Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Theory of Mind: What is this rot?

The topic of "theory of mind' has been popping up in all sorts of odd places for me- particularly the idea that autistic people don't have it. Either I don't get what "theory of mind" is, or the idea that autistics don't have it is a lot of rot.

In a basic simplification, I understood that the "theory of mind" means that one person can understand that another person has a mind. It is being used as a shorthand for the ability to pick up and react to other people's emotions, because you understand that they HAVE emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc., and that these emotions, thoughts, etc. might be different from yours.

Setting aside that I know a lot of non-autistic people who have a lot of trouble with the second part of that, I haven't yet met an autistic person who didn't have these abilities. They might not be able to react appropriately to other other people, but that seems to be more a problem of processing and accessing proper response. Kind of like Joey having a hard time accessing words spontaneously, and so he has a great deal of trouble with communication and expressive language. He copes with this by scripting, or quoting like Mrs. Who. Sometimes he accesses something other than what was intended, resulting in words that make no sense; or he can access nothing at all, resulting in either silence or frustrated squealing (or other noise).

In other words, Joey seems to have no trouble understanding that other people are, in fact, people. He is very sensitive to emotional states- especially mine. He certainly understands that other people do not feel and think the same way he does. And he's only 5, and I've had evidence of this for a while.

People who are not autistic seem to come up with the odd ideas when they just can't get the fact that there are people in the world who cannot communicate orally- or even verbally. They seem to have their own problems with "theory of mind" in that they can't understand that there are other ways to communicate. Joey's private speech therapist has been very apologetic since she started Joey on ASL, because it became immediately apparent that Joey understood a lot more of what was being said- and what he wanted to say- than she had been giving him credit for. With teh visual cues, Joey can circumvent some of the auditory processing and instead use his visual processing- and so can better understand what is expected of him and what is being said to him. He can also access his words better and faster.

Before Joey had use of words, even signs, we knew what he wanted and needed much of the time. We could certainly tell if he was happy or unhappy, if he liked anothe person or not, that sort of thing. We had communication with him, and he understood to communicate with us- just not in the "usual" ways.

Theory of Mind seems to be just another way of trying to depict autistic people as something less than human. Of taking away their sense of humanity by taking away their sense of community. It is easier to make an object of a person you believe is making an object of you.

Joey gets the idea of people. When Andy hurts himself, he's quick with that hug and kiss- always was. When Mom is nervous abotu an IEP meeting, he gets upset, too, and lots more cuddly (and clingy). When we're all happy, he's all smiles. He wants to make people around him feel happy. When he laughs inappropriately, he's still reacting, and even usually seems to know that laughter isn't what he intended. He's got the idea that other people have minds.

I have no idea yet if he knows those minds aren't like his.


Club 166 said...

"...Theory of Mind seems to be just another way of trying to depict autistic people as something less than human. ..."

Consciously or unconsciously, I think this is exactly what is going on.

Last weekend we went to visit a cave. I gave both of the kids little "Maglight" flashligts to use while we were in there. Shortly after going in, Sweet Pea's light bulb burned out (I had changed the batteries in both before going, and checked that they worked, trying to avoid catastrophe). Within about 30 seconds of this happening (and Sweet Pea having the expected response of getting upset because hers didn't work) Buddy Boy spontaneously handed her his flashlight!

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Not because I never had seen empathy in my son before, but because I had never seen it go so much beyond that. "Theory of Mind", indeed.


VAB said...

Great post! My comment got so long that I ended up blogging it.

JoeyAndyDad said...

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell was particularly egregious. The concept of the book was good in that it tried to explain how people make snap, "gut" decisions and why these are often better than decisions agonized over for days.

However, there was some inexcusable autism bashing, comparing autistic people to dogs, and dogs coming out with the long end of the stick in many cases.

And of course, Gladwell had data to support it. Unfortunately, the assumption is that 1 person with autism is equivalent any other, so he took an anecdote and smeared an entire community.

So don't buy or read "Blink" unless you really want to get pissed off.

Anyway, theory of mind works until it doesn't. And it clearly doesn't work for persons with autism.

kristina said...

However much Charlie does not seem to respond in a typical way, he knows and feels what's going on. Sometimes his response---his acknowledgement of me being upset or angry---comes later (a delayed reaction). But that most certainly does not mean that he, or Joey, or any of our kids, does not very much feel what is going on around him.