Paying too Much Attention to Theory of Mind

I’ve been thinking about how to discuss autism in a way that is more than just a list of symptoms.   I would like a description that includes the seriousness of the disability but with terms that don’t indicate that having autism is a static unchanging condition.

It is common to read that people with autism have an impaired theory of mind.   Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has an interesting take on this.  So does Patricia Harkins.

In the book Adapting Minds by David Butler, the author says that Simon Baron Cohen has argued that autism is evidence for a theory of mind module.    The author goes on to explain why he thinks this idea is incorrect.   He makes a lot of good points.

The main point of the author’s book seems to be to discredit evolutionary psychology, and he has an issue with the idea of modularity (as it relates to the brain) in general.   (Here’s an interesting evolutionary psychology primer.  The blog author was nice enough to answer my question in the comments.)

David Butler writes:
An essential characteristic of modules is that they function independently of one another.  Consequently if a module is impaired or malfunctioning, highly specific forms of cognitive or behavioral deficit should result.  These deficits should be confined to the domain of the module and should not affect cognitive or behavioral performance in other domains. 

David Butler takes issue with the false-belief test that is usually used to prove a lack of ToM.  He writes:

Rather than simply being an inability to understand the minds of others, autism appears instead to prevent individuals from being able to damp down the total array of irrelevant inputs to the brain.  

Thus, while autism does involve an inability to pass false-belief tests, it encompasses a wide-ranging array of cognitive and affective deficits relevant to understanding others.   The strongest confirmation of the theory of mind module hypothesis would come from a deficit that disrupted theory of mind but left all other abilities in tact.

If a theory of mind were acquired from some more general learning disabilities, rather than being embedded in a module, it would not be surprising that autistic children fail to acquire a theory of mind given their avoidance of interaction with other people and their inability to attend to complex and changing environmental stimuli. 

Here is a link by others that seem to have the same opinion.  And another.

I think part of what bothers me about the idea of defining autism as a lack of aToM module is that it seems to imply that the brain is static, and that ToM is either on or off.     The term mind blindness or context blindness is very similar.  Why can’t we call it context nearsightedness or mind farsightedness?  I realize that autism is a serious condition and that many individuals have significant disabilities.  But why should we use terms and phrases that are inherently negative and not completely accurate?

I wonder if it would be more accurate to talk about joint attention instead of ToM.  That is really closer to the root of the issues, and does not involve the idea of a self contained module in the brain.

In a review appearing in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, University of Miami psychologists Peter Mundy and Lisa Newell summarize recent findings supporting a theory of joint attention dubbed the “attention-systems model.”
This model proposes that human social cognition is really the extraordinary result of two basic forms of attention. One type of attention, regulated by a specific set of neurons in the brain, involves paying attention to the external world and the actions of people. The second type involves paying attention to the self and is regulated by a different network of neurons.
Mundy and Newell propose that the key to human joint attention is that these two areas of the brain become interconnected throughout development and interact so we can simultaneously keep track of the direction of self and other’s attention. Interestingly, communication between brain regions, especially those implicated in initiating joint attention, is one of the main cognitive impairments of autism.

It seems to me that it is accurate to say that autism involves a deficit in processing information that leads to delays in joint attention,and the delays in joint attention lead to the symptoms we commonly associate with autism.

A description like this implies significant disability is possible.  But instead of describing autism as a lack of humanity, it seems to describe how what we call autism really is a natural part of the human condition.   It also offers a root cause (a deficit in processing), and the idea of developmental progression.  So contained within the description are ways to help an individual with autism.

Reference: Adapting Minds, David Butler, (The MIT Press, 2006) pages 191 – 193

Special thanks to L. for talking me through this and suggesting the perfect reading material.