Theories about autistic experience


There are some hard-to-die (kill) and outdated theories about why we are autistic. These have largely been developed from an outside perspective – they are developed by non-autistic, neuro-typicals. The way to determine if a theory is non-autistic developed is to discern if it merely describes observable behaviour – ignoring the autistic experience, emotions, and thought-process. If it sounds like a theory is guessing about the internal life of autistic people, and/or focusses wholly on observable behaviour, then it is non-autistic driven, and consequently ignores the complex nature of our internal and external autistic world. 

It is also a giveaway that a theory of our autistic experience is not autistic led if its underlying premise, and consequently focus, is on “deficit” and “disorder” models. 

Theories and classification by NON-autistics about us autistics – not in detail, and I would suggest avoiding if possible: 

The Triad of Impairments: insulting as it sounds, and assumes that we have deficits in social, communication, and imagination abilities – ultimately harming us with the theory that we are incapable of empathising with others. This (and other neuro-typical theories) have led to the erroneous assumption that to be autistic is to be un-empathetic. This has meant that many autistics are not discovered as they and those around them have this narrow view of what it means. 

It is assumed that we have “problems in social communication and social interaction, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities“. Whilst this may be the case for some autists, it is reductive of an extremely diverse community, and makes erroneous assumptions about what constitutes social communication and interaction, and assumes that being focussed (“restricted”) is a deficit and a problem.

The “Extreme Male Brain”, and more recently the “Extreme Female Brain” theory: This one is very slow to die. Simon Baron-Cohen (cousin to Sacha Baron-Cohen, of Ali-G fame) has deeply harmed the autistic community with his theory that autistics are as such because we have an “extreme male”, systematising brain – as opposed to an empathising brain. With the increase in female (non-binary and trans persons) discovering they are autistic, theorists such as Baron-Cohen panicked and theorised that women (ignoring non-binary and trans persons altogether) have more of a male brain too. When that did not explain those who were/are “feminine” – e.g. not the classic male stereotype – Baron-Cohen and others theorised that this was the result of an extreme female brain! This ignores those women, non-binary, trans, and some men whose experiences do not fit in the definition assigned to their biological sex. 

Theory of Mind: The argument became about us having a “deficit” in the ability to theorise other peoples minds, a deficit in the ability to guess the thought processes and intentions of other people. This is cognitive empathy, or perspective taking. Again, many of us are actually very good, if not better at this than neuro-typicals, it is hypothesised that we merely do it in a different way to neuro-typicals. Quite simply, many of us our capable of emotionally empathising with others, but more so perhaps with fellow autists – because we understand one another!

And so the “theory of mind” theory and “extreme male systematising brain” theory of autistic experience fall flat. 

More accurately representative of the actually autistic experience of the world – our neuro-divergent experience – are theories expressed by actually autistic researchers such as Damian Milton who theorises about the double empathy problem, and Dinah Murray (who’s son is autistic) who describes the theory of monotropism.  

Double Empathy Problem: Fundamentally, autistics can and do empathise – both cognitive and emotional empathy. Many of us are very good at theorising others’ minds, and some of us are exceptional at this in our own community. The double empathy problem ultimately relates to us autists not being understood by non-autistics. It is a “breakdown in interaction between autistic and non-autistic people as not solely located in the mind of the autistic person” – a “case of mutual incomprehension” (Milton). 

“So it is true that autistic people often lack insight about non-AS perceptions and culture, yet it is equally the case that non-AS people lack insight into the minds and culture of ‘autistic people’, or that they may lack social insight in other social situations due to an easily repaired natural attitude, and the aligning tendencies of their peers. One could say that many autistic people have indeed gained a greater level of insight into non-AS society, and more [so] than vice versa, perhaps due to the need to survive and potentially thrive in a non-AS culture. Conversely, the non-AS person has no pertinent personal requirement to understand the mind of the ‘autistic person’ unless closely related socially in some way” (Milton, 2012). 

The University of Kent’s very own Damian Milton on the double empathy problem –> 

Monotropism: “Monotropism provides a far more comprehensive explanation for autistic cognition than any of its competitors, so it has been good to see it finally starting to get more recognition among psychologists. In a nutshell, monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.” Written by the theorist Dinah Murray’s autistic son, Fergus Murray.

Also see A Better Way to Understand Autism with Fergus Murray explaining monotropism

And so, SYA? recommends looking to actually autistic researchers and theorists when it comes to understanding ourselves in a non-pathologising, non-deficit model way. 


Milton, D. E. M. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The “double empathy problem.” Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887. doi:10.1080/09687599.2012.710008

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