There are some hard-to-die (kill) and outdated theories about why we are Autistic. These have largely been developed from an outside perspective – they are developed by non-autistic, neuro-typical people. The way to determine if a theory is non-autistic developed is to discern if it merely describes observable behaviour – ignoring the Autistic experience, emotions, and thought-processes. If it sounds like a theory is guessing about the internal life of Autistic people, and/or focusses wholly on observable behaviour, then it is non-autistic driven, and consequently ignores the complex nature of our internal and external Autistic world.
It is also a giveaway that a theory of our Autistic experience is not Autistic led if its underlying premise, and consequently focus, is on “deficit” and “disorder” – the medical model.
Theories and classification by non-autistics about us Autistics – not in detail, and I would suggest avoiding if possible:
The Triad of Impairments (dated, and became the “dyad of impairment” in 2013): insulting as it sounds, and assumes that we have deficits/impairments in social interaction, social communication, and imagination abilities. This (and other neuro-typical theories) have led to the erroneous assumption that to be Autistic is to be un-empathetic; to be impaired in interactions with others socially and in how we communicate – when it is that we struggle with non-autistic people, but less so other Autistic people (see double empathy problem and pragmatic language hypothesis below). This has meant that many Autistic people are not discovered as they and those around them have this narrow view of what Autistic experience is.
It is assumed that we have “problems in social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities”. Of course this appears the case when comparing non-autistic people with Autistic people, as though non-autistic people are the standard for communication and social interaction. This makes the perspective reductive of an extremely diverse Autistic community, and makes erroneous assumptions about what constitutes social communication and interaction, and assumes that being focussed (“restricted”) is a deficit and a problem. This is an example of neuronormative privilege, perpetuating the myth of “normal”, and denies Autistic culture.
The “Extreme Male Brain”, and more recently the “Extreme Female Brain” theories: This one is very slow to die. Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin to Sacha Baron-Cohen, of Ali-G fame) has deeply harmed the Autistic community with his theory that Autistics are as such because we have an “extreme male”, systematising brain – as opposed to an empathising brain. With the increase in female (and gender diverse people) discovering they are Autistic, theorists such as Baron-Cohen panicked and theorised that women (ignoring gender diverse people altogether) have more of a male brain too. When that did not explain those who were/are “feminine” – e.g., not the classic male stereotype – Baron-Cohen and others theorised that this was the result of an extreme female brain! This ignores those women, gender diverse people, and some men whose experiences do not fit in the definition assigned to their biological sex. To be clear, there is no such thing, scientifically, as a female or male brain.
Theory of Mind or “mind blindness”: The argument became about us having a “deficit” in the ability to theorise other people’s minds: a deficit in the ability to guess the thought processes and intentions of other people. This is cognitive empathy, or perspective taking. Again, many of us are actually very good, if not better at this than neurotypicals. It is hypothesised that we merely do it in a different way to neurotypicals. Quite simply, many of us our capable of cognitively and emotionally empathising with others, but more so perhaps with fellow Autistics – because we understand one another! And research shows that many non-autistic people have limited or “impaired” theory of mind.
And so, the “theory of mind” theory and “extreme male systematising brain” theory of Autistic experience fall flat, but worse than that, these theories have deeply harmed Autistic people, in some instances violently, as people have for a long time not seen Autistic people as human. It has also meant that many people – potentially a generation – have been denied discovering their Autistic identity as they did not live up to the male, white stereotype.
More accurately representative of the actually Autistic experience of the world – our neurodivergent experience – are theories expressed by actually Autistic researchers such as Damian Milton who theorises about the double empathy problem; Dinah Murray and Fergus Murray who describe the theory of monotropism; and Rachel Cullen who hypothesised that we Autistic people have a different pragmatic language to non-autistic people.
Double Empathy Problem: Fundamentally, Autistics can and do empathise – both cognitively and emotionally. Many of us are very good at theorising others’ minds, and some of us are exceptional at this in our own community. The double empathy problem ultimately relates to us Autistics not being understood by non-autistics. It is a “breakdown in interaction between Autistic and non-autistic people as not solely located in the mind of the Autistic person” – a “case of mutual incomprehension” (Milton).
“So it is true that Autistic people often lack insight about non-autistic perceptions and culture, yet it is equally the case that non-autistic people lack insight into the minds and culture of Autistic people, or that they may lack social insight in other social situations due to an easily repaired natural attitude, and the aligning tendencies of their peers. One could say that many Autistic people have indeed gained a greater level of insight into non-autistic society, and more [so] than vice versa, perhaps due to the need to survive and potentially thrive in a non-autistic culture. Conversely, the non-autistic person has no pertinent personal requirement to understand the mind of the Autistic person unless closely related socially in some way” (Milton, 2012).
Damian Milton’s theory has since been supported with study evidence. For example, Crompton et al. (2020) showed that having a conversation partner of the same neurotype (i.e., Autistic and Autistic; non-autistic and non-autistic) means the communication does not break down. In their studies, the communication does break down when you have cross neurotype conversations (Autistic and non-autistic).
Monotropism: “Monotropism provides a far more comprehensive explanation for Autistic cognition than any of its competitors, so it has been good to see it finally starting to get more recognition among psychologists. In a nutshell, monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.” Written by the theorist Dinah Murray’s Autistic adult child, Fergus Murray.
Also see A Better Way to Understand Autism with Fergus Murray explaining monotropism – and here’s a dedicated website on the work surrounding the theory.
Autistic pragmatic language hypothesis: Rachel Cullen’s theory helps explain the double empathy problem. It explains that perhaps non-autistic people are processing language polytropically (e.g., less detail focussed, able to split attention): seeing the bigger picture, not the detail; parsing (processing) sentences as a whole; where the context exists both in and outside of the words e.g., who is asking? where are we? what’s the tone of their voice? etc.
Autistic people, conversely, are processing language monotropically: seeing the finer detail; parsing (processing) at the word level; where the context, for many Autistic people, is in the words only.
And so, Autistic pragmatics versus neurotypical pragmatic languages:
- Autistic: context is in the words; processing each word in a sentence; literal; need for specificity of words and sentences:
- “How are you doing?” becomes a huge sentence to parse each word without specificity, as we might not process who is asking; where we are; etc. Autistic brains tend to try and process all the words and their possible meanings: “When do you mean? Doing what? Why are you asking me? etc.”
- Be specific: “Did your dentist appointment go OK this morning?”, and be prepared that questions may be asked to clarify what is being asked e.g., “What do you mean by OK?”.
- Neurotypical/non-autistic: context is in what is not said; processing at the sentence level as a chunk; figurative and subjective:
- “How are you doing?” – asked by your boss, in the office, you’re both wearing suits: “I’m great, got that report done you asked for”.
- “How are you doing?” – asked by your friend, at home, you’re both in pyjamas: “Awful, my boss wanted loads of work from me”.
And so, Aucademy recommends looking to actually Autistic researchers and theorists when it comes to understanding ourselves in a non-pathologising, non-deficit model way.
[For even more on the non-autistic theories about Autistic experience that exist, the video below includes a long discussion on the the theories on this page, as well as other mainstream, damaging theories]
Milton, D. E. M. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem.” Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887. doi:10.1080/09687599.2012.710008