Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Jay's Theory of Autistic Theory of Mind

Photo of Jay's reflections in a number of different glass frames
The "Theory of Mind" as lacking in people with Autistic Spectrum experiences has bugged me for a long time. I figured out why awhile ago, and have worked on it long enough to figure out how to say a preliminary statement of it...

The Development of Lacking Theory of Mind
A young kid with AS thinks differently because their brains are wired in a different way from neurotypical.

But, being in neurotypical (in this example American middle class) society, where a common belief is that "everyone is the same," and where being different than the assumed norm/ideal is pathologized as being wrong or sick, the child is told over and over again that they think like everyone else does, and should act like everyone else does.

When the kid tries to explain the differences in experiencing and thinking, (assuming that the kid realizes the differences, can make sense of them, and can explain them to others, which is a stretch for even the most able of AS kids) they are told over and over again that they are just like everyone else thus and should act, think, and cope accordingly.

But the truth is, the sensory experiences and thought patterns, emotional and social processing are NOT the same as everyone else.

So then the person encounters other people, and misreads what they are feeling, thinking, or meaning by projecting their own meanings, because the only frames of reference are:
-their own experience
-the uniform assertion that their experience is identical to that of other people

Therefore, AS kids are trained to become adults who project atypical sensory/thought/perception/feeling patterns on others, not entirely because they intrinsically lack the ability to understand other viewpoints, but at least partially because they have been taught to think that what they are experiencing is the same as what everyone else is.

While I do think that one of the differences in experiencing/processing has to do with understanding socially-relevant cues, I think that this is overemphasized and that many of the methods use to normalize AS people actually lead to greater difficulty in Theory of Mind rather than lesser.

Wouldn't it be a more effective strategy to figure out what a person is experiencing, honor and validate that, and give tools to better understand others? For example, I learned about how to correctly interpret body language (by ASKING what it means without assuming) in MSW school--but this is clearly not a Masters' level task.
A preschooler with limited language can learn to ask "What does that face mean?"

All of this depends, of course, on the recognition and valuing of difference. The cultural value of denying difference in a misguided effort to force unity is a Modernist construct, but it's so deeply embedded in American culture that deconstructing it seems to take enormous effort. It's exactly why Disability Culture doesn't make sense to most people, why Queer Pride seems offensive, and why Christianity has been publicly limited to politically-conservative consumerist moralism. (Enough about that, or this post will never end...)

Some great books about Neurodiversity:


Jonah said...

A 15 year old aspie friend of mine and I were recently talking about that, about how people assume that other people think in the same way that they think, and that this assumption works best if you happen to be NT and within a standard deviation of the norm IQ.
I think most aspies figure out at some point that the "I think like everybody else" theory of mind is a fallacy.

Jay said...

Thanks for the comment.
I agree that it can be obvious that we think differently.

I wouldn't underestimate the power of oppression-by-denial. In other words, I think that being told something over and over again can be an oppressive and unfortunately effective way to silence someone.
I think it's also fairly common for us to go from realizing that we do indeed think differently to assuming that we must be wrong, stupid, weird, sick, or confused. I think this can be especially true when we live in a culture that typically labels non-standard ways of doing things as deviant.

Did I meet you at FORGE?