MINDBLIND Means They Can’t See You
People with Asperger’s syndrome (AS) are “mindblind.” This deficit explains why they’re so completely self-centered.
To understand how the mind of a person with AS works, and how it affects those who are closely involved with them, you need understand two main things: Theory of Mind and Mindblindness.
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the University’s Autism Research Center, describes Theory of Mind as “…being able to infer the full range of mental states (emotions, beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.”
That means people with AS have no insight into anyone else’s emotions, beliefs, desires, intentions, or anything else. They don’t have any insight into their own, either.
Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states — emotions, beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own. Without this “theory of mind,” a person is “mindblind.” Mindblindness creates major barriers to communication and closeness. A person who is mindblind is unaware of other people’s mental existence. They are also unaware that they’re unaware of it.
The result of mindblindness is total blindness to another person’s needs, feelings and desires.
How will you feel if you’re involved with someone who is mindblind? Invalidated, unsupported, unheard and unknown.
It feels that way because it is that way. AS is a neurological disorder that renders its victims hopelessly mindblind… and unable to know that they are.
Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, a psychotherapist who treats people with AS and their partners, explains it well:
“What is theory of mind? It is a person’s ability to imagine the interior life of another person. This includes understanding why someone else does something, how someone might feel in a certain circumstance, what might be important to that person; in short, it is the ability to put oneself in the mind of another person and see the world from that person’s point of view. Theory of mind means being able to create a theory about the way another person’s mind works.
Theory of mind provides the basis for empathy because if you can walk in someone else’s shoes, you also become capable, by extension, of feeling any pain or delight that person experiences. You understand motivation. You catch a glimpse of fears and dislikes. You get to know the other person from the inside out.”
A person who is mindblind is not able to empathize with another individual. Empathy connects people emotionally. In order to have a close relationship, emotional connection is required. Without empathy—an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings, mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care—there can be no real connection. Not only that, but the person who does have empathy will be harmed.
Without empathy, we experience emotional deprivation and all that goes with it—including depression, low self-esteem, living with constant stress, fear and unresolved anger, mental breakdown, physical illness, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.
Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs. We’re born with them. We seek relationships for the purpose of mutual fulfillment of these needs. If they are not being met, mental and physical health will suffer. People with little or no empathy can not meet these needs.
We all have fundamental emotional needs, and that does not mean we’re needy (a common accusation of the empathy-challenged) — it means we’re human.
To see the effects of mindblindness on others, read the personal accounts on the “Words from Those Who Know” page. It’s devastating.
“Now I realize that there must be many many exhausted, isolated, deeply sad women out there trying to cope with a very difficult situation alone, because so few understand. My husband is a beautiful, gentle, intelligent individual but this does not prevent my suffering. Denying one’s self and sacrificing all basic emotional needs every single day, giving up the most important personal desires bit by bit as the years go by, is so damaging. I wish support was better organised for partners of Asperger’s… It is enough to make one crazy and there is no help around.”
People with AS become angry when told they are unempathetic. In fact, they’ll insist you’re the one without empathy. Why? Because they’re mindblind.
According to Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, University of Cambridge and Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge; Director, Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge:
“So why might people with autism in the online community challenge this view (that they have no- or low- empathy) ? One possibility is that it is in the nature of empathy that people who are low in empathy are often the last people to be aware of it. This is because empathy goes hand-in-hand with self-awareness, or imagining how others see you, and it is in this very area that people with autism struggle.
A better source of information for whether someone with autism has an empathy disability might therefore be a third party, such as a teacher or parent or independent observer. When it comes to empathy, self-report is highly unreliable. For this reason, I would always advise that results from the questionnaires like the EQ (the self-report version) should be corroborated by other independent sources of evidence.
An analogy might be with colour blindness. Many people who are colour blind are the last people to know about it, until they are given a test of it by an optician or vision scientist. They simply assumed that they were seeing the same colours as everyone else.”
Into the looking glass: Discerning the social mind through the mindblind, in (ed.) Advances in Group Processes (Advances in Group Processes, Volume 18), David Sally (2001), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp.99 – 128
Autism results in an asocial mind, and hence, is a disorder worthy of the attention of social psychologists, sociologists and economists. Work in developmental psychology and neuroscience reveals that autistic individuals have a faulty theory of mind and cannot take the attitude of the other. The “mindblind” have a disablement of the neurally-based sympathetic system: they manifest deficits in imitation, in emotional contagion, in understanding the thoughts, desires and plans of other people, in pretending and in conversation. The same intertwined set of deficits is present when, on occasion, non-autists lose their mindseeing abilities. A theory of mind and sympathy are shown to be critical to a variety of forms of social interaction.