San Francisco Chronicle autism blogger Laura Shumaker today presents this quote from Dr. Susan Ashely's 2006 book The Asperger’s Answer Book: Professional Answers to 275 of the Top Questions Parents Ask as an authoritative, neutral statement on theory of mind:
Theory of Mind (ToM)is the ability to make attributions. Attributions are the thoughts we create about others in order to explain what happens in our interactions with and observations of them. No one actually teaches us to make attributions; we just do it automatically. For the most part, we can make good guesses at someone’s intentions. From these inferences, we determine how to react to them.
Children and teens with Asperger’s are deficient in ToM. They do not comprehend that others have thoughts and feelings that are different from their own. They cannot stand in someone else’s shoes.
What's wrong with that?
Laura presents one point of view on a controversial subject as fact. I recommend anyone seriously interested in theory of mind visit Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's site Autism and Empathy and this essay she wrote on the topic:
Now, I will readily admit that I cannot infer a person’s mental state by reading nonverbal cues. And while I can reflect endlessly upon the mental processes of neuro-typical people, I find certain of their characteristics unfathomable. Why do people enjoy socializing? What do they get out of it? Why are most people put off by discussion about serious matters? I haven’t a clue.
But let’s turn the tables for a moment. Let’s look at how unfathomable autistic people seem to the vast majority of neuro-typical folk. For many decades, scientists had no ToM regarding the mental processes of an autistic person. Guess how they found out? An autistic person wrote about it. She put it into words. She had to, because your average human being could not infer the mental state of an autistic person by translating his or her nonverbal cues.
The Sally-Anne test which Simon Baron-Cohen uses to support his theory relies on complex verbal instructions which autistic people may not understand. When a similar test is presented through drawing, autistic children may do slightly better than other children.
Ashely's explanation is especially problematic because she uses exclusive language. Even if one embraces the theory of mind deficit as a core component of autism, it would be more accurate and professional to write this:
Children and teens with Asperger’s may be deficient in ToM. They may have trouble comprehending that others have thoughts and feelings that are different from their own. They may find it harder than their peers to stand in someone else’s shoes.
Autism is a spectrum. Having a child on one part of the spectrum does not mean that you are an expert on people on another part of the spectrum. If someone asks you questions about what things are like for people with Asperger's syndrome, it's not okay to use neurotypical experts and other neurotypical parents experts as your only source if you are answering for a major publication. If you're not willing to take the time to actually get some input from someone who has Asperger's syndrome, you should probably just not answer the question.
Unquestionably the most upsetting thing I read about autism and the Colorado shooting came from San Francisco autism blogger Laura Shumaker:
My son Matthew was home over the weekend, and I did everything in my power not only to protect him from the 24 hour news coverage of the horrible massacre in Colorado, but to make sure he was closely supervised at all times. Even with all the work I have done to increase autism awareness and acceptance, people still are uncomfortable with his social quirks, and are hyper-anxious around him after events like the one in Aurora. And who could blame them?
Who could blame them?
Who could blame them?
Well, anyone who has not swallowed a lot of ignorant lies about autistic people would blame them.
Laura either does not know or does not care that autistic people like her son Matthew are much more likely to be victims of crime than criminals. She does not understand that the problem with what Joe Scarborough said about James Holmes is that he reinforced a negative and untrue stereotype about autistic people (we are likely to be serial killers). She seems to believe that such a connection is reasonable and understandable, but that Joe just went too far:
I don’t think that Mr. Scarborough meant to imply that all murderers are on the autism, spectrum, but he did, and he shouldn’t have, so he should RETRACT, with a sincere apology.
Laura is right that it is not okay to imply that all murderers are on the autism spectrum. But, probably in part because, like Joe Scarborough, she has gotten a lot of her ideas from Autism Speaks, she does not understand that it is wrong to say that autism makes people more likely to kill.
Why did this bother me so much?
Because Laura is nice and smart and good. She has a big following which she deserves.
And she has internalized (and is spreading) the most negative stereotypes possible about the autistic people, including her son, who she claims to advocate for, at least to the point where she thinks people should not be blamed for scapegoating us for murder.
And that makes me incredibly sad.
Update: Laura has made some changes to clarify her meaning.