*Please note this is a critique of Simon’s research and published work and not personal character defamation. As I have never met Simon, I cannot comment on his character*
Simon Baron-Cohen is arguably one of the biggest names in autism research. Unfortunately, his research has negatively impacted autistic people for several reasons. However, this can be hard to understand as academia can be exclusionary. Therefore, I will try and explain his research problems to a general audience in a more accessible way than academic research.
Before I get into the heavy academic stuff, some of his quotes reveal a lot about his views about autism. So I will leave them below and let you come to your conclusions about them.
“People who are zero-positive (in empathy) have autism spectrum conditions. They too show under-activity in almost every area of the empathy circuit.”-Simon Baron-Cohen Zero degrees of empathy a new theory of human cruelty
“Borderline personality disorder, Psychopathy, Narcissism, Autism and Asperger Syndrome. The people who exhibit these conditions have one thing in common: a lack of empathy. In some cases, this can lead to dangerous scenarios (think of the Columbine High School tragedy), but in others, it can simply mean a different way of interpreting our world (like Kim Peek, who inspired the film Rainman). So what causes an inability to empathise in the first place? And what exactly happens when we lose—or never possess—a desire to understand or care how other people feel?”-Simon Baron-Cohen – Abstract of The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty
I’ll also add that I got these quotes from free samples of his books online, as I didn’t want to pay for ableism (we experience enough free of charge anyway). So there is the possibility that there are more controversial and harmful quotes that I didn’t have access to.
Theory of Mind
Theory of Mind is a belief that autistic people cannot predict other people’s behaviour and feelings which explains our differences in social communication (Baron-Cohen, 2001). In the 2001 paper Simon wrote
A theory of mind remains one of the quintessential abilities that makes us humanBaron-Cohen 2001
(Whiten, 1993). By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief,having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds. Difficulty in understanding other minds is a core cognitive feature of autism spectrum conditions.
Simon implies above that autistic people don’t experience emotions, imagination, intentions etc. in a typical way as we apparently ‘lack ‘ features that make us human.
Also Simon cites Whiten (2003) to back up his claims. However, Whiten later states that some animals “have theory of mind” (Whiten 2013) and then writes the following about autism.
Just a few years later came the first demonstration that such milestones seen in normally developing children may be absent or drastically delayed in the condition of autistic spectrum disordersWhiten 2013
It’s clear to me that autistic people are not seen as human and also ‘less than’ compared to some animals by both Simon and Whiten’s published papers, which have not been retracted at the time of writing.
Simon used the Sally-Anne test to back up his Theory of Mind concept.
First, the test involved having a doll called Sally put an object into a basket and then Sally walked away. Next, another doll called Anne moved the object into a different box and then asked the child where they expected Sally to look for the object (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985). If the children answered correctly, then it was claimed they had a Theory of mind, and if not, they did not have a theory of mind and were autistic.
An example of the test is below (TW: ableism)
Problems with the theory
- Simon supported a view that Theory of Mind is a “quintessential ability which makes people human” and then claimed autistic people are deficient in Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen, 2001). So Simon implied that autistic people are not fully human.
- 20% of the autistic children passed the Sally-Anne test in the original study, so it does not recognise autism in every autistic person.
- Autistic adults can pass the false belief test, a study found that only 6 autistic adults out of 30 didn’t pass the Theory of Mind test (Kleinman et al., 2001)
- Despite Simon creating a second task to back up his theory, a study found 73% of autistic adults passed the Theory of Mind test (Bowler, 1992).
So in addition to Simon implying autistic people and less than human, his theory does not explain our social differences by scientific standards either.
Extreme male brain theory, systemising and empathising
The extreme male brain theory believes that more males are autistic because they have a ‘systemising brain’, and females are less likely to be autistic because they have an ’empathising’ brain. Simon believes that extreme levels of autistic people’s ‘systemising thinking’ made them autistic and concluded that autism is an extreme version of a ‘male brain’ (Baron-Cohen, 2002). Simon has also created two tests called The Systemising Quotient (SQ) and the Empathising Quotient (EQ). These tests claim to measure people’s systemising and empathising levels (Greenberg et al., 2018).
There are several problems including.
- Anybody who does not present masculinely faces barriers to being recognised as autistic and receiving the support they may need. The consequences of this can be dire; speak to the countless undiagnosed autistics/ late-diagnosed autistics online. Non-binary and gender non-conforming folks are automatically excluded too.
- Also, the theory implies that autistic people can’t empathise (which is a common myth in his work) because our brain can only systemise. It seriously fails to consider that autistics can have a variety of cognitive profiles (thinking styles), including high levels of empathy, and some may have a balance of ’empathy’ and ‘systemising’ levels. By the way, these categories are not perfectly designed and are likely based on Simon’s views and biases (some which were quoted earlier). As he assumes that autistic people lack empathy, it’s clear what the results of his studies were going to be in my view.
- The EQ and SQ tests are not conclusive in identifying autism. Some practitioners choose to use it as one part of a wider assessment; some do not use it at all (I didn’t have to use it in mine, thankfully). Indeed if the extreme male brain theory was so accurate, the EQ and SQ would be definitive tests in determining the results of autism assessments and not an optional extra? (at best).
More recently, there has been significant controversy over Simon’s Spectrum 10K project. Which aims to
“Investigate the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to autism and related physical and mental health conditions to better understand wellbeing in autistic people and their families.”https://spectrum10k.org/about-spectrum-10k/
Despite claiming to be anti eugenics:
- Matthew Hurles Spectrum 10 K’s Head of Human Genetics and Senior Group Leader states in an online bio, “Together we are investigating the genetic causes of developmental anomalies that are identified during prenatal ultrasound screening, with the aim of improving the prognostic information that can be provided to parents.”
- Daniel Geschwind, the co-lead of Spectrum 10K track record, includes previously working for ‘Cure Autism Now’.
- Simon’s own comments in 2009:
- “The prospect of a prenatal test for autism, allowing couples to choose whether to have a baby with the condition, is coming closer. And with it also comes the possibility of a prenatal drug treatment being developed.”
- “But in this week’s Scrubbing Up, leading autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen warns caution is needed to ensure associated talents, like numerical abilities, are not lost if the test or a “cure” become available.”
So Simon wants to ensure only the autistic people who are good at maths exist, charming! /s
As we can see, three key players, including Simon, have either made statements about eugenics and autism or are actively working towards preventing autistic people from existing. Click here for a full critique (including references for bullet points above) of the ‘dangers of spectrum 10k.’
This is just an overview of why autistic people are angry at Simon’s harm to our lives and the stigma we’ve experienced. Of course, there is so much more to unravel, but I consider these critical points for anybody trying to understand why autistics consider Simon’s work harmful.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support my writing, I would be forever grateful if you could buy me a coffee (or tea in my case) on Ko-fi.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Theory of mind in normal development and autism. Prisme, 34, 174-183.
Baron-Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6(6), 248-254.
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition, 21(1), 37-46.
Bowler, D. M. (1992). Theory of mind in asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 33(5), 877–893.
Greenberg, D. M., Warrier, V., Allison, C., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2018). Testing the Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people. PNAS, 115(48), 12152–12157.
Kleinman, J., Marciano, P. L., & Ault, R. L. (2001). Advanced Theory of Mind in High-Functioning Adults with Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 29-36.
Whiten, A. (1993). Evolving a theory of mind: the nature of non-verbal mentalism in other primates. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. J. Cohen, Understanding other minds: perspectives from autism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whiten, A. (2013). Humans are not alone in computing how others see the world. Animal Behaviour, 28(2), 213-221.