top of page

Autism & Relationships 3 - Empathy 'Mind Reading' - (Theory of Mind)

Understanding what someone might be thinking or feeling isn't mind reading - it's Theory of Mind. Some say autistic people don't have it, but they're sorely mistaken. But if that's the case - why do autistic people & neurotypical partners, friends & family often have so much trouble understanding each other? #Actually Autistic #AllAutistics#AskingAutistics#Autism Part 1: Dealing with Diagnosis Part 2: "You've Changed" Find more at Made with Shotcut, open source video editing software Images, stock video, sound effects and music not created by the channel have been obtained from YouTube creator resources or from the following sources: (author - Videvo) Every effort has been made to ensure that copyrights are respected and that material used is in the public domain. Where copyrighted material is used it is under the terms of "fair use" for educational purposes. All copyrights remain the property of their respective owners.


Autistamatic 0:03

Have you ever met someone with the uncanny ability to know what people want? who always says the right thing

Unknown Speaker 0:11

at the right time? Almost as if they could read people's minds? What do you know someone who never seems to get what you're thinking

Unknown Speaker 0:19

misjudges your mood and keeps on saying the wrong things. The time for knowing what other people might be thinking or what they're

Unknown Speaker 0:27

likely to say or do is called theory of mind. Some people seem to be highly skilled at it, while others are not so hard. And there's no doubt that those skills have an impact on our relationships with others. Today, we'll be asking, Where does theory of mind come from? Does everybody have it? And can it sometimes work against us? Let's start by talking about what theory of mind actually is. It's a survival technique. While it Earth has always been a dangerous place. In the early days of humanity, we lived as small family groups, they grew into tribes and settlements, towns and cities leading up to the nation states and Global Connections of today. The origins of theory of mind go back to the primitive days of hunter gatherers. Being able to predict the likely behaviors of animals who might prey on you afforded a better chance of escape. Understanding the behavior of animals we hunted, improved our chances of finding a hearty meal. Both of these traits favored survival. So the parts of our brains that made it possible for passed on to later generations. Theory of Mind is the ability to make an educated guess about what another conscious being may be thinking, feeling or motivated by, it allows us to anticipate their actions, giving us a chance to plan ahead. As communities grew, farming became the norm and the risk from predators abated. We didn't lose those abilities though. new threats emerged. Now we face the possibility of violence from rivals and thieves or deception from liars and cheats. We already had the hardware in place, the nature of the skills we needed veered away from defense against nature, red in tooth and claw, towards the fickle nature of other people. It became a way of identifying friend from foe and understand when we were being deceived. theory of mind as we eventually came to know it goes by other names. in psychology, it's commonly used interchangeably with the phrase cognitive empathy. We also know it is common sense, or sense, navs savvy, gut feeling and intuition. Another name that's commonly used is instinct. But that's misleading. an instinct is something that's programmed into us at a genetic level. instinct drives us to eat, drink or sleep. It's instinct which makes us run from danger or seek a mate to procreate. All animals have instincts. A theory of mind requires more sophisticated brains. We're not born with it, we learn it over time, it's habit, rather than essential drive. Our instinct will tell us to run or hide from a predator. But our theory of mind may tell us we have a chance to fight back, we'll see it as an opportunity for food. Theory of Mind is what makes us competitive against the odds. It makes us gamblers. But ultimately, it is what has made humans a highly successful social species. Our ability to approximate the thoughts of others to put ourselves in their shoes allows us to make better decisions to consider the needs of others and to understand the value of friends, allies and family. It helps us make quick decisions based on past experiences or experiences we've learned from others. parables and fables are ways of communicating aspects of theory of mind from one generation to another. On the other hand, it creates opportunities for deception, corruption, and aggression that wouldn't exist if we survived on instinct alone. It's a double edged sword without doubt, but one which has been essential in our transition from plains dwelling hunter gatherers sleeping in the open to specialized workers in city building civilizations. Back in the 1940s, when autism was first identified, it was assumed that autistic people lacked any theory of mind. Later on theories suggested that our theory of mind was childishly limited, that it lacked maturity or was underdeveloped. Some people still cling to those ideas, even including some of those who describe themselves as experts in the field. over many years, autistic people have established your sense of community by sharing our understanding of ourselves and how we relate to others.

Unknown Speaker 5:26

The truth that has emerged about our theory of mind is a long way from those primitive and unimaginative ideas. All theory of mind is very closely tied to cognitive bias. Our assumptions about what other people may be thinking are based heavily on how we believe we may think ourselves in a given situation. We make rapid assessments of what we believe to be the emotional motivations of someone else, and we judge them based upon what we think we would do in the same situation. If we were motivated in the same way. We may not be selfish, thoughtless or intending harm upon someone,

Unknown Speaker 6:05

but we can imagine how we might behave or react if we have those motivations. theatrical psychics and fake clairvoyance use an expanded understanding of theory of mind to execute their convincing illusions on stage. They get it wrong frequently, but their study of human nature and probability increases their success rate.

Unknown Speaker 6:28

Criminal profilers go a step further in order to build up a picture of their targets and predict their next moves. They must try to imagine the workings of a brain very different from their own. Their techniques use theory of mind augmented by scientific observations to achieve their goals. Most people are not criminal profilers, though. Ordinary theory of mind only works efficiently when two people's minds work in much the same way as each other. If one of those minds works differently, errors will creep in. And the further apart those differences lie, the more frequently mistakes will be made. We see it all the time when we interact with animals. we superimpose human characteristics on animals, even when the behaviors they're exhibiting might not mean the same for their species. When a human narrows our eyes to slits, we associated with sly cunning or shifty behavior, and a signal for us to be wary. When a cat does the same, it's a sign that they're comfortable in your presence and a sign of affection. The distance between neurotypical and autistic thought processes is not as wide as some would have you believe. It is wide enough that our regular processes of theory of mind are not as accurate as we might like to think. Put simply, any assumption we make about how we would think or behave in somebody else's shoes will not be as reliable if those shoes don't fit academically is called the double empathy problem. This affects both sides equally when communicating between neuro types, but it has historically affected the autistic side more notably than the non autistic. It's simply down to numbers. neurotypical people outnumber autistic people by approximately 30 to one based on current best estimates. Statistically, that puts us at a disadvantage. The average neurotypical person has 30 times as many opportunities to learn from minds that are similar to their own than they do from those that aren't. This is why so many autistic people are dismissed by those around us as freaks and weirdos. It's easier to simply write off that which we don't understand than to make the effort to learn about differences that we rarely encounter. For the artist, the opposite is true. Being so outnumbered, we are forced to either learn the inner workings of minds that function differently than ours, or fail. As part of the process we call masking, which was covered in the video linked above. And we'll be returning to masking later as part of the series. We are incentivized to learn about neurotypical thinking in order to survive, whereas most neurotypical people have little incentive to learn about ours. It becomes a vital importance though when autistic and non autistic people form a relationship of some sort. Whether we're talking about romance, married family members or friends, if we don't share the same understanding of how people behave, and what various signals we used to communicate to intended to mean, it can have serious consequences. It's also a major concern in the workplace. But that's a subject for other videos on this channel. Differences in theory of mind are very small between two neurotypical people or two autistic people. Whilst everyone is you niQ regardless of neuro type, the broad strokes are largely similar. When we are of different neuro types, making the wrong assumption about what the other is thinking, this was making mistakes. We think we receive signals that aren't there. Or we misinterpret ones that our mistakes can be as benign as buying the wrong birthday gift, or as ominous as exchanging accusations of cruelty, thoughtlessness, or infidelity. As with all relationship problems, good communication is at the heart of the solution. This is one area where communication alone is not enough. We have to reach deep within ourselves, to admit that things that we have always taken for granted might be leading us astray. People might not be as predictable as we thought, because not everybody thinks feels or expresses themselves according to the same rules you're used to. There are a number of common characteristics within autistic thoughts and emotions that are different to everyday expectations. These frequently lead to misunderstandings with non autistic people. in later episodes, some of these will be described in more detail. But for now, we just need to establish that when one of us thinks we know what the other is thinking or feeling based on what we might think or feel, we can

Unknown Speaker 11:25

sometimes be unimaginably wrong. If an autistic person makes an assumption about the feelings or thoughts of someone who isn't autistic, because that's what they would do, they might be way off the mark. By the same token, conventionally accepted ideas of human behavior can break down when you're a typical people apply them to their autistic partners, friends and family members. Theory of Mind is exactly what it says it is. A personal theory about the mind state of another. It's an educated guess at best. We make constant assumptions about other people that have a pretty good success rate, providing we're on an even playing field. When one of us is autistic, and the other not, the playing conditions are not ideal. So we need to create new strategies to ensure fair play. How do we go about this? How do we increase the odds that the bets we're placing on the thoughts and behaviors of those we care about are more likely to pay off? It's quite straightforward when you think about it. We have to stop gambling and start making better informed decisions. We stop making assumptions about each other, and learn to ask what the other is thinking. This doesn't mean we live our lives as one long question and answer session. We simply have to resist the temptation to assume the worst in each other, if the signals we think we are getting are not what we expect or hope for. If there's one question that my wife and I asked each other more than any other, it's, are you okay? Most often the reply is yes. What do you ask? Usually, the reason is that some aspect of our behavior has been interpreted by the other as a signal that we might be unhappy, distracted or angry. It might be a facial expression, a sigh, a tone of voice, or the way we worded something even timing, pausing too long, or answering too quickly can send out signals. If we ask for clarification, when we think someone is feeling negative towards us, we can avoid the potential for conflict if our intuition was incorrect. Of course, we also have to be willing to accept their explanation, and not simply go on thinking our original interpretation is correct. If we don't accept and truly believe that we were wrong, we achieved nothing. There will be times when we are correcting our assumptions. But the simple act of asking the question will open the door to discussion and resolution. There is little room to harbor resentment, no potential for grudges to develop if we talk openly at the time and clear the air of it's needed. In many relationships between neurotypical and autistic partners, this doesn't happen. Even I had to learn this the hard way by getting it wrong in my own past. If we lack the mutual understanding that our assumptions may be flawed, we will carry on making judgments based on our personal perceptions of what constitutes normal behavior. It will ultimately lead to disaster. You might find yourself in a situation where you've done your very best and have nothing but the most noble of motivations, but get accused of the most terrible thoughts and intent. Your partner, friend or family member has misunderstood your facial expression. Body language or choice of words, making them believe things you know to be untrue. They tell you what you're thinking or feeling, and you struggle to tell them the truth, but their mind is made up. Both sides feel unfairly treated and emotionally wounded. Even worse, we may keep our wounded feelings bottled up, we avoid the confrontation and the pain it will bring. Our resentment grows, and that can lead us to making rash decisions. We may end relationships we could have healed if only we trusted our partners word more than our own preconceptions. asking for clarification and trusting the answers is the best way to overcome the limitations of theory of mind in close relationships. Don't be tempted to make assumptions, and don't let negative feelings fester. Take the time to learn the subtle, unique ways in which our loved ones communicate as individuals. There is no greater expression of love or friendship than trust. Theory of Mind is just a theory and theories can sometimes be wrong. If you click up here on the left, you can subscribe to the channel for more videos on autistic life. And over here on the right, you can see another film from this series on autism and relationships

Unknown Speaker 16:27


Unknown Speaker 16:28

visit autistic Thank you for watching

Transcribed by


Thank You for Visiting Everything Neurodiversity!

Hello, Thank you for visiting Everything Neurodiversity. This site is a passion project of mine. The hosting costs are minimal and I try to dedicate time to it whenever I can. I intend to keep this site as educational and ad free. 

I have learned a great deal from working on this site and the social platforms that go along with it. So much that I have started another site dedicated to building a more sustainable and easier fashion shopping expiereince. It has recently been selected for sponsorship in the Microsoft Founders Hub Program and I'm excited for the new developments this will enable. The first 10,000 users who make a purchase through the site will get lifetime Premier Status enabling rewards up to 17%! Check it out here: RunwayRewards.Shop or browse the integrated page below: 

popular posts




HR Resources