dear dr baron-cohen, um, no.

Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985)

Does the autistic child have a theory of mind?

According to Simon Baron-Cohen the core deficit of autism is the autistic person’s inability to employ a theory of mind.

It is argued that a child develops a theory of mind between 4 and 6 years of age. Although some evidence has demonstrated that children as young as two have a theory of mind. Having a theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have independent minds of their own.

Developing a theory of mind allows the child to begin to understand other people, and to predict what other people are likely to do and believe. It is the ability to think about other people’s, or one’s own thoughts.

Baron-Cohen argues that autistic people do not seem to develop a theory of mind.



{Image is a photo of Talulah* the opera singing muppet from Elmo’s World. *Not her real name.}

As soon as I picked Brooke up from her sleepover at Ana’s house, she made it clear that she had a plan. We were to head straight home to watch Elmo’s World. She’d had a wonderful time. She wanted to do it again. And she desperately needed the comfort of routine.

As we sat watching the parts of the show that she’d cherry picked for viewing, she asked about Talulah.

I have no idea if that’s really her name, but it’s what we call her. That or, “The opera lady.”

She’s an opera singing muppet one of the Elmo’s World videos and Brooke can’t stand her. Which is quite stunning progress, really. as she used to be terrified of her. I much prefer “can’t stand” to “terrified.”

She asked me one day if Talulah liked her. I said, “I’m sure that she would if she knew you.” She said, “But she doesn’t know me, so she doesn’t like me.” It was hard to argue with her logic.

“Talulah doesn’t like me because she doesn’t know me” became a script. It was adapted to anyone that made Brooke uncomfortable, including Mr. Noodle’s nephew, Mr. Noodle, who works at Sesame Place and who scared the hell out of her. She doesn’t like him. He doesn’t like her. Because he doesn’t know her. Done.

As we watched Elmo sit down to the piano to sing about Heaven knows what, Brooke launched into the script. “Does Talulah like me?” she asked.

“She doesn’t know you, baby,” I said.

“Would she like me if she knew me?” she asked.

“I can’t imagine that she wouldn’t, kiddo.” I said truthfully.

“But she can’t talk to me,” she said.

This was new. I wasn’t sure where she was going with it.

“Why not, Brooke?” I asked.

“Because she thinks I’m a stranger,” she said.






SHE thinks.

Could someone please get Dr. Baron-Cohen on the phone?

I think my daughter just told him that he can put his theory where the sun don’t shine.





16 thoughts on “dear dr baron-cohen, um, no.

  1. I’ve always been wary of Simon Baron Cohen’s theories.

    As someone with autism I’m very aware that other people percieve the world differently to me and are not aware of things that I know.

    I personally don’t think TOM deficits are a symptom of autism per se, just a result of delayed learning. In other words it just takes us a bit longer to figure it all out – but we get there eventually 🙂

  2. Just some observations from my house full of Aspies. My girls and I have plenty of ability to use theory of mind…in particular situations. We easily perceive and read others emotions. We all know if someone is happy or sad or angry. We girls empathize heavily with others. (Often to out own detriment.) My youngest has become the class comforter at school. If anyone is hurt, not only does she alert the teacher, she offers sympathy and the comfort of her presence. She also offers up distraction as she tries to make the injured child laugh. I would say that she is using theory of mind, empathy, and her imagination. However, when SHE is uncomfortable or stressed or in pain or anxious…her ability to look past her needs and see the needs of others, vanishes. She is consumed with her experience alone. I think that this is where the confusion comes in. This is the very hardest for the male Aspie in our house. He is an engineer, business owner, painfully logical, fact-seeker…and not overly empathetic. First, he is a guy. So, in my experience, lots of guys are more thinkers than feelers. Second, he is a technically- minded person. If it can’t be understood with logic or a diagram or a flow chart or a balance sheet….forget it. Unfortunately, he uses those same strategies when dealing with humans, feelings, and emotions. It often gets him in trouble. (Clearing throat.) He has plenty of emotions (although he seems less aware of the expression of those emotions than those around him can clearly see.) He is very imaginative and creative when it comes to solving technical problems. But, put him in a situation where someone else is in pain or expressing strong anger or grief…and HE IS OUT OF THERE. Of course he has theory of mind. He clearly sees the other person’s pain and suffering. He simply cannot apply logic or charts to solving the problem and that sends him into pure fight-or-flight mode. He has no mechanism for expressing his reaction to seeing another’s pain, and he cannot bear it. (Jess, you and I chatted about this about a year ago.) I have watched and used my own logic to see the pattern in him. I know it is there. He has TOM, empathy, and imagination, but he does not always have the ability to fulfill all the duties of a husband and father that would require him to put other’s needs first. He doesn’t mean to be selfish, but, without understanding, his behavior, at times, appears to be grossly self-centered. So, I don’t know what “theory” covers that concept, or what word would better define it, but it is a real phenomenon and can be quite hard to understand. I have reached the point that I have accepted that it is fundamentally beyond his ability to do some of these things. Just as a vision-impaired person could not be forced to see, I cannot force him to “get it.” I have to accept that it is a limitation due do his neurological wiring. He literally cannot do it, no matter how hard he tries. That is true acceptance of difference…but the hardest thing to do with invisible disability. Even when you have it, too.

  3. The only part of his theory that is at all correct for my son is the inability to predict part. I don’t think he mentioned body language reading. At 15 he knows he has those issues so he studies reactions and body language he has memorized countless examples and can now come close to predicting by examples. So has he taught himself theory of mind? Or did he need to just fit it to his unique wiring. I wonder if the author predicted we would gather and discuss how wrong he was and believe he could stuff his theory.

    Cynthia Stecker

  4. Theory of mind; an old theory by none other than Doctor Sigmund Freud who believed that the mind belonged to three parts Ego, Superego, and Id. your ego and superego belonging to more baseline instinctual human natures (thats where you are when you dream and Why you do stuff you would never in good sound of mind do in real life) and Id being who you consciously are it has been said that all humans have a sense of id or self but it isn’t developed until later in life but at the younger years ones sense of id is noticed from farther off in ones dream world and then is brought up to them at a later stage of life. So medical hyperbole cast away, This doctor has said autistic people are void of (any) personality. As an Autistic adult I can clearly say. That man don’t know me or anyone who is autistic.

  5. Exactly! My youngest puts himself in other people’s shoes all the time. My oldest who is severe looks to see what expressions I have on my face and often takes cues from there. Makes me wonder if Dr. B has actually had any real conversations with autistic adults or has just been trying to prove his theory…

  6. I can’t wait for my boy to prove all of the “experts” wrong, He already is. And thank God, he’s proving my misconceptions of what autism is wrong EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. I’ve never liked being wrong so much in my life. You give me hope, I can see the picture of where we are to where we can go thanks to your blog. The sky is the limit for our kiddos! You inspire me, Jess. So much that I’m going to try writing my own ramblings. They won’t sound as eloquent as yours but I think it will be good for me to walk through this journey with words. Thank you for being such an amazing voice for all of us!

  7. Just awesome. My 14 yr old autistic son is very limited verbally, but he has expressed his understanding of others so many times. A great example is with his baby brother. He’s made comments like “Jackson is feeling sad. He is crying”. He gets that his brother’s feelings are different from his own.

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