Study Suggests Some with Autism Don’t Care What Others Think

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.


4 Responses to Study Suggests Some with Autism Don’t Care What Others Think

  1. Will says:

    I have high-functioning autism, and think that every opinion in this article can be correct. Everything I say is at least true with myself, though I suspect it is also true with others who have high-functioning autism. The noted apathy towards social situations paired with the contradicting hypersensitivity towards social situations is an example of the duality of interests that constitutes at least a central difference between myself and others. This duality guides seemingly everything that I do and is the product of a desire for involvement in both earthly and extra-earthly affairs, the former’s purpose being to quench some innate hedonistic desire and thus ease the path towards the latter. Pursuit of only what is outside of earth (and within it via my conscience, depending upon “your” perspective) leaves me feeling like something has been missed or left out, while pursuit of only the earthly produces a horrible, unjustified feeling because it contradicts what I have thus far philosophically produced given what I have perceived. The contradiction reduces down from the extremes that I just listed to an at least virtually perpetual battle I fight against myself (this constitutes much of what is behind at least my blank stare). The results of the test that included a math exam would be of the same principle in myself, but just to an extreme extent as my intellectual ego causes a much greater desire to prove myself in that respect than my desire for social inclusion. The notion of a lack of “theory of mind” is true only to an extent, probably depending upon the person. I know that for myself I have never observed a more socially sensitive human being than myself, but I don’t know where others “stop noticing”. I observe much more than other humans do, but I don’t know how much they observe because I don’t know what they are thinking or feeling (tested and proven numerous times by trial and error) and thus am unaware as to the intent behind certain communications. So the absence of the “theory of mind” is, at least in my case, accurate only to some personal extent.

    I also fake almost all emotional expressions and phrases to mimic normal people, and thus fit in. The only real way to tell how I feel is by looking at my eyes as they are the only thing that usually changes with my emotion. I also almost never compliment because of my egotistic standard I hold myself to and, well, reality, so it is also accurate, at least with me, that my compliments are worth my weight in gold.

  2. Susan says:

    thank you for sharing your fascinating perspective.

  3. Randall McKay says:

    Autism is bullshit. It’s not a mental illness. It’s not a disease. It’s just a person who uses a different part of their brain to communicate in social situations. There is no brain that is the normal brain. There is no brain pattern is preferred when interacting with people. There is just the brain that is perceived by others. Autistic people are basically in a never waking dream, living out their inner lives in real time. They use a particular part of the brain that is in use when in a dream state. There are plenty of ‘normal’ people out there that use this brain pattern daily, and are not considered to be autistic. They’re everywhere. Billions of people live in this way. They actually never are fully awake with their real life surroundings. They are technically in a sleep walking stage. In fact, everyone lives this way to one degree or another. I remember what the Hindus say about waking up fully. They call it reaching nirvana. Where you are aware of everything going on around you. You can predict what people think, how they feel. The world is easy. However, the opposite ends, what we call autism, is like being asleep, where The subconscious is the only thing that is real.
    I ‘woke’ up technically, a few years ago. It was an epiphany moment. I realized how other things exist outside of my body. Other people with other lives. I used to be, by description, highly autistic. But now, I feel like I can connect with people and things better than ever before.
    Thanks for the interesting article. I’ve had a lot to say about this subject, but had never had the voice to say it before now. Thanks.

  4. Susan says:

    I’m glad you found your voice.

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