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A Brief Overview Of Simon Baron-Cohen’s Autism Research

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*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 human
(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.

Baron-Cohen 2001

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 disorders

Whiten 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.

Sally-Anne Test

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 

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.

Spectrum 10K 

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:

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.

References:.

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.

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