The man who has single-handedly done more damage to the perception of Autistics than any other human being (though there are arguably a number of people vying for that title), depresses me.
I need to say that before continuing.
Simon Baron-Cohen developed the “Theory of Mind” based on the results from the now famous “Sally-Anne” test. The Sally-Anne test, where the child is shown two dolls, is an example of dubious “science.” Sally has a basket in front of her, while Anne has a box. Sally, presumably made to move by an adult, which further complicates the test, puts a marble into her basket and leaves the room. While she is gone, Anne takes the marble from Sally’s basket and places it in the box. When Sally returns, the child is asked, “Where will Sally look for the marble?” Only 20% of the Autistic children were able to correctly answer the question – Sally will look in her basket.
Emma, typically, when asked what one of her doll’s name is, will reply, “Doll” or “girl.” This is just one example of Emma’s literal mind at work. She is not wrong, her doll is a doll and yes, she is a girl. To take away any other conclusion from her answer would be ridiculous.
Yet, from this “test” Simon Baron-Cohen concluded, “that the core problem in autism is the inability to think about other peoples, or one’s own thoughts.”
Except that his test did not take into consideration the level of anxiety, stress or mood of the Autistic participants at the time of testing. Nor did it take into account the language issues, pronoun challenges or literal thinking many Autists have, which the test inevitably presented. In addition Simon Baron-Cohen based his theory, which is taken by many as proven fact, on assumptions that the Autistic participants understood the question. He then set about publicizing his theory, which inadvertently or not, is used by many in the neuromajority to abuse and mistreat the very people whom he categorizes as lacking empathy. Does anyone else see a problem here?
When Emma was diagnosed I came upon the Theory of Mind paper early on in my research. I remember thinking that this explained why, when any of us were upset, Emma seemed oblivious. But as I continued along the road of educating myself, coupled with observing my daughter, I began to question his theory. I read about Autistics who avoided looking in people’s eyes because it was too intense. One Autist described it as akin to seeing into a person’s soul. Other’s talked about how they could sense immediately upon entering a room, the various occupants emotional state and became so overwhelmed they would seek refuge in a corner, try to leave or would stim as a way to counter the intensity of what they were experiencing.
There are times when Emma will, with outstretched arm, put her hand out in front of her face like a shield. Often it is done, I believe, as a response to the intensity of feelings, either hers or others or both, or as Jessy Park, Clara Claiborne Park’s daughter was quoted as saying, “It’s too good.” Landon Bryce over on his terrific blog, thAutcast has a wonderful video of an Autistic artist, Tina, who talks about how she trained herself to look into people’s eyes because she paints portraits. It is a beautiful video, as is she.
What struck me, after reading half a dozen articles and interviews by and with Simon Baron-Cohen, is the damage he is doing. His most recent book, Zero Degrees of Empathy, (which I am not providing a link for on purpose) where he includes Autistics along with psychopaths and borderline personality disorder as examples of groups who lack empathy will further the suffering of Autistics. For a man who claims Autists lack empathy, he is bizarrely unaware of his own lack of empathy.
For those who would like to read an opposing theory and one that seems much more in keeping with what I see demonstrated by not only my daughter, but the many Autistics I have had the honor of getting to know, read this interview with Henry Markram.
Elyssa Durant, Ed.M., Policy Liaison & Advisory Board AutismAid