Realizing that you’re autistic when you’re an adult means you get to do a lot of searching. This takes multiple forms – soul-searching, Google-searching, memory-searching, and often, people-searching (the journey of finding others just like you).
In my internet searching, I tripped over a staggering number of tidbits that clicked my entire world into place. It was like being given the instruction manual to my brain, and having it translated into my native language.
There was one particular concept, however, that did not click in line quite so easily: Theory of Mind.
What the hell was that, this “Theory of Mind” of which so many speak? The term stoically hides any further information.
Many a mention, nary a definition. At least, not a definition that helped much.
At first, my Inner Smartass came out. “Well duh–of course we have minds. That’s not a theory!”
It took me a few more months, additional stubborn searching, and the frustrating combing through of probably several dozen search results before I started to “get it”. And even then, my grasp of the concept remained shaky for a while longer. Even today, I had to search online for the words of an accessible description (as given by those who are bestowed with “expert” status by the general population):
“Theory of mind refers to the notion that many autistic individuals do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view.”
What I’m about to say might be obvious to most people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, but it is, unfortunately, the prevailing conventional “wisdom”, and thus it may be news to some: Bullshit.
The definition, while accessible, is not accurate.
I have always known that other people have their own thoughts and perspectives. They’re different people, after all! As a young child, I might have been crying quietly while someone across the room might have been laughing at someone else’s joke. Obviously, we were thinking different things! I hadn’t heard the joke and the laughing person across the room probably hadn’t just experienced a death in the family. So, even in my early years, I knew that other people had different experiences and points of view, which makes the above statement wrought with bogusness.
The sentence that follows talks a little more sense:
“Furthermore, it appears that they have difficulty understanding other people’s beliefs, attitudes, and emotions.”
Now that, I can live with. I can even identify with it. Score one for them! (Which is not exactly meant to be sarcastic.)
A sentence further down in the same article reads:
“By not understanding that other people think differently than themselves, many autistic individuals may have problems relating socially and communicating to other people.”
See, this is the problem with the compulsive refusal by the neurotypical “experts” to simply Ask Us, rather than simply recording what they see on some clipboard while watching us like mice in a lab maze, and then making assumptions about what they’re observing without seeking any clarification.
It’s not that I don’t realize that other people think differently than I do, nor is that the reason for my problems with social communication and social relationships.
I’ll concede that I have issues with relating to and communicating with other people. Of that, there is no question.
However, the etiology or background isn’t quite what the “experts” have assumed. My reality, in fact, is quite different from their assumptions.
The problem isn’t that I simply don’t understand that other people think differently; it’s that I don’t understand how they think.
That concept is also known as “mind-blindness”.
The “experts” are right, of course; I tend not to understand other people, and that does indeed create communication and socializing issues.
But the “experts” are only telling half the story. I have news for them: there’s an elephant in the room. Ready? Here it is:
They don’t understand us, either.
Mind-blindness occurs on both sides. The autistic mind may not understand the neurotypical way of thinking, but the reverse is also true.
To give a little more background on Theory of Mind, apparently, according to the “experts”, around ages 3-4, we’re “supposed to” develop a set of skills that serve as our earliest stages of socialization–that is, learning to relate to and communicate with others. To do this effectively (again, to parrot the “experts”), we must learn to recognize that the world does extend beyond oneself and attempt to anticipate what others would say or do, or how they would feel, in various situations, and then act accordingly, in order to achieve proper socialization–that is, to make friends, form bonds, and generally get along in the world.
So far, so good…
…That is, as long as everyone else is wired the way you are. And since 98% of the population is said to be wired a certain way, that became the default, the “standard”, upon which everything else is based, and from which every deviation is “wrong”.
That’s where I have a bone to pick. Not every deviation is wrong, any more than any religion or race is right or wrong. Where did sayings such as “variety is the spice of life” come from? Are they merely lip service? Sometimes it seems so.
The Theory of Mind Thing works pretty well, if you can be assured that everyone else around you will think, respond, and act the same way as you do.
However, if you’re not wired in the same way as someone else, it may be much more difficult to anticipate how they might react, what they might say or do, or how they might want to be treated. People who think differently might (and probably will) hold different values, have different priorities, engage in different interests.
The truth is, Theory of Mind is fairly overrated. Unless you are that person or you can read their mind, or you otherwise know them very well, there’s no way to anticipate 100% of their behavior, thoughts, responses, and so on. If there were, the words “misunderstanding” and “misinterpretation” wouldn’t exist. But they do, because a lack of Theory of Mind occurs between people of all types, and fairly frequently. All of the stories of people getting scammed or manipulated occur because someone believed someone else and took them at their words, which they didn’t mean. Entire comedy routines, such as Laurel and Hardy’s “Who’s on First?”, are the funnier star stuff of examples.
Now enter a completely different operating system into the equation. Communication gets even dicier. Some neurotypical people have thought I was pulling their leg when in reality, I was being serious. Or they thought I was simply telling them what they wanted to hear when really I was being genuine and I actually am that nice. They reacted to me with skepticism and I reacted to them with hurt surprise. As this happened over and over again, I somehow got the message that I was in the minority, and to be a minority is to be wrong.
I don’t operate according to “code”. I don’t understand–and don’t much have time for–the social niceties of telling white lies to preserve self-esteem, paying attention to conversation topics that I find incredibly boring, playing games by saying the opposite of what I mean, and whatnot.
Meanwhile, the neurotypical mind is often trying to anticipate something that isn’t there. They’re expecting me to say certain things at certain times because That’s How It’s Done in a social interaction.
Heh. I never got that memo. So on its face, it looks like I’m proving the opposition’s case: I lack Theory of Mind, and therefore, I have a problem.
Au contraire. Just because I may not always say or do the right thing at the right time according to neurotypical social rules, that doesn’t mean that I can’t anticipate what people think, nor does it place the blame on me for the problem or the onus on me to fix it by changing.
The truth is, I do realize that other people don’t think the same way as I do. I’m painfully aware of that. I do know that everyone has different thoughts and feelings. I can anticipate what some people might think, say, or do: other autistic people!
When I socialize with other autistic people, I get to be me. When I interact with them, there isn’t any higher of a rate of misunderstanding than there would be between two neurotypical people.
Suddenly, one could observe that we have plenty of Theory of Mind!
Q: Where did that come from?
A: We’re wired in a similar way. Anticipation becomes much easier when those involved share the same platform.
This demonstrates that I’m not the one with the problem, and the onus isn’t placed squarely on me to fix it.
The problem occurs when two people, with different priority pyramids and different sets of expectations, get together and operate according to their own framework. Without mutual understanding, a dissonance emerges, and conflict ensues.
Being in the minority group often puts pressure on its members to conform to the majority. I’ve spent my life trying to cram my star-shaped self into square-shaped holes. It’s nothing short of cognitive contortionism. And it’s every bit as uncomfortable as it sounds.
I only thought it was necessary because everyone around me was doing things a certain way. I didn’t know I was in the minority, so I thought I had to do it that way, too.
So who’s to blame?
The truth is, I’m not all that interested in placing blame on one neurotype or another. The problem lies with neither and the onus to fix it is on both.
If anyone is to blame, it’s those who set an arbitrary bar for everyone to measure up to and an arbitrary model for everyone to emulate, and then deem any outliers or deviants from that model to be “disordered”, fostering and festering problems by poisoning the minds of the public with drivel about “disorders”, “function” labels, “treatments” and stereotypes. Unfortunately, the very people that people on and off the Asperger’s/autism spectrum rely upon to be experts, are the very worst perpetrators of our misery.
Yeah, it’s time for that to come to a long overdue ending.
The first step is to understand that as expertly as those “experts” might appear, they lack Theory of Mind, too. I may not understand them, but given everything they say about Asperger’s/autism and Aspergian/autistic people, it’s obvious that they don’t understand us, either.
Kudos to the neurotypical people who are reading the firsthand words of Asperger’s/autistic people. Kudos to the open-minded people who have long since realized that the world needs all kinds and that there’s no one “right” way of being. Kudos to the Asperger’s/autistic people who include these neurotypical people in our conversations. You are the way–and wave–of the future. A bridge between the neurotypes is what we need.
It’s OK to be pissed off at certain neurotypical people. We just need to make sure we’re directing our ire at the right ones, the guilty ones, the ones who claim to be experts but act like anything but, the ones who damage and disparage us, who deny, dismiss, and ignore us. That’s where the real problem lies, and those people are who the real problems are.
And those people are the ones who actually lack Theory of Mind the most.
The rest of us, neurotypical and Asperger’s/autistic alike? We’re cool. 😉 🙂
This is one of my more popular posts!
(Image Credit: Shutterstock)