Without #TheoryOfMind, #ToSiriWithLove wouldn’t be the dumpster fire it is

picture of screaming man kneeling with blindfold on and barbed wire wrapped around his body - theory of mind is meaningless and causes pain to autistic people
Haven’t autistic people suffered from the “Theory of Mind” hypothesis long enough?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this infamous “Siri” book, lately, and while some people are absolutely horrified by the author’s attitude about her son, there’s something deeper and larger that really bothers me about this book. In fact, I think without this element, the book – and the attitudes of the author, which give the book its overarching tone – might not even exist.

That factor is the influence of the “Theory of Mind” (ToM) hypothesis, popularized and commercialized by Simon Baron-Cohen. The ToM hypothesis posits that autistic people lack “the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. – to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own” (thank you, Wikipedia)

There is some great thinking around why this theory is wrong, so wrong, and the implications of it, so I won’t go into all of it. See Sharing: Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind | Yergeau | Disability Studies Quarterly,  Theory of Mind, my Ass,  and We can stop suffering from Theory of Mind, Now. Study reports: Interaction Takes Two: Typical Adults Exhibit Mind-Blindness Towards Those on Autism Spectrum on this blog for more of my writing about it.

I think it’s fair to say that “Theory of Mind” started wreaking its havoc years ago, and considering how anti-autistic thinking has really evolved and dug in just over the last 10 years, or so, I would say that it has experienced something of a philosophical triumph. Woe betide any who challenge it. In fact, if you do challenge it (as an autistic person), it’s easy enough to refute you by saying you lack ToM, yourself, so how could you understand something you’re too deficient to grasp?

It’s the ultimate intellectual castle surrounded by a moat. Just toss ToM out there, pull up the conceptual drawbridge, and you’re safe from all the marauding hordes of those developmentally disabled types.

Theory of Mind definitely dominates the mind-share space in mainstream autism thinking (and I use the term “thinking” with reservation). And nowhere is that more evident than in “To Siri With Love”. I mean, Siri-ously (sorry!), it’s just so pernicious and pervasive, and the author repeats its tenets so often, that it’s pretty clearly a foundational subtext that colors the entire discussion of Gus and his life.

The author says in the Introduction,

…every person with ASD I’ve ever met has some deficit in his “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is the ability to understand, first, that we have wishes and desireds and a way of looking at the world — i.e., self-awareness. But then, on top of that, it’s knowing that other people have wishes and desires and a worldview that differs from yours.

Groan. “Every person” she’s ever met… Maybe she needs to get out more… The worst thing is, she keeps referencing ToM throughout the book. Whether it’s explicit references to ToM or the underlying tone that belief in alleged “mind blindness” makes possible, the blight of Theory of Mind is like an invasive species that’s reached its grasping tentacles it to a whole underground network of healthy roots and is gradually choking out the chance of any alternative concepts.

I’m not sure she could have written the book she did, had she not been taught that her son is severely deficient in a quality / ability that some (including Simon Baron-Cohen) believe is one of the hallmarks of humanity itself. Clearly, someone got to her and convinced her that Gus has an insurmountable deficit. And there we have it. End of story. Until somebody can find the gold in it and make a decent buck off the whole “hilarious” catastrophe.

What I really hope to point out in this little essay, is that while challenging the author on her choice of words as well as her outlook is certainly one way to approach this situation, and taking the publisher to task is absolutely necessary, let’s not forget who is actually responsible for this dumpster fire. That would be Simon Baron-Cohen, along with the publishers who put out his work about ToM, and all the other people who seized on that half-baked concept, popularized it, capitalized on it, and built a veritable canon around that really shitty example of bad science.

The ToM hypothesis is so pervasive, so subtly intrusive, that even autistic people buy it. I had spirited exchange with an autistic man about a week ago about how theory of mind is not good for anyone. He didn’t buy it. It was very invested in the explanation, which he seem to think exonerated him from culpability for his autistic challenges and made it possible for him to understand himself better. Yes, it’s important that we find ways of understanding ourselves and our relative limitations… and we often do that with that hypotheses, theories. They can be extremely helpful to the autistic mind. We look for patterns. That’s what we do. And having a shorthand explanation that encapsulates a complex bunch of issues into the straightforward explanation is very helpful in a number of ways.

But when the concepts that we are seizing on are fundamentally flawed, are based on not only bad science but really shoddy interpretations of the data, and they’re derogatory and dehumanizing – which Theory of Mind is – then, Houston, we have a problem.

All this being said, I would love to see some of the outrage channeled towards the root causes. Taking one author to task, only solves one set of problems. Taking the publisher to task will not solve anything, since publishers often consider themselves bold “truth tellers” in the face of ideological tyranny. Until we fully address and debunk the debilitating Theory of Mind hypothesis, shit like this is going to continue to happen. We will continue to see books like this. We will continue to see parents having these kind of dismissive, diminutive attitudes about their autistic children. We will continue to see therapists using pain and coercion to manufacture so-called “normal” kids who have been supposedly “lost” to a condition or disorder which has taken them hostage. We will continue to see our voices marginalized and derided and completely overlooked, because we will not be fully human. Our minds will not be considered fully formed. Our future will continue to be constrained by imaginations of people who are far too willing and eager to take experts at their word and line up behind that ideological Trojan horse.

As long as Theory of Mind is allowed to stand without challenge, as long as we fail to assign the proper responsibility for mindsets like Judith Newman‘s, as long as we pick battles at downstream points, we will continue to see these issues cropping up, time and again.

And until Simon Baron-Cohen retracts his hypothesis about Theory of Mind and takes full responsibility for the harm it has done to countless autistic individuals, no amount of boycotting, no amount of tweeting, no amount of Amazon reviews is going to stem the tide of material like this.

So, while I have serious problems with how Newman thinks about her son and talks about him in public, and while I do have only the deepest disdain for a publishing company that didn’t even bother to fact check or tone check one of their pet projects, I think the problem lies deeper. And as long as we continue to spend our energy on skirmishes, will be losing the chance to win the larger battle.

As much as I hate all the warfare metaphors, as much as I object to talking about this in terms of battles, we do have a serious conflict on our hands. And there are people being hurt, even killed, because of it. I, for one, can’t just sit idly by, while all this is happening. Nor can I content myself with the fact that a lot of people are learning about just what a troubling book “To Siri With Love” actually says. These are all signs of progress, these are all indicators that something, however small, maybe changing in our favor. But in the grand scheme of things, we have a long way to go before we are seen as fully human, and fully capable of complex thought, let alone agency in our own lives. We have Theory of Mind to thank for that, and until weed out that pernicious influence, we’re going to be fighting the same battles, squabbling in the same skirmishes, for the foreseeable future.

I’m tired.

Let’s fix this shit.

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12 thoughts on “Without #TheoryOfMind, #ToSiriWithLove wouldn’t be the dumpster fire it is

  1. Dear VisualVox:

    in 2016 I read the Baron-Cohen thesis which had been published in 1985 by the University College of London.

    It would have been so much better back then if there had been a team of autistic adults – hell, if one of them were his thesis supervisor.

    And we always go back to doctorates and supervisors and the advisors around.

    There is a wonderful paper at an Autism Europe conference that Jared B and colleagues did.


    Elsa George wanted to know what distinction they were making between mind and brain. They = theory of mind theorists.

    Liked by 2 people

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