As Promised: Thesis Proposal Part 1

This is the proposal that I wrote last semester (Spring, 2015) for my Research Methods class.  At the time that I wrote this, my thesis was still going to solely look at Theory of Mind.  I wasn’t happy with this draft, but it fulfilled the expectations of the class assignment that we write our proposal.

None of this is in the final proposal that I sent out on Friday.  It’s sad, but I suppose that’s part of research and I feel like I definitely can get an article out of this (Possibly a book, but for sure an article).

However, one thing that may be happening in my final thesis is talking about some of this and how theory of mind leads to Autism Speaks, but that’s not in my proposal because I was just supposed to develop an exigency for my thesis.  In other words, I was supposed to show the reader why my thesis needs to be written.

And now, without further ado, here’s part 1 of my thesis proposal attempts!


Thesis Proposal

The subject of my thesis is the dehumanizing enthymeme found within the psychological concept of “Theory of Mind” (ToM) as it applies to neurodiverse individuals (i.e. people with autism, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc.) with an emphasis in autism.  

ToM is defined as the ability to “impute mental states…to others” (Premack and Woodruff 515), which means the ability to recognize that other people have their own separate thoughts, emotions, and experiences.  It was first applied to autism in the 1985 study “Does the autistic child have theory of mind?” conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith.  In their essay, they come to the conclusion that autistic children lack a theory of mind and this is why the primary symptom found in autism is difficulties in social interactions.

A disturbing enthymeme begins to show itself through the literature on ToM.  In her article “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Melanie Yergeau points out that most of the literature claims that having ToM is what it means to be human.  To put it another way, to be a human, you must have ToM.  She connects that to the idea that autistic people don’t have a theory of mind.  Now, I will sum up this paragraph through a syllogism: To be human is to have theory of mind, to be autistic is to lack theory of mind, therefore, autistics are not human.

Drawing from rhetorical perspective of the intersubjective nature of language, my thesis is built to answer the following research question. How are rhetoric and theory of mind related?  At first glance, this is a broad question, which is why I break this question down into separate parts like what role does language play in theory of mind tests?  Throughout my research, I will ask questions and make connections that I see between different things.

Accordingly, in this proposal, I explain the initial motivation behind my research; present a methodology that connects language to theory of mind tests; analyze findings from a preliminary study to test this methodology and its resulting methods; provide a rationale and overview of the full study; and describe the larger cultural implications and significance of this project.

In this paper, I will be using multiple terms for people with autism including, but not limited to: autistics, autistic people. people with autism, etc.  I will also be using several terms for people without autism including, but not limited to: neurotypicals, normal children, non-disabled children, etc.


Why? (Come up with a more interesting title here)

In the beginning stages of discovering the topic of this thesis, I was riffing on identity.  What I had wanted to do was create a rhetorical framework to analyze identity and then apply that to autism.  I attempted to rhetorically analyze identity without developing the framework when I realized that I needed to zoom in on identity.  In order to create a framework, I needed to understand the rhetorical aspects of identity.  So, I zoomed in and started researching identity as deeply as I could.

I was surprised with what I found.  I was expecting to find separate theories that were independent of each other.  What I found instead was they all tied back to one theory: Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory.  Every theory was either inspired by, an addition to, or in contrast to Erikson’s psychosocial theory.

So, I went back to Erikson’s theory of identity formation.  As I began to read, I began to understand what he was talking about.  He said that identity is formed through social interactions.  These social interactions are not always explicitly stated, sometimes they are non-verbal and require people to “mindread” (a term put forth by Simon Baron-Cohen in his 1995 book “Mindreading”), or know what the other person is thinking about them.

I felt like something was off with this theory and I determined that it was the concept of Theory of Mind (ToM).  ToM is the ability to impute mental states to another person, or be able to know that other people have their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions.  Once a person understands that other people have their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions, people can begin to “mindread,” or accurately guess what another person is thinking.  One thing that I had learned in my special education undergraduate degree was people with autism do not have a ToM.

To sum it up, ToM is the ability to know that other people have their own thoughts, experiences, and emotions that leads into knowing what other people are thinking.  In order to develop an identity, according to Erik Erikson, you need to know what other people are thinking about you.  Therefore, developing an identity would be impossible if you subscribe to Erikson’s psychosocial theory of identity if you do not have ToM.

Looking even closer at the literature on ToM, I found an even more disturbing idea.  To be human is to have ToM, people with autism do not have ToM, therefore, people with autism are not human.  This is an unacceptable conclusion, so I set out on a preliminary research binge into theory of mind.  Are there any inconsistencies in theory of mind?  Can it be proven that theory of mind is inaccurate or false?  I began to realize that the answer to all of these may just be found in rhetoric.  My preresearch has begun to shed light on the possibility that some of the premises behind the idea that autistic children lack Theory of Mind are false.  The following is some of what I have found.


The History of Theory of Mind

1978- “Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind?”

The term “theory of mind” was first used in Premack and Woodruff’s 1978 article “Does the Chimpanzee have Theory of Mind?”  They gave a series of video tests to a female chimpanzee of a human actor trying to get a banana, but there were different obstacles in each video.  In one, the human actor was in a cage and the banana was just out of reach, but there was a stick next to the actor.  The chimpanzee was asked to determine which scenario would give the actor what he wanted.  She picked correctly 21 out of 24 trials.

This part, Premack and Woodruff claimed, showed that the chimpanzee has the ability to determine what the actor wanted, in other words, the chimpanzee was able to determine the actor’s motives.  This is what they called empathy, which is quite different than what we define empathy today (of understanding others emotions and putting ourselves into their shoes).

They went on to test the chimpanzee’s“theory of mind” or the ability to impute “states of mind to the human actor” (518).  What does that mean?  It is the ability to know that other people have their own separate thoughts, emotions, and knowledge and, by extension, know what their motivations are as well as what they are thinking.

They attempted to do this by making the task more complex.  Now, there was a human actor who wanted to do a much more complex task, but they didn’t necessarily know how to do it.  One, for example, was “a (human) actor struggling to escape from a locked cage” (520).  The chimpanzee, in order to succeed, would need to know the motivation of the actor and their previous knowledge.  They then gave her two pictures, one of which was the answer, the other was some random object.  So, a key was the correct answer whereas an attached hose, plugged in electric cord, and lit cone of paper were the incorrect answers (They corresponded correctly with three of the other videos the chimpanzee was given).  They realized that this did not actually prove ToM because it was not asking the chimpanzee to determine what the human actor knew.

At one point in the study, they tested the chimpanzee’s choices based off of whether they liked the human actor or not.  They had the chimpanzee’s normal caretaker be kind to her while also introducing a new caretaker who was mean to her.  They gave her a series of tests where she could choose for a good thing to happen to the actor or a bad thing.  One video showed the actor desperately searching for a key while locked in a cage with a lion.  She could choose whether or not he found the right tool.  With the nice actor, she “chose the ‘good’ alternative seven out of eight times…and only one out of eight times for Bill [the caretaker who was mean to her]” (521).

At the end of their article, they talk about an experiment they would have done in order to actually determine whether the chimpanzee has a theory of mind.  They call it an embedded videotape.  They would show a video of A (A could be a human, but could also be a chimpanzee) watching a video of P locked in a cage.  The would somehow show that A either likes or dislikes P.  The video of P stops before the end and A is asked to pick a good or bad outcome.  Just as A is about to choose, the chimpanzee watching would be asked which one A was going to choose.


1985 – “Does the Autistic Child have a Theory of Mind?”

The first time that autism was ever used in conjunction with theory of mind was in Simon Baron-Cohen, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith’s 1985 article “Does the Autistic Child have a Theory of Mind?”

First off, the authors of this study used the same title as the previous article, but replaced the word chimpanzee with autistic child.  This article begins by equating autistic children with chimpanzee by association of the fact that they replaced chimpanzee with autistic child.  While this may have not been the author’s intention, it is still alarming.  

Before I can get much further on this article, I have to bring up the theoretical framework that was used in this article.  Alan M. Leslie, one of the authors of the study, developed a framework on which this study was based.  

1987 – “Pretense and Representation: The Origins of ‘Theory of Mind’”

At the time of the 1985 study’s publishing, Leslie’s article “Pretense and Representation: The Origins of ‘Theory of Mind,’” was listed as “submitted for publication” under the title “Pretense and representation in infancy.”  Two years after the publishing of the 1985 study, Leslie’s article was finally published.

In it, he claims that children with autism lack the ability to pretend play because they do not have what he calls a decoupling mechanism.  A decoupling mechanism is what separates language from reality.  If a child views language literally, then it is the left image in the drawing below, and language and reality are on the same page and have the same amount of power.  Therefore, they will view reality from the perspective of language.  This is why some people with autism are confused by idioms (i.e. pull yourself up by your bootstraps) and they may respond with something like, “I’m not wearing boots.”  The reality is representative of the language and people with autism do not have the ability to separate the two.  Because the children with autism do not have a decoupler, they lack the ability to pretend play.

 He goes on to claim that reality is not shaped even by language at all.  Language is always subservient to reality because pretense (or pretending) would be impossible otherwise.  The reason it would be impossible is because if language affects reality, then the child pretending by saying that a banana is a phone is susceptible to the possibility that, in fact, the banana is a phone.

The more the child pretend plays, the more symbolic code items will change their meaning and the more chaotic and useless the symbolic code will become as a result…After all, if CUP comes to mean $shell$, the child can hardly pretend again that a shell is a cup–now, for the child, it really is a cup. This can be called the problem of representational abuse.” (Leslie 415 emphasis in original)

Therefore, Leslie is putting forth an idea that separates theory of mind from rhetoric by saying language has no impact on reality. In essence, it is arhetorical.  The image below is a graphical interpretation of what Leslie states in this article.  

In his article, Leslie claims that reality has more weight and is independent of language.  Friedrich Nietzsche would disagree with this idea.  

Nietzsche claims that reality ceases to be reality the minute we begin to interpret it.  He is saying that language is a metaphor for reality.  Reality with a capital “R” exists, but only rarely can we have access to it.  So, you are reading this on a sheet of paper right now.  That sheet of paper exists, that is reality.  But humans cannot speak or sense Reality (If we see something, we see it with our preconceived notions, opinions, and previous knowledge, our senses interpret what we are sensing) because our brains interpret what they see and create a metaphor, the word paper.

Therefore, Reality exists, but the minute our brains begin to interpret it, it becomes a metaphor.  Our reality (with a lowercase R) is then changed because reality is just an interpretation, or metaphor, of Reality (“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”).

While it could be argued that differentiating capital Reality from lowercase reality is an exercise in futility, it is imperative because our reality is, according to Nietzsche, a metaphor for Reality.  Our reality is impacted by language, but Leslie claims that in “normal” people who can pretend play, language has no power over reality.  Here, it could be argued that he may be talking about Reality, which is true, language has no power over Reality.  Because we can only rarely experience Reality, so we must create our own realities by interpreting Reality.

To close this section off, I want to point back to the original premise that Leslie points out: Children with autism cannot pretend play.  In their article, “Comprehension of Pretense in Children with Autism,” authors Chris Jarrold, Peter Smith, and Jill Boucher tested children with autism and normal children on their comprehension of pretend play situations.  They had a puppet pour either real or imaginary water over another puppet’s head.  They then asked the child whether it was imaginary or real water.  They found no significant differences between the autistic children and their neurotypical counterparts.

This calls into question Leslie’s claim that children with autism lack the ability pretend play.  

Now, let’s get back to Baron-Cohen et al’s 1985 study.  The lack of pretend play was the theoretical framework that Leslie brought to the table as an author.  They did this study with the presumption that children with autism lack the ability to pretend play.  This is important because to test whether or not children with autism have theory of mind, they put the child with autism in a pretend play situation.

The following theory of mind test is called the Sally Test, it tests children’s understandings of false belief.  They bring in Sally, a puppet, who places a marble in a box.  Sally leaves the room and they bring in Fred, another puppet, who moves the marble from the box to a jar.  Fred then leaves the room and Sally comes back in.  The child is then asked, “Where will Sally look for the marble?”  Most of the neurotypical children answered that Sally would look for the marble in the box (where she originally put it).  Most children with autism answered that Sally would look for the marble in the jar (where Fred had put it, but Sally did not know about the move.  Thus, Sally had a false belief).  To control for the possibility of a developmental delay, they brought in children with Down Syndrome and tested them as well.  Most of the children with Down Syndrome answered that Sally would look for the marble in the box.

Thus, they came to the conclusion that children with autism do not have a theory of mind because they could not pass this test.  This is an interesting idea because ten years later, Simon Baron-Cohen, the lead writer, published a book entitled, “Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind” where, in chapter 8, he writes about adults with autism who can pass the theory of mind test that was just described.  

Some remarkable individuals with autism seem to overcome their mindblindness to some degree–certainly to the degree of being able to pass the trivial tests summarized in chapter 5.  But does the fact that they no longer fail these tests (they can understand, for example, that people have beliefs and desires) mean that they are now normal mindreaders? (139)

He goes on to give an example where an adult with autism (Temple Grandin) talks about how she deals with trying to understanding what other people are thinking.  He uses this as proof that even though she can pass the theory of mind tests, she does not have a theory of mind.  She has an alternative to theory of mind that is very mechanical and thus, inferior to normal theory of mind.  

To summarize what he is saying: some adults with autism can now pass the tests that, 10 years ago, he used to determine they do not have a theory of mind.  But just because they can pass the theory of mind tests doesn’t mean that they have a theory of mind.  This is mind-numbingly infuriating!  10 years before saying this, he used the tests to decide that children with autism did not have a theory of mind because they cannot pass these tests and children who could pass these tests had a theory of mind.  Now, he is saying that people with autism who pass the test still don’t have a theory of mind.  To summarize, neurotypicals who pass the theory of mind test proves that they have a theory of mind, whereas people with autism who pass the theory of mind test doesn’t prove that they have a theory of mind.


The Dehumanizing Enthymeme

Throughout my preresearch process, I came upon many different definitions of Theory of Mind.  Almost every definition pointed to two ideas: 1) Theory of Mind is innate in humans (in other words, to be human is to have theory of mind); and 2) People with autism do not have theory of mind.  This becomes an enthymeme when you follow this line of logic.  It is an enthymeme because it removes one part of the line of logic – that is, the conclusion in this case.

As I write this out, it turns from an enthymeme to a syllogism (because all three parts will be together and explicit).  To be human is to have theory of mind, people with autism do not have a theory of mind, therefore (and here is the conclusion), people with autism are not human.

This enthymeme is pointed out in Melanie Yergeau’s article entitled, “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On the Theorists who Theorize Theory of Mind.”  She goes on to point out that when a neurotypical makes a mistake in theory of mind (mistakenly thinking that someone is thinking something when they are not), it was just an error.  But if an autistic makes a mistake in theory of mind (the same mistake as the neurotypical), it proves that they do not have a theory of mind.

This corroborates what Baron-Cohen commented in chapter 8 of “Mindblindness” where he claims that people with autism don’t have a theory of mind even though they can pass the test that determines if they have a theory of mind.




7 Months Remaining
  • Reread “Autism and Rhetoric”
  • Write a reflection on how this relates to the other articles.
  • Reread “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists who Theorize Theory of Mind”
    • Write a reflection on how this relates to the other articles. (Especially “autism and rhetoric”)
  • Reread Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lies in a nonmoral sense”
    • Write a reflection on how this relates to the other articles (especially Leslie).
6 Months Remaining
  • Write Chapter 1: An Overview of Autism
5 Months Remaining
  • Write Chapter 2: An Overview of Theory of Mind
4 Months Remaining
  • Write Chapter 3: On the Arhetorical Nature of Theory of Mind
3 Months Remaining
  • Write Chapter 4: The Dehumanizing Enthymeme’s behind Theory of Mind
2 Months remaining
  • Develop a new syllogism/enthymeme that doesn’t dehumanize.
1 Month Remaining
  • Write Chapter 5: Towards a New Syllogism
3 Weeks Remaining
  • Read and Revise
2 Weeks Remaining
  • Revise
1 Weeks Remaining
  • Prepare presentation for defense
0 Weeks Remaining
  • Practice the presentation


Works Cited

Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1995. Print

Baron-Cohen, Simon, Alan M. Leslie, and Uta Frith.  “Does the Autistic Child have a ‘Theory of Mind’?” Cognition 21 (1985): 37-46. Print.

Belmonte, Matthew K.  “Does the Experimental Scientist have a ‘Theory of Mind’?” Review of General Psychology 12.2 (2008): 192-204. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Cowell, Jason M., Anya Samek, Jn List, and Jean Decety. “The Curious Relation between Theory of Mind and Sharing in Preschool Age Children.” PloS ONE 10.2 (Feb 2015): 1-8. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

De Gelder, Beatrice.  “On not Having a Theory of Mind.” Cognition 27 (1987): 285-290. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Fisch, Gene S.  “Autism and Epistemology IV: Does Autism Need a Theory of Mind?” American Journal of Medical Genetics 161.10 (Oct 2013): 2464-2480. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Heilker, Paul and Melanie Yergeau.  “Autism and Rhetoric” College English 73.5 (2011 May): 485-497. EBSCO. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.

Jarrold, Chris, Peter Smith, and Jill Boucher.  “Comprehension of Pretense in Children with Autism.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 24.4 (1994): 433-455. EBSCO. Web. 29 Mar. 2015.

Leslie, Alan M.  “Pretense and Representation: The Origins of ‘Theory of Mind’.” Psychological Review 94.4 (1987): 412-426. EBSCO. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.

Miller, Carol. “Developmental Relationships between Language and Theory of Mind.” American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 15.2 (May 2006): 142-154. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.” Oregon State (n.d.). Web. 2 April 2015.

Premack, David and Guy Woodruff. “Does the Chimpanzee have a Theory of Mind?” The Behavioral and Brain Sciences 4 (1978): 515-526. EBSCO. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

TEDx Talks. “The erosion of empathy | Simon Baron Cohen | TedxHousesofParliament.” Online video clip. Youtube, 12 Sep 2012. Web. 10 Apr 2015.

Yergeau, Melanie. “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.4 (2013). Web. 28 Jan. 2015.


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