Post 7 for 10/18: Counterevidence to the Theory of Mind Hypothesis

The “theory of mind” cause was first proposed by Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith in their paper “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?” (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985). The title of the paper is a (perhaps unpleasant) reference to an older paper by Premack and Woodruff called “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” They defined having a “theory of mind” as the ability to impute mental states to oneself and others (Premack and Woodruff, 1978). That is, the ability to think about what other people believe, and to make predictions based on those inferences. Although many autistic people fail the typical “theory of mind” tasks, some autistic people do not, and the theory lacks full explanatory power. Additionally, there are plenty of examples of autistic people showing that they can reason about the minds of others.

Mel Baggs wrote about the use of the term “cousin” to describe people who are not clinically autistic but are involved in the autistic community and share similar characteristics, and how she thought the term should be brought back. Baggs writes about a man who she thought, although he was not autistic, “identified with autistic people a good deal due to his hydrocephalus. Autistic people, likewise, found that they could identify with him.” Baggs discussion of how people identify with others suggests that Baggs can easily reason about the minds of others. (

Alex Plank wrote a post about autism in the media, discussing negative portrayals that he must speak out against, but also progress that has been made in the last 25 years, from Rain Man to TV shows like The Bridge and The Good Doctor. Plank also writes about the effect that media has on our lives, saying, “everything we do, everything we think, and everything we feel is influenced by the stories told by those in the media.” Planks writing on how other people think suggest he reasons all the time about the minds of others. (

Ido Kedar is a non-speaking autistic writer and advocate. Kedar posted an essay written by his friend Dillan, a runner who is autistic, about what it is like for him to run. In a preface, Kedar describes how Dillan “mentally gets liberated from autism while running. How lucky to get a respite from autism.” Kedar’s writing about Dillan’s mental state is evidence that he reasons about the minds of others. (

  1. Indeed! Some have pointed out that it’s NTs who are afflicted (or also afflicted) with ToM challenges, an issue that has been referred to as the “double empathy problem”

    The ‘double empathy problem’ refers to the mutual
    incomprehension that occurs between people of
    different dispositional outlooks and personal
    conceptual understandings when attempts are
    made to communicate meaning.
     In a sense it is a ‘double problem’ as both people
    experience it, and so it is not a singular problem
    located in any one person.
     The ‘empathy’ problem being a ‘two-way street’ has
    been mentioned by both ‘autistic writers’ (Sinclair,
    1993) and non-autistic writers alike (Hacking, 2009).


  2. Ben,

    I think we can all agree that the theory of mind hypothesis for autism does not really work. We have read numerous accounts from Higashida, in my memoir from Cynthia Kim, and in the Robledo piece where people with autism can actively tell you that they do have a theory of mind; I think we should believe them as they are the people with the “lived experience”. Also, as I am writing this after our exchange. I had a really amazing experience with Charlie when the GKTC guys came to visit and he was very concerned about my well being and asked if I was okay during the panel discussion because I was coughing. If that is not theory of mind, I do not know what is.

    Thanks for the post,
    Jordan Benderoth

  3. This is a fascinating and well researched paper on why autistic people do in fact have a theory of mind, and I think that Higashida further proves this point. He often references the anxiety he feels as a result of messing things up, and though he may be incorrect in his assumption of the feelings of others, he admits that he thinks people think negative things about him after these supposed mess-ups. In the book I read for class “The Journal of Best Practices,” Finch also learns of his ability to “read” and understand his wife’s emotions. Once he realizes that he may not be as proficient at this as NTs, he makes a point of learning how to be a better husband by anticipating her reactions and emotions. Certainly I believe as well that these cases show autistic people can and do have a theory of mind.

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