Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Empathy, Mindblindness, and Theory of Mind

Do people with autism truly lack empathy?

In a 2001 research paper, Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and other's minds."

For many of those with autism or Asperger's, mindblindness, or lack of Theory of Mind creates major barriers to communication and closeness. These barriers often lead to those nearest to the individual feel, whether real or perceived, a lack of empathy from the individual.

When I think of Theory of Mind, I think of an amusing, but of course very inaccurate, belief I harbored as a young child. While playing games like hide and seek, I used to think, "If I can't see them, they can't see me." Of course, I learned very quickly that that was not the case. However, the mindblindness of individuals with autism or Asperger's can be similar - "If I can't/don't feel it or perceive it, then they can't/don't feel it or perceive it" (or vice versa).

Take the following example typically used to test children's Theory of Mind skills:

Someone who has a full grasp of Theory of Mind will immediately know that Sally will look where she last left the ball. She does not know that the ball has been moved. A person with poor Theory of Mind skills will believe that Sally will look for the ball in the box, because they do not fully grasp that Sally will not know what Ann has done.

While some professionals will say, as in a quote from Stephen Edelson Ph.D., "...many autistic individuals do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view," I think this is overly simplistic. For myself, I can say that I absolutely understand that people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view - but those plans, thoughts, and points of view are often a mystery to me.

Exploring possible causes, I begin to wonder - is it possible that the mindblindness is partially due to the differences between autistic and non-autistic thought processes? Could it be that people with autism/Asperger's are less mindblind with others like themselves? I don't know, but it seems logical to me. I know that I feel more at ease, more "on the same wavelength" with others like me.

So, here it comes - the "E" word - empathy. On the wall in one of my childhood classrooms was a copy of Norman Rockwell's painting, "The Golden Rule." I recall staring at those words, day after day as we lined up in the doorway - "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." It sank in.

From a young age, I incorporated that axiom into my belief structure. But here's where the problem comes in - what I would want "done unto me" is entirely different than what another might want. Likewise, "Putting myself in the other person's shoes" would have me doing something very different than what another person might envision doing in a similar situation. So, the logic is faulty.

But - is a failure to fully grasp individual differences truly that unusual? If it were, then why do we have so many relationship self-help books such as "Men Are From Mars: Women Are from Venus" or "The Five Love Languages", to help us decode each others' signals and thought processes? If the population in general is so good at mind reading, why do people need so much coaching to meet each others' needs?

The reality of the matter is that all people are different in their needs, and even "normal" (or as we prefer to call them, neurotypical) people seem to struggle to comprehend all of these differences. So, where's the line between "normal" struggling, and "mindblindness?"

All this difficulty in understanding the thoughts and reactions of others lead many to say that people with autism or Asperger's lack empathy. But, is this really true? Is it really a lack of empathy, or a lack of understanding?

I consider myself a very soft hearted person. When a character in a movie or television show is embarrassed, I feel embarrassed for them. When around someone who is crying, or in deep emotional pain, I often feel like crying with them, comforting them. Many people with autism and Asperger's are very close to their pets, and are very nurturing and empathetic toward them.

Could it be that the belief that autistic people lack empathy is really a lack of understanding of what people with autism and Asperger's understand about others' state of mind?

Zosia Zaks' article, "Myth: Autistic people lack empathy", explores this question, using the movie "Rain Man" as an example. The typical interpretation of the movie has the autistic character, Raymond, doing things that could be characterized as lacking empathy. But Zaks' article turns this interpretation on its head, wondering if, perhaps, it's not Raymond who's lacking the empathy, but the non-autistic character, Charlie.

In her article "Who cares? Or: The Truth about Empathy in Individuals of the Autism Spectrum," researcher Isabel Dziobek outlines her study on the subject of empathy. Through the course of the study, more than 50 subjects on the spectrum were evaluated against neurotypical control subjects. The results? To quote Ms. Dziobek - "More generally speaking, our data shows that people with Asperger syndrome have a reduced ability to read other peoples' social cues (such as facial expressions or body language) but once aware of another's circumstances or feelings, they will have the same degree of compassion as anyone else."

What do you think?

More from Psychology Today

More from Lynne Soraya

More from Psychology Today