Thoughts on Theory of Mind

The backs of two people walking by some stairs in an urban park.
Theory of Mind is often pointed out as an autistic deficit, but is it really that? Is something else going on? And is it just autistics that find this challenging?

Someone asked recently about my thoughts on Theory of Mind. Although this conversation tends to revolve around autistic deficits, I think that’s missing a big part of the picture, so I’d like to offer a reframe to the subject.

First, a quick definition. Theory of mind is the capacity to understand that others think and believe different things than you do, and the ability to figure out others’ thoughts, beliefs, intents, desires, and emotions. Which, you know, makes it a lot easier to get along with other people. There is also a long-running debate about whether autistics can do this, and to what degree.

Notice that are two levels to this. The basic level is understanding that people think or feel differently than you do. So far I have taught or coached well over 200 autistic teens and adults, and not a single one of them wasn’t acutely aware that other people think or feel differently, in any given situation, than they do. That goes for nonspeakers and speakers alike, from people traditionally classified as “severely autistic” to Aspies.

The more interesting level is being able to figure out what the other person’s thoughts and feelings are, and to understand what another person’s point of view is, whether or not you agree with it. This is, frankly, a challenge for many people.

The reframe

When autistics have difficulty understanding others’ thoughts and ideas and points of view, I see that more as a stress issue than an autism issue.

I know autistics, like myself, who have lowered their stress levels enough that their ability to understand others went way up, and I know non-autistics who struggle with this on a daily basis.

When someone is stressed, their ability to relate to, understand, or feel empathy toward other people goes way down, because their circle of safety narrows more and more with the more stress that they are under. This is normal for all human beings—and explains a lot of our current political discord—yet it tends to be more common and pronounced among autistic individuals simply because we tend to be far more sensitive to the various stressors around us, whether biological, social etc. 

Our bodies and brains tend to pick out details more readily, and those details often bother us, like the seam on a piece of clothing or a crooked picture or a day not going according to plan. When the seam of a shirt is forefront in the mind rather than the whole picture of “I’m wearing clothes, aren’t they pretty?”, the nervous system is more quickly overloaded with the sheer volume of information, which monopolizes the brain’s resources, and drowns out the brain’s ability to engage in other activities. So other details, like those in body language, tone of voice, etc, that indicate another person’s intent or motivation, become much harder to notice, let alone interpret.

Non-autistics use these kinds of details to understand other people, though it happens so quickly and was learned at such a young age and without struggle, that most non-autistics don’t even know how they do it. It feels intuitive to them. It feels like they are “sensing” another person’s feelings, and yet they really are picking up on a vast quantity of detailed information and their brain is processing it at a rapid rate and making connections to previous experiences without their having to consciously think about it. 

How lowering stress changes this

In my experience, this was always a challenge for me until after my autism diagnosis (at 35), when I started seriously investigating my sensory differences and various other sources of stress, making peace within myself and with my past, and accepting myself for who I am, all of which considerably lowered my background stress level.

When that happened, I started noticing facial expressions far more than I ever had in my life, and body language started meaning things to me that it never had before. 

So much changed when my stress level went down enough, for long enough, that my brain was able to stay in blue brain, or “safe” mode for extended periods of time. I believe this is possible for all autistic and non-autistic people, to varying degrees. 

There is also a huge range of natural variation, such that some people will naturally be better at this no matter what the external circumstances, and some people are always going to find this more of a mystery. And both are okay.

And I believe that every autistic person can get considerably better at theory of mind then is generally given credit for, given the right conditions (which includes a lot of acceptance of who they are). 

Theory of autistic mind

One last thought on this for now. What about the reverse? “Theory of autistic mind” is the non-autistic person’s ability to understand what is going on inside autistic people.

I love it when non-autistic individuals look at autistic individuals as fellows, peers, colleagues, partners, who have just as much value and just as much right to our own ways of thinking as anyone else.

That reframe opens a door to understanding how us autistics think and feel without the judgment or criticism (deficit mindset) that is so often a part of the discussion, and we begin to feel understood and respected and valued. 

We become a part of the community rather than an outsider needing to conform in order to be brought in. The community itself expands to include a greater diversity of people, lending richness and beauty to the whole.

I have more thoughts on the subject, but I think this is a good start to a valuable conversation. What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below.

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3 Responses

  1. I love the connection between theory of mind and stress levels. That’s helpful!

  2. This is very lovely, it makes me feel comforted. Especially knowing that I do indeed have very good friends and family who care about me, but sometimes we get a bit distant :)) I am able to control my mind and body really well, but I also really enjoy letting loose and fixating on things that I love, like fantasies ^.^ I’m BIIIG on fantasies! I wish I could talk to people about them all the time, but unfortunately I’m at the age and era where it’s not “acceptable” to some people anymore! Even one of my friends slightly judges me!~
    But I know in my heart that I’m cool. and that’s what matters. 8)

  3. Hi. I think this also relates to what is called the double empathy problem in terms of allistic people’s ability to empathize with us. I’m really glad you brought up that side of theory of mind that is less discussed among allistic researchers and professionals working with us.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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