It has been a common belief, fostered by autism research, that autistic people have a condition referred to as mindblindness; simply put, they are assumed to not understand the other person’s point of view or theory of mind. However, misunderstandings and miscommunications are common occurrences in everyday social interactions. Many people encounter this frequently from divergent perspectives. In personal and romantic relationships, as well as in the work environment, we often hear, “You just don’t understand.” Nonetheless, it is a common belief that autistic people typically lack empathy, but this is a stereotype in necessity of being debunked.
Social difficulties encountered with autism can be better understood by looking at theory of mind as a two-way street. However, this perspective requires a paradigm shift from autism as a defect or deficit to autism as a different way of being. Neurodiversity is that shift to understanding that conditions like autism, dyslexia, and attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc. are naturally occurring cognitive variations with distinctive strengths that have contributed to the evolution of technology and culture rather than mere checklists of deficits and dysfunctions. The term neurodiversity was coined by the Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the early 1990s. This idea has evolved into a civil rights movement by and for autistic people as an offshoot of the disability rights movement which advocates that people with cognitive differences such as autism deserve full human rights and inclusion in normal society. If there is no “normal”, then every individual is uniquely human as Barry Prizant helps us understand from his observations from decades of experience working with children and adults on the autism spectrum in Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism.
Autistic adults speak out frequently on the issue of mindblindness or lack of empathy. Lynne Soraya, for example, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/aspergers-diary/200805/empathy-mindblindness-and-theory-mind?amp, wonders if mindblindness is partially due to the differences between autistic and non-autistic thought processes? She questions whether people with autism are better at understanding people more like themselves. This is certainly congruent with my observations working with groups of young neurodivergent adults.
Soraya also effectively questions whether the difficulty in fully grasping individual differences is so unique to the autism spectrum. If this were the case, why are there so many self-help books, such as Men Are From Mars: Women Are from Venus, to help people understand each other’s social cues and perspectives. There is a consensus that people on the spectrum struggle with social cues (facial expressions and body language), but this is not always the case and those with strong cognitive skills can often use logic to process a situation to understand another’s feelings. Autistic people can be as compassionate as anyone else.
In a recent example in my psychology practice, Sam got angry with his son, Pete, who was looking at his cell phone while talking to his father. Sam thought Pete was not really listening and told his son that it was hard for him to focus on the conversation unless he put his cell phone away. Pete explained that he was looking at his phone because extended eye contact was very difficult for him, causes stress, and actually interferes with being able to focus on what is being said. He explained that his friends who are autistic have similar struggles. In this scenario, Pete did not understand his father’s point of view, and likewise Sam did not understand his son’s point of view. Once we talked about their different points of view, the tension between them dissipated. Sam’s father was no longer troubled by the thought that his son wasn’t listening to him.
Speaking for myself, as I continue to listen to the voices of autistic adults and my own lived experiences, autism continues to teach me what it means to be human. Like Shannon Des Roches Rosa, www.thinkingautismguide.com, I have come to realize that adults with autism who can communicate about their experience help us to understand things we would otherwise never know or understand. We live in a world with a growing awareness of our diversity—simultaneously noticing universal similarities and individual differences and uniqueness. While I speak and from the ground of my experience as a father of an autistic adult son, I continue to be transformed by that experience. I think we’ve got to stop speaking about our different points of view as if they are objective descriptions of social interactions. As individuals we bring different histories and experiences seen through the lens of our neurology. Yet at the same time, we experience the joys and sorrows of life on this planet in much of the same ways.