Psychology is obviously a very complex business and looking at it under the lens of scientific scrutiny doesn’t make things any simpler. How do you quantify emotion or reason? How do you examine and analyze the inherently unpredictable? Well the answer is you can’t, not directly anyway.
Theory of mind is a term used to describe the understanding that other people other than yourself also have a mind and can experience the world around them in their own way, but more than that, it is the ability to, psychologically speaking, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Most adults have a good degree of “Theory of Mind” – their own mind can attribute desires, emotions and thoughts in others, they can predict other people’s intentions and understand their motives. This is an inherent social skill which is normally learned naturally during childhood.
People on the Autistic Spectrum tend to have a poor “Theory of Mind”. The myriad of social cues, facial expressions, body language and vocal clues that are subconsciously used to determine somebody’s intentions or motives can’t easily be read. Therefore it makes it difficult for someone with ASD to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. Now if you study Autistic Spectrum Disorders you will read a great deal of literature which will explain that people with Autism are incapable of understanding people’s intentions or motives or understanding that other people have their own plans, needs, thoughts or point of view. This is a very academic view – and as is often the case, nothing is that black and white and nothing to do with complex psychology can be summed up so easily; having said that – typically the more severe the Autism, the poorer the “Theory of Mind”.
I have Aspergers Syndrome and I am perfectly aware that other people have their own needs, their own thoughts and their own points of view. Where my problem lies is in putting these things together in order to work out somebody’s intentions. For example, does someone want to get to know me or are they talking to me because they want something? Most of the time I can work simple things like this out for myself; but there are times where I miss very blatant clues which someone else would immediately understand. I think, looking back at my own experiences, it is fair to say that I look for the most obvious motives and intentions in others and assume I am correct, which would be fine if everyone always told the truth and people acted logically.
I naturally feel more comfortable with people who are on the same “wavelength” as me. I find having to explain things to people face to face a bit uncomfortable, as it is easy to offend. The difference between explaining something to someone and talking to them like they are an idiot isn’t always particularly clear, partly because I have a strange natural assumption that people automatically know pretty much what I know.
Another very common “fact” that you will come across in terms of Autism is that people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder have no empathy. To some extent this is true in a very technical sense. Empathy is the capacity to recognise and share feelings with others. Recognise and Share – it is the first part that is the major problem. People on the spectrum experience emotion – we are not robots, but we do sometimes struggle to express them. I can’t look at somebody’s face and determine their emotional state – anything beyond assuming a frown is angry, tears are sad and a smile is happy – I get lost. I know things are not that simple, but knowing and having the capacity to do are very different things. For me, empathy isn’t as simple as that. You see the assumption here tends to be that people on the Autistic spectrum are unfeeling, when the truth is often very different.
Approximately 85% of people on the Autistic spectrum have Alexithymia – the inability to express emotion verbally and to some extent physically – difficulty crying for example. When observed by others I suppose it is perfectly reasonable for people to assume that ASD means poor emotional empathy, but inside those emotions are alive and kicking. Indeed it can be common for people on the spectrum to be Oversensitive, to the point where emotions need to be habitually suppressed in order to simply cope and when these emotions do escape – the mental and emotional feedback can be incredibly painful and even psychologically damaging.
Emotion, empathy and relating to others is a huge issue for people on the spectrum, but it is the worst kind of hubris to sum up the emotional abilities of an individual based on the diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. People are complex, and wonderful; they are kind and cruel very brilliant and incredibly stupid and emotionally messy – being on the Autistic spectrum doesn’t change that, in the end, we are just as human.