I recently read an article written by Paul Heiker and Melanie Yergeau called “Autism and Rhetoric.” One of the biggest things that jumped out at me like a rabid squirrel being chased by a starving cougar was the idea that autism is rhetorical. Both autism and rhetoric relate to communicating with other people. This brought me to the “mind-blown” moment where I wondered if people with autism use language differently because they have their own rhetorical strategy based on their culture.
Then, I read some of Melanie Yergeau’s other articles where she talks about Theory of Mind which posits that people with autism either struggle with or do not have the ability to recognize that other people are not thinking what they are thinking. Many people who do not know autism very well hear Theory of Mind and think that it is related to emotions as well as thoughts. Simon Baron-Cohen (Sacha Baron-Cohen’s cousin in case you’re interested) discusses this misconception in the TED talk he gave at the House of Parliament saying people with autism have difficulty with cognitive empathy (thoughts), as compared with affective empathy (feelings and emotions).
Now, we get to the point that I wanted to write this post. After reading Melanie Yergeau’s articles on Autism as rhetorical and theory of mind, I immediately began to wonder what the Theory of Mind studies looked like. In particular, I was curious about whether these studies used language to decide if a person had a difficulty with theory of mind. Why, you might ask. Well, if people with autism have their own way of using language, then it would stand to reason that we are skewing the data automatically if we use our language to assess those who’s language use is culturally different than ours. I looked one of the studies up that was done by Baron-Cohen and found an example: the reading the mind in the eyes.
I’ll walk you through it a bit, you are shown pictures of people’s eyes and you have to choose between four different adjectives (Some of which I didn’t even know the definition to) to figure out how they are feeling. Basically, language is used to decide how strong your social intelligence is. If you can associate the words with their semiotical facial expressions, you have strong social intelligence. But you will have a weak social intelligence if you 1) don’t know what the words mean, 2) use the words in different ways, and/or 3) have different facial expression norms in your culture.
Using this test, we are deciding that people with autism, who use language in a culturally different way, lack the ability to understand what others are thinking even though we are assessing them for OUR norms of language.