The Autistic Enactivist

Like many, after being diagnosed as autistic, I wanted to know, what is autism? how does being autistic make me different to non-autistic people. I also have sound to colour/shape synaesthesia and have occasional somatic, olfactory and proprioceptive hallucinations. Any theory of autism would have to be to encompass these phenomena as well.

I found the classic triad of Theory of Mind, Weak Central Coherence and Repetitive Interests and Behaviour did not entirely correspond with my autistic experience, nor were they compatible with my philosophical outlook on life in general.

The following account is a weave of various theories that predominantly fall under the philosophical position of Enactivism, encompassing Predictive Processing, Active Inference and Free Energy Minimisation and Cecilia Heyes’ Cognitive Gadgets. It is my intention to show that not only does enactivism inform autistic experience, but autistic experience also informs enactivism. In this article I shall concentrate on social cognition and the sensory issues many of us in the autistic community find problematic. Any misinterpretation of the above positions are entirely my own.

“Theory of Mind inherits the traditional dualistic problem of other minds, tries to solve it, and ends up profoundly intellectualising social interactions.” Costall & Leudar (2004).
In 1991 a book called The Embodied Mind was published. Co- authored by philosopher Evan Thompson, neuroscientist Francisco J. Varela and psychologist Eleanor Rosch, the book helped give momentum to what has become to be known as 4E Cognition. 4E Cognition stands for Embodied, Embedded, Enactive and Extended. Many of the philosophers working in the 4E field reference the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Merleau- Ponty (1908 – 1961) was influenced by Husserl and to a lesser extent Heidegger. Not originally as well known as his contemporary existentialists, Sartre and de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of Sartre’s Cartesian ontology and his emphasis of an embodied inherence in the world are referenced by many in the current 4E movement.

Merleau-Ponty’s notion of intercorporeality (intercorporéité) has been elaborated upon to fashion a new theory of social cognition.

For a few decades now, orthodox autism research has posited that autistic individuals have an impaired – or lack of – theory of mind, sometimes called mindreading, mentalising or folk psychology. All refer to the human ability to infer the mental states of others. There are two Theory of Mind accounts. The first, Theory Theory of Mind, advances the belief that we have a mental theory of how other minds work and we apply this theory during social interaction. The second, Simulation Theory of Mind, supposes that during social interaction we refer to a theory of what we would do if we were in the other person’s shoes and judge their mental states by this act of simulation.

Phenomenological accounts, such as enactivism, regard these two theories as Cartesian in nature. They consider this orthodox account gives too much weight to cognitive processes whilst ignoring the part played by body and environment.

Enactivism is more ecological or holistic theory which regards the brain (or mind if you prefer) as only a part of a system that includes body and environment. That the body is not a mechanised device controlled by an all powerful brain, but that the brain-body- environment relationship is a system that all involves all the constituent parts working as one synchronous whole. Merleau-Ponty considered Cartesian mind-body dualism to be an obstacle to social cognition, inquiring how social understanding is possible between two unseen minds that cannot be directly and actively experienced. Enactivism – drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s emphasis on perception – suggests we are able to directly perceive facial expressions, body posture, tone of voice etc, and we interact with others through direct social participation. In enactivism it is the sensorimotor interaction of body and environment with brain acting as “a mediating organ” (Fuchs 2018) that explain “The processes of life and experiencing life are inextricably linked: it is not the brain but the living human being who feels, thinks, and acts” (Fuchs 2018).

Autism experience informs and strengthens enactivism. I have been told my voice is monotone, I rarely express surprise or exhibit strong emotions. I suspect many autistic people have experience of others telling them they seem in some ways inanimate. This is due to our not revealing the clues that non-autistics employ to engage in social interaction. It is not our brains that non-autistics notice, it is our atypical body/environment processes of social interaction.

Another theory that helps explain autistic experience in social and other situations is called Predictive Processing. Some enactivist philosophers and psychologists/psychiatrists employ Predictive Processing as explicatory and integral to enactivism.

The philosopher and neuroscientist, Andy Clark is closely associated with Predictive Processing, his 2016 book, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action and the Embodied Mind, has been proven very influential. Some have gone so far as to say that Predictive Processing is as important to neuroscience as Schrödinger’s equation is for physics.

Predictive Processing is based on Thomas Bayes’ (1701-1761) probability theory and statistics. Sometimes one will see a reference to the Bayesian brain. Predictive Processing theory posits that are brains are continually producing predictions across the cognitive domain. These predictions are then compared to the perceptions the brain receives. So your brain generates predictive sensory data and on receiving actual sensory data any divergence between the two is called a prediction error. Errors are propagated up a in what is called a hierarchal cascade. The better the prediction the less error is propagated for correction at the appropriate hierarchal level.

How does this work in practice and how does it explain autistic experience? Your brain receives information from within (interoception) and from without (exteroception). The brain generates predictions of both interoceptive and exteroceptive signals. On reception of interoceptive and exteroceptive data any anomalies are referred to the relevant neural hierarchy and predictions are updated accordingly.

In Predictive Processing theory predictions are often called ‘top- down’ signals, while incoming information from the senses are called ‘bottom-up’ signals. The theory posits that in autistic people

the integration of prediction and actual signals is atypical. Involving either imprecise predictions or too precise incoming sensory info. This theory explains why many of us find the sensory information in supermarkets or busy social events can overwhelm us. I think it is a question of attentional salience, to which I shall return later.

You may have heard about Active Inference and Free Energy minimisation. Again it is quite common to read a science or theory paper that uses enactivism, predictive processing and active inference to explain human cognition and experience.

To try and explain Active Inference and Free Energy Minimisation I am going to return to one of the neuroscientists I first mentioned, Francisco J Varela. Varela and his mentor Humberto Maturna introduced the biological concept of autopoiesis. Autopoiesis is a construct of auto- meaning self – and poises – meaning creation, production. So an autopoietic system is a system capable of producing and reproducing its own elements – a self contained system. Free Energy Minimisation is theory of variational free energy which is related to the variational Bayesian methodology introduced above. It was introduced by the neuroscientist Karl J Friston as an explanation for embodied perception, where it’s more popularly known as active inference. One joke regularly told, is that only person who properly understands the free energy principle is Karl Friston. So, I am not going to attempt to explain it fully. I shall use the concept of autopoiesis to draw a rough sketch. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of any isolated system always increases. Active inference and free energy minimisation are a way explaining how we maintain autopoiesis. It is via the principles of Bayesian prediction which continually try to minimise the divergence between predictions and incoming signals that we maintain autopoiesis.

In the autistic experiences of meltdown or shutdown our autopoiesis is under threat and a surfeit of what is called surprise (to the prediction/senses system) causes these events. Stimming could also be viewed as a means of controlling the level of surprise.

Although the causes of autism are still a mystery, with polygenic risk being the most likely. How can we theorise about the development of autism from birth or before? And use this theory to explain autistic experience from infancy?

In 2018 Cecilia Heyes, a theoretical psychologist who studies the evolution of human cognition, had a book published called, Cultural Gadgets:The Cultural Evolution of Thinking. Heyes draws a distinction between what she calls Cognitive Gadgets – cognitive processes that have been learnt and taught – and ‘instincts’ – what has been inherited. Heyes considers social cognition or mindreading to be one these gadgets that are not inherited but learnt. In support of her case, Heyes points to print reading, which we know is culturally rather genetically transmitted and that mindreading is similarly reliant on the reading of signs – facial expressions etc. Heyes observes that mindreading is one of the cognitive abilities that takes the longest to mature, (think teenagers). Heyes also makes the point that although a large genetic contribution acts in the heritability of autism, and autistic people regularly perform poorly in mindreading tasks, it does not necessarily follow that poor mindreading abilities are part of this genetic heritability. Dyslexia is also thought to involve significant genetic heritability, but reading and writing skills are culturally acquired not innate.

For further evidence that mindreading is acquired, Heyes cites research in which over a thousand pairs of five year old twins “were given a comprehensive battery of mindreading tests” that found similar results for “non-identical twins with an average of 50% of their genes in common, and for identical twins who have all of their genes in common”. These results led to researchers reporting a “substantial shared environmental influence but negligible genetic influence on individual difference in theory of mind” (Hughes et al., 2005).

To add to Heyes’ evidence that social cognition is acquired as opposed to innate, I shall draw attention to two disparate studies. First, the high incidence autism among the blind population. Learning social cognition typically involves processing a lot of visual information, visual attention, facial expressions, body posture and gestures. Collecting the data from previous studies, Rubin Jure found that half of 859 children who were blind from an early age also had autism. “The rate of autism was even higher, ranging from 55 to 74 percent, in children with total congenital blindness.” ( seeing-connections-between-autism-and-blindness/).

Another study ‘Childhood Maltreatment With Interpersonal Distance and Social Touch Preferences in Adulthood’ (Ayline Maier et al 2020) found that children who suffer maltreatment display autism like symptoms.

Both of these would further suggest that 1. Social cognition is acquired rather than innate. 2. Sensory salience plays a major role in the acquisition of social cognition.

It is my suggestion that autism is primarily a symptom of an atypical sensorimotor system. The enactivist position realises the importance of the sensorimotor system in the acquisition of cognition. Enactivism informs the autistic experience and autistic experience informs enactivism.

This has been a very rough sketch of a complex subject. I hope it will provoke debate. I also hope to clarify and expand on this theory in the future.

Any mistakes are entirely my own.



  • Cognitive Gadgets: the cultural evolution of thinking. Cecilia Heyes
  • Surfing Uncertainty, Andy Clark
  • Ecology of the Brain, Thomas Fuchs.
  • The Embodied Mind, Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, Eleanor Rosch
  • Vision and Mind, Eds., Alva Noë and Evan Thompson !
  • Embodiment, Emotion and Cognition, Michelle Maiese !Evolving Enactivism, Daniel D. Hutto & Erik Myin
  • Executive Functions and the Frontal Lobes, A Lifetime Perspective, Vicki Anderson, Rani Jacobs, Peter J. Anderson
  • Handbook of Basal Ganglia Structure and Function. Eds., Heinz Steiner, Kuei Y. Tseng
  • How Things Shape the Mind – A Theory of Material Engagement, Lambros Malafouris
  • Phenomenological Psychology, Darren Langdridge !Radical Embodied Cognitive Science, Anthony Chemero
  • Sensorimotor Life: An Enactive Proposal, Ezequiel A. Di Paolo, Thomas Buhrmann, Xabier E. Barandiaran
  • Supersizing the Mind, Andy Clark
    The Interoceptive Mind From Homeostasis to Awareness, Eds.,
  • Manos Tsakiris & Helena De Preester
  • Waking Dreaming Being, Evan Thompson
  • A Natural History of Human Thinking, Michael Tomasello
  • The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories, Cretien Van Campen, Trans., Julian Ross
  • Body – Language – Communication, Vol 2, Eds., Cornelia Müller, Alan Cienki, Ellen Fricke, Silva H. Ladewig, David McNeill, Jana Bressem
  • Handbook of Visual Information, Eds., Ken Smith, Sandra Moriarty, Gretchen Barbatsis, Keith Kenney.
  • Embodiment, Enaction and Culture, Ed., Christoph Durt, Thomas Fuchs, Christian Tewes.
  • An Introduction to the Visual System,Martin J. Tovee. !The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram.
  • Enactive Cognition at the Edge of Sense Making, Eds., Massimiliano Cappuccio & Tom Froese.
  • The Polyvagal Theory, Stephen W. Porges !Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty


  • Extended active inference: Constructing predictive cognition beyond skulls
  • Axel Constant, Andy Clark, Michael Kirchhoff, Karl Friston 2019
  • Precise Worlds for Certain Minds: An Ecological Perspective on the
  • Relational Self in Autism
  • Axel Constant, Jo Bervoets, Kristien Hens, Sander Van de Cruys 2018
  • Active inference under visuo-proprioceptive conflict: Simulation and empirical results
  • Jakub Limanowski and Karl Friston 2020
  • When the world becomes too real: a Bayesian explanation of autistic perception
  • Elizabeth Pellicano & David Burr 2012
  • Answering Schrödinger’s question: A free-energy formulation
  • Maxwell James Désormeau Ramstead, Paul Benjamin Badcock, Karl John Friston 2018
  • The theory of constructed emotion: an active inference account of interoception and categorization
  • Lisa Feldman Barrett 2017
  • The Active Inference Approach to Ecological Perception: General Information Dynamics for Natural and Artificial Embodied Cognition
  • Adam Linson, Andy Clark, Subramanian Ramamoorthy and Karl Friston 2018
  • Predictions not commands: active inference in the motor system Rick A. Adams • Stewart Shipp • Karl J. Friston 2012

    A tale of two densities: Active inference is enactive inference
  • Ramstead, Maxwell J. D. and Kirchhoff, Michael D. and Friston, Karl J. (2019)
  • !Do We (or Our Brains) Actively Represent or Enactively Engage with the World?
  • Shaun Gallagher, Daniel D Hutto, Jan Slaby, Jonathon Cole
  • Enactivism & Social Cognition: In Search of the Whole Story
  • Leon de Bruin and Sanneke de Haan 2013