Autism, Empathy & 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, or perhaps more commonly, lack of intentions. For example:

Does someone want to get to know me or are they talking to me because they want something?

Is somebody not speaking to me because they are annoyed at me, or are they simply lost in their own thoughts? 

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 not on the autistic spectrum would immediately understand. Does this mean I lack empathy?

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.


Empathy?Empathy is the capacity to understand and share feelings with others. It is difficult to understand something when you simply aren’t aware it is there.

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 and anything more subtle and I am likely to miss it completely. The part of my brain which interprets facial expressions – the posterior superior temporal sulcus, doesn’t function as well as it should.

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 over sensitive, 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.

It is easy to assume then, that someone on the Autistic Spectrum is unfeeling or insensitive when they say things or behave in a way which is inappropriate to a situation, but when you are wearing an emotional blindfold, sometimes it is unavoidable. Does that count as a lack of empathy?

Theory of mind.

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, to put 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.

By definition, 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 anothers shoes.

There is a great deal literature explaiing 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 or feelings. Typically, the more severe the Autism, the poorer the “Theory of Mind”.

Theory of mind is however a very academic concept – a useful diagnostic tool. In the real world, nothing is so black and white. A human being cannot be summed up so easily.

Emotion, empathy and relating to others can all be challenging to Autistic people to varying degrees, but it is the worst kind of hubris to sum up the emotional range of an individual based on the diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. People are complex, and wonderful; they are kind and cruel and they can be 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 and just as flawed. We just struggle to show emotion sometimes, and other times we struggle to see it, and occasionally we struggle to control it. In the end, we are just a part of the human spectrum, like everyone else.

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince