Theory of mind(reading)

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!”

Har-har. 😉

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.

What happened?

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)

Advertisements

47 Comments

  1. “A bridge between the neurotypes is what we need.”
    🙌🙌👏👏✊✊Amen my Cosmic Sister 😘 💥💫 🌟💞✨💖 I found the whole Theory Of Mind thing confusing. What I *did* understand of it, I found insulting. Like autistic people are either self centered or ignorant. Maybe I just didn’t understand it correctly. The problem is we have way too many “experts” shouting over autistic voices! Thank you as always for sharing you awesome ND mind so us NT peeps can gain *real* understanding!!😘😘💖💞😍🐉💐🌺🌸🌷🌼🌻🌴😎

    Liked by 3 people

    1. You’re the bomb, Cosmic Sis!! 😘😘😘💣💥🌟✨💖💓☯. It’s so cool to hear from NT-“hybrid” (😁 – my perception 😘😘) people like you! You and people like you are definitely the trailblazers on the NT side of the neuro-pond 👍🏼👍🏼💙💜. I totally agree – too many undeserved megaphones 😉🌎✨. Preach on, Dearest Dude!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼☯🌠☮🌌🌈❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “They don’t understand us, either.”

    So very effing true! The area I’ve had the absolute cringeworthy, teeth gritting trouble with is “the empty gesture.” Being an aspie, nothing effing frustrates me more. As I’ve gotten older and more savvy to ways of the superficial world around me, I’ve come to ignore “the empty gesture.”

    Question, guru of mine….what are your thoughts on “gaslighting” and asperger’s? Do you think that aspies are more prone, susceptible to “gaslighting” from unscrupulous individuals that our NT counterparts? And if we are not more susceptible, what are your thought on how an aspie reacts to being gaslighted as compared to the reactions of an NT.

    Love your articles so much. So illuminating. 💙

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you so, so much, my lovely!! 😘😘. It’s so amazingly awesome to see you back ❤️❤️. I hope you’ve had a chance to recharge 🌺🌺.

      I love your term “empty gesture”!! What an excellent way to describe it. My feelings toward those parallel yours 👍🏼👍🏼

      To answer your question (btw I think you’re a guru yourself! 😁), my thoughts are…

      Oh hell yes 💜💜. I do think many of us can be more subject to gaslighting, mainly because of the tendency to interpret what is said more literally, without considering that the dickhead might be playing mind-games 🌷🌷

      I do think that for those of us who have been in situations where we’ve been played mind-games with, we could become more jaded and cynical (which is not a bad thing! It’s unfortunate that it came to that, but in my book, jading and cynicism are merely normal responses to an F’ed up game-playing practice, not a character flaw in the one who got gas-lit 😘), and thus stop taking people at their face-valued word 💟💟

      I do have ideas for a post on this very topic! 😁. So far, I’ve danced around it in a few posts (https://thesilentwaveblog.wordpress.com/?s=Gaslighting+)

      Mae Seven over at Seventh Voice has a very excellent and specific post on this topic (https://seventhvoice.wordpress.com/2014/12/10/the-gas-lighting-of-women-and-girls-on-the-autism-spectrum/), and although it was written 3 years ago, it’s totally accurate and relevant today 💚💙💜💞

      Liked by 3 people

      1. We seem to be far more prone to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous people, particularly due to the delays in processing we experience where people are concerned. There’s also the humiliation and embarrassment of being gaslit, especially when the person or persons doing the gaslighting are people you should have been able to trust in the first place, and which doubles the effect. Sociopaths are renowned for doing things like that to people. The damage they cause is phenomenal, and they do it for pleasure. Sociopaths have also discovered that they can pretend to be aspergian to disguise what they are and gain access to vulnerable people.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Oh wow, thank you for this! Awesome comment; I really enjoyed reading it 😊😊. I think you hit several nails on their heads 👍🏼👍🏼. Especially the part about the sociopaths. They’re masters of disguise and pros at manipulation. And yep, they will be almost chameleons. I can’t tell if I’ve met up with one yet, especially in the Asperger’s/autistic community (pretending, being an imposter, of course, as I do not think it’s even possible to be Aspie/autistic and psychopathic at the same time), and I hope I never come across one 😘😘❤️❤️❤️

          Liked by 2 people

  3. I love this and the way you debunked how the experts try to exile those with autism or aspergers to some outer Hebrides in terms of empathy when my feeling is that it could not possibly be that way and comes from misunderstanding how you really feel and think. We should always keep questioning others and asking them what they feel their reality is as we can never assume we live inside another’s soul or head. To do so is a terrible form of abuse of boundaries in my view.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Lol! 😘😂. If only I could tell you how many times I made that comment on someone’s blog (or at least thought it to myself), it would make you grin and probably laugh 😁❤️

      There seems to be a synchronicity along the minds of the Asperger’s/autistic community that before meeting y’all, I had never experienced before! Yep, it definitely seems to be a Thing – you’re not alone! 💚💙

      I hope you write that post 😊. I can’t wait to read yours! 👏🏼👏🏼💜

      Liked by 3 people

    2. I find Laina has already written the post as my brain is entertaining
      an idea & telling me to travel to the Silent Wave, only to see that
      idea manifested right in front of me. It is a beautiful synchronicity.
      The speed of thought travels much faster than the speed of light.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Omg yes!! Great points, especially “the speed of thought travels much faster than the speed of light” – you should totally meme that 😁😁👍🏼👍🏼👍🏼☮💞💞

        Like

  4. That theory of mind also describes (in a nutshell) a number of other neurodiversities that are often brushed off, like people who live with severe OCD and mild narcissism. Too many people assume standardized and very typecast behaviors and POVs that brush people who are ‘different’ or ‘not normal’ as being subhuman. I believe autism research will be the catalyst that explodes all this to bits. Keep sharing!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much, girl! I really appreciate your comment 😊😊💙. You’re absolutely right, too, of course! Brushing off is never good; so much and so many get(s) missed. You nailed it about autism research and the new wave of it 👍🏼👍🏼. I’m doing everything I can to help in my own small way, from my own little corner of the world; I’ve been a “subject” now in 2 research papers, soon to be published, although I forget exactly (or was never sure of) where 💙. I think a big cataclysm is coming! Our Silent Wave of autism awareness (in the true sense) will reach a tsunami, and when it does, even the oldest-school “experts” will have no choice but to listen and pay attention 😁. I will totally keep sharing! 👍🏼👍🏼. There’s so much more to say 😉💚💙💜

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Being raised to “Say what you mean, & mean what you say”
    has always been a double edged sword in the NT world.
    It has always upset me when people go through the motions
    & say things just for the sake of saying them “empty gestures”.

    “Let’s get together soon.” My reply will be “Great! what
    date & time?” Which will mostly be met with a confused
    look… Which means they were just saying that to be
    nice??? Creating false expectations with NO intention of
    actually doing it isn’t nice, it is lying. “It was nice to see you.”
    would suffice. Many people say things for the sake of it.
    Having an eidetic memory, these things get stored verbatim.

    When actions don’t match statement said, my brain registers
    this as LYING. I am talking to a compulsive liar. They may
    not see it that way, they are doing all the “correct” social
    protocols. When calling out a repeat offender “These
    were your exact words” often gets met with shock, surprise,
    resentment & sometimes hostility. (often in combination)

    “Say what you mean, & mean what you say” Very simple.

    Mindfulness is something that is in shorter & shorter supply
    in todays world. We are all responsible for the words that
    come out of our mouths. I fully understand people have
    different ideas, ways of thinking & priorities. Also respect
    mine & Don’t blow smoke in my direction to put it kindly.

    Convoluted “Theory of Mind” or Common Sense. I will
    take common sense every time. Thank you very much.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. So here we go again, you’ve managed to blog on another very topical point for my family. Yet another discussion (rather heated) with one of my daughters today about this very topic. I’m not sure I managed to get my point across terribly well, but I’ll point her in this direction, because as usual, you say it so much better than I do. X

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awww thank you so much, my pretty! You are too kind 😊🌈😘. I’m so sorry that you found yourself in such a stressful situation; heated debates aren’t fun 💖💖. I hope she comes around soon! We all live and learn, don’t we? 💙. Many comforting thoughts to you both 💚💜

      Like

  7. Today I learned that everything in the psych books were basically about allistics/NTs, how they behave, etc. Even how-to sites weren’t really written for autistics. Because the majority of people aren’t autistic!!!!! It was enough to send me into shock and realize why I couldn’t learn anything even with decent grades.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Please could you tell me the source of the art you’ve used to illustrate this piece? I followed a twitter link to find the artist’s name but don’t see it anywhere on this page. I might just be missing something obvious but nonetheless. Thanks so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hello. I am NT, I came here through Barry. Thank you for this. I find one autistic friend particularly empathic, working out the feeling from the situation of the other. NT theory of mind has limitations too: speeders, dope-smokers, heavy drinkers, will all say “Everybody does it”. There are the so-familiar pieces of classical music which I know “Everybody” is familiar with.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi! Thank you so much for commenting! 😊. What you said is so true! Those people do assume that, and for the longest time I was bewildered, because I didn’t lol 💜. Thank you for helping me to see that those assumptions are actually TOM limitations, too! 👍🏼💙

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It is my firm opinion that nobody can fully know what or how another person thinks. This is regardless of neurotype. Even if you get two Autistics together, they will maybe be more on the same wavelength that two people of different neurotypes, but even they can not look into one another’s head. Ultimately, the only mind you can ever completely know and understand is your own. (And even that is not always easy 😉 )
    Also, the various tests to “test” so-called “Theory of Mind” are seriously flawed in my opinion, like the notorious Sally-Anne test. Probably worth a blog post of my own, so I don’t clog up your comment thread with reams of text…
    Oh, and absolutely yes to the synchronicity. How often have I been turning something over in my mind, and Bing! there is a post from Laina about that very thing. I don’t know how she does it. Maybe it’s her superior theory of mind 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hear, hear! I share the same firm stance that nobody can fully understand how another person thinks, even if they’re the same neurotype. I think when people are the same type, they can come closer, but I do think that everyone lacks TOM to various extents, which maybe means that it’s not necessarily something to “lack”, anymore than we “lack” extra arms or eyes 😊. I, too, see serious flaws in the TOM tests.

      Dear friend, I love reading both your comments and your blog posts, so please do feel free to write anything anywhere 👍🏼👍🏼. And last but not least, thank you for your kind words 😁. I think that we on the spectrum share quite a bit of TOM, much more than the “experts” have ever given us credit for, from what I’ve experienced. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a blog post and thought, oh wow!! I was going to write about this, too! Lol 😉💚💙🌈

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know that it’s been criticised, I just can’t remember where I read those criticisms! If anyone else can point them out, please help me out here.
        I think the Sally-Anne test in particular is open to misunderstandings, i.e. that the person being tested misunderstands what is being asked, and that for example a small language slip leads to wrong results. If the examiner asks “where SHOULD Sally look for her marble?” you get a different answer than for “where WILL Sally look for her marble?”, but such a slip is easy to make unnoticed. Also, I wonder if it’s really clear to the child (and it’s usually children being tested) that it’s supposed to put itself in Sally’s shoes. If that is not 100% clear, you will also get a wrong answer.
        That’s just two points briefly. Mind you, I haven’t studied this in detail, I just read about it and had some thoughts.:)

        Liked by 2 people

  11. There seems to be one chief matter that is missing – which is how we are seen (by Normdom) at the largely-unconscious level:

    That is, virtually every Normie, left to his or her instincts, sees us individualy and collectively as a fungible (interchangeable, much as if we all were a vast mound of interchangeable ***things***) group of *gross social inferiors*.

    This accounts for much of the bad treatment we receive; but more, it is why Normdom does not hear us, while demanding (at figurative gunpoint) that we hear their merest murmurs ***while ignoring all else***!

    It is why we must change, while they themselves ossify further into perfected marble statuary; it is why they’ve no desire to ‘lower themselves, that they may meet us half-way’.

    In short, Normdom currently knows all it wishes to know about us: that we are not them, and are therefore an enemy who deserves to be either killed or enslaved – and if the latter, treated with brutality and cruelty, because ***our owners enjoy seeing us suffer***.

    Like

Please feel free to add your thoughts!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s