Writing While Autistic #9: Do allistics even have theory of mind?
Sticky Note: I am an adult autistic writer. All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. While I do make general statements and give advice, this does not constitute prescriptive advice: what I say is just one possibility in a sea of other advice. Please take what you need from this and ignore the rest. 

I'm frequently hearing "I'm not autistic, but this is really useful to me." I'm really glad to hear that this generalizes to other neuroatypicalities. 

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Bogi and I have been watching a Swedish/Danish noir crime series, The Bridge, which features an autistic woman investigator, Saga Norén. Saga’s autism is never named outright, but the actress has been told to read up on Aspergers. We have watched the first three seasons. We both love Saga, and while we think sometimes her portrayal is stereotyped, in many ways it is good. It’s rewarding to see a competent autistic woman who is also aromantic (but not asexual). 

After every two chapters, I go to the Guardian to read the coverage (it’s reviewed two chapters at a time) and read the viewers’ comments. I know - “don’t read the comments!” - but I get a lot out of reading comments, and so do other people, otherwise comment sections would not be so popular. Reading the comments to the Bridge I enjoy the cool theories about what is going to happen, I love it when viewers point out important details I might have missed. I am also ASTOUNDED at the amount of complete cluelessness related to Saga’s behaviors, which - to me - make perfect sense even when the rep is overblown. But it seems like so many allistic viewers cannot relate. Allistic viewers could not relate why Saga, the policewoman, had to follow the rule of law rather than cover up for someone she cared about who broke the law (what?!?!) I had to stop and slowly back away from the screen when in the middle of Season 3 people began praising Saga’s abusive mother - clearly abusive, abusive on screen, not just in the past - and Saga’s abusive, inappropriate new boss. Not for the first time, and not for the last time, I am asking myself: Do allistics even have theory of mind?

Theory of mind is a developmental milestone that allows people to understand that other people may have knowledge, beliefs, feelings, memories, and views which are different from theirs. There is a very famous, oft-repeated and misguided claim that allistics develop theory of mind while autistics do not, or develop it partially or slowly. I don’t believe this is true - more on this below.

Theory of mind is difficult to develop for everyone. And everyone has an easier time relating to people who are most like them. It’s still hard for us - for humans! - to believe that people are different from us - and not just to believe, but to understand what goes into experiences different from our own. 

Theory of mind is hard for everyone. However, the more marginalized persons are pressured to develop theory of mind about less marginalized persons. As trans people we read books, hear plays, participate in talk and in classes that teach us how cis people feel. As queer people we learn about straight people’s feelings. PoC are expected to learn about the feelings of white people. The opposite is not true: majority people are not expected to develop theory of mind related to marginalized people.

As autistic people, we are expected to develop theory of mind about allistic people. Not other autistic people! Allistic people. And that’s how we are pressured by parents and through educational systems, this is the literature we read, these are the benchmarks by which we are measured.

As autistic writers, we are supposed/expected to write allistic characters. I lost count how many times fellow autistic writers told me that the feedback they received was that their characters were “unrelatable,” felt flat and their motivations, and/or “unbelievable.” But if you write explicitly autistic characters, that creates a whole new level of difficulty because our industry expects allistic characters who deal with the world in allistic ways. (More on this in a separate essay.)

I strongly believe that autistic people are just as capable of developing theory of mind as allistics, and I also strongly believe that many allistics have underdeveloped theory of mind, especially when it comes to people not like them. Developing theory of mind is hard work. You can choose to do it, and it's easier to choose not to do it if you're allistic.

I wonder if allistics who struggle with theory of mind just blend better. Plus, they only have to blend with each other. They’ll stand out in a company of autistic people just as we stand out in a room full of allistic people. 

If we take a group of NT people, some of them will be cruel, some will be kind, some will be indifferent, some will be caring, some will have a good sense of boundaries, others won’t. The same is true for a group of autistic people. We will have different personal traits, different strengths, different belief systems and values, different skillsets, and different priorities when it comes to our attitudes and morals. BUT: I suspect that NT people will be better at masking what the society deems as undesirable traits. The cruel people will appear neutral, the kind people will also appear neutral. Autistic people find it so much harder to blend. It’s harder to be “appropriate” to the NT world, regardless of whether you are empathetic or not so empathetic. 

That’s the difference, imho - not the theory of mind.

(I want to continue this with an essay about writing developing characters while autistic - let me know what you think!)