Caltech researchers believe they have evidence that those with high functioning autism (HFA) don’t seem to care what other people think of them. This lack of “theory of mind,” or the capacity to know what others think and feel is not a new premise.
In their recent experiment, Caltech researchers had those with HFA and neurotypical individuals make online donations to UNICEF alone in a room and then with other people watching them.
Cognizant of their social reputation, neurotypical individuals donated more when being watched, while those with autism gave the same result regardless of who was observing.
In a control experiment, both groups performed better on basic math skills while being watched.
The study, which is documented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that “in people with autism, the presence of another person is indeed registered, and can have general arousal effects .. what is missing is the specific step of thinking about what another person thinks about us.”
The researchers regard this lack of “theory of mind” as meaning those with autism can’t figure out their social reputation, the skill that psychologists claim motivates people to be nice to others.
Personally, I don’t buy it. The inability of individuals with HFA to understand how others perceive them is NOT the same as them not caring what others think. High functioning individuals are hypersensitive to their own social awkwardness and isolation. Having difficulty navigating social scenarios is a far cry from not caring about the impact they make on others.
As for them giving the same amount to UNICEF with or without being watched, that’s a breath of fresh air. Individuals with autism are genuine. Yes, it gets them in trouble at times, but it’s also part of the beauty of their condition. You can trust what they say, because they are brutally honest. Sometimes the unvarnished truth stings, but their compliments are worth their weight in gold.
Do people really have to be socially constrained by the opinions of others in order to learn to be nice? If you want to be liked, you learn to be likeable, but the implication that high-functioning individuals will be less nice because they are unaware of the social reputation is not credible to me, and I have two extremely kind high-functioning sons to prove it.
This is one of those cases where researchers drawing conclusions peering from the outside looking in on autism overreach and end up putting a negative spin on what could be positive results.
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