Intense World Theory: A new theory of autism

Intense World Theory is a theory of autism that has gained popularity over the last few years. This theory sees autism as stemming from oversensitivity to incoming stimuli, rather than from defects such as lack of empathy or an inability to understand other’s viewpoints often referred to as Theory of Mind.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of Mind is the understanding of other’s people’s perspective on the world. It is thought that those with Asperger’s and Autism have some sort of deficit in this area. They are slower to develop this ability to imagine another person’s viewpoint. The deficit of Theory of Mind of course is not absolute. It does not mean that all people on the Autistic spectrum completely lack Theory of Mind. Some may just be a slightly slower in seeing someone else’s perspective. It may just be one way in which their brain is ‘wired’ differently.

Do autistic people really lack empathy?

Unfortunately Theory of Mind has been confused with empathy – the ability to experience other people’s emotions. If you are slower seeing another perspective it is assumed that you must also lack the ability to know what other people are feeling. The difficulty making an appropriate level of eye contact and in recognising facial expressions all appear to support this. But some people on the autistic spectrum do experience other’s emotions sometimes very strongly. This may be so strong that they even refer to themselves as ‘empaths’.

What is Intense World Theory?

This says that autism stems from oversensitivity to stimulation. Empathy is actually picked up more strongly than usual to the extent that it can be overwhelming. Autistic people learn to block the signals as they are too strong.

Intense World Theory does not see autistic people such as those with Asperger syndrome as lacking the ability to tune into empathy but rather lacking willingness. The signals can be too much for them and be a painful experience. Aspergers’ can learn to stop blocking these signals but when they do, they experience people’s emotions much more strongly than most. 

One reason it is very controversial is that the intervention that has been suggested as a result is that of withdrawing stimulation from children, which if wrong could be harmful.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating theory, which does resonate with many people’s experience of autism and Asperger's including my own. If you have any thoughts on this subject I'd love to hear them.

Further Reading

If you are interested in this please read these articles on this radical new theory:

A Radical New Theory of Autism: Theory finds that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome don’t lack empathy – in fact if anything they empathize too much

The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism

Intense World Theory raises intense worries: an excellent critique of this theory.