.

What I have seen in our family is an alteration (not necessarily a deficit) in theory of mind.  This is a third use of theory (1st is investigative theory where you are still looking for evidence and 2nd is scientific theory that is an evidence based hypothesis).  Theory in this sense describes a person’s unconscious beliefs about how the world works.  For example, theory of intelligence is used by psychologists to describe how individuals believe intelligence comes about, through nature or nurture.  Theory of mind means a person’s understanding that other people’s minds are separate from your own.

Babies have to develop theory of mind.  When they start out, they don’t know that the mother is not part of them (or vice versa).  They don’t know that their reflection is themselves.  Object permanence and separation anxiety are related ideas to this.  During toddlerhood, neurotypical babies will start to exhibit this understanding.  They will learn to make eye contact because it is a way to communicate and connect with others.  If you don’t realize people are separate from you, why would you need to connect with them?  (As opposed to the assumption that autistic people can’t connect with others- which may also be the case but our diagnostic system doesn’t allow that distinction.)  Talking would also be a lower priority.

So when I saw a video of people scaring their cats with cucumbers, the first clip was funny.  It jumped really high.  Stupid cat.  But in the second one, when I knew what would happen, it was painful for me to know that the cat would be terrified, as if it were seeing a predator.  And the video apparently went on, and I knew other people would see if their cat reacted this way, and film it.  It reminded me of stories my mom used to tell me about things the her childhood neighbors did to cats, mental pictures that would keep me up at night in anguish.  I don’t know if she just had particular monsters living in her neighborhood.  My father in law told similar stories.  I think in the 50’s stray cats viewed more as pests.  But it seems like a lot of neurotypical people found the terrified cats funny.

I’ve sometimes compared autistic people to Data and Spock, both science officers on Star Trek.  One has no feelings because he really doesn’t have any.  The other disciplines his feelings because they are actually rather powerful.  From the outside, both would get the ASD stamp, but what they experience is rather different.

image: Ashley Smith/youtube via http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/dont-scare-your-cats-cucumber

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