Susan's Blog

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Theory of Mine

I was flipping through this book on dog behavior, Inside of a Dog, which is about dogs’ thoughts, reasoning abilities — it caught my eye as a good thing to get for Max’s animal-crazy girlfriend Hannah — and right away I was struck by the admiring tone of the author, Alexandra Horowitz, who is a cognitive psychologist.  Dr. Horowitz had such a lovely, deft way of describing the minute details of what her dog Pump does to learn and communicate.

I found myself feeling envious of dogs, for the level of affection, tolerance, and understanding so many of us give them.  I was thinking that we can be especially generous with our assessments of dogs’ intelligence, because we allow from the start that they are different from us.  We know that dogs are not humans, but that there are so many traits that they share with us, including the ability to learn, reason, and predict.  We automatically cut them slack for their inabilities, because our perspective is that we take them for who they are. I wish that our magnanimity extended as such to humans.

I am thinking in particular about how we judge Theory of Mind in autistics.  Dr. Horowitz makes the typical claim that many people with autism have difficulty with or even lack Theory of Mind, which is the ability to understand that there are minds, perceptions, and mental existences apart from your own.  The theory of Theory of Mind is that with autism you only know yourself and you’re not aware of others.

It is time that we, as representatives of enlightened humanity, move past this archaic notion of autism. Those of us who live with, work with, and or love a person on the Spectrum know that there are many ways to skin a dog, er, cat.  Most of the time, the difficult issues that crop up with autism, are about communication and frustration.  It follows that if you are a person that has overstimulated neural connections, underutilized neural connections, and other complex difficulty with language and interaction, you will have difficulty showing others what you do know.  If Michael Phelps, a swimmer capable of breaking Olympic records, has his legs frozen, immobilized, and you throw him in a pool, he will flip and flop and sink.  Someone who doesn’t know would think, “Jeez, that guy cannot swim.”  But he can.  He just hasn’t learned how to overcome his impaired legs.

How do we know that people on the Spectrum have little or no Theory of Mind?  Maybe they do, but they don’t know how to show it, or they don’t know to show it.  Nat knows how to smile, but he doesn’t do it sometimes when he “should.”  Is it that he doesn’t feel warm towards others?  Or is it that he doesn’t know that this is the way to show how warm he is feeling towards you?  What may look here like semantics, is actually a lightyear of a distinction.

Even if we ask some with Asperger’s who can describe their own experiences, is that going to explain Nat’s?  If Temple Grandin says that she learned about human interaction by observing social cues and teaching herself, “That facial position means you are happy,” for example, that doesn’t mean she does not feel the happiness.  It means that she now understands the more universal way of expressing that.  Dr. Grandin may even go as far as saying that she does not feel what the rest of the neurotypicals feel in terms of love, but how does she know that?  Maybe the emotion that feels like love to her is actually more intense than the way I feel love, but we have no way of comparing.  Another example of this would be the way I see blue compared to the way you see blue.  We can all agree (colorblindness notwithstanding) on what is blue, but none of us know what blue actually looks like to another person.

It stands to reason that Nat does wonder about other minds but does not show it, or does not know what to do with that input.  I defy anyone to prove to me that people with autism have no Theory of Mind.  Even or especially with the non-verbal, so-called Low Functioning (that’s another term we have to reconsider) isn’t the burden on us to try to plumb what he does know, rather than to assume what he does not?  There is some disconnect within Nat’s processing, but I would never go as far as saying that he does not have awareness of others’ different perspectives, of others’ minds.

The responsibility rests with us, the neurotypicals who are in the majority in this society and who make the rules and draw up the I.Q. tests and create the hypotheses, to be ever more accurate, to move our own language forward so that it matches potential reality.  We don’t want to be guilty of what I am now calling “neurism,” bias towards neurotypical responses.  If we don’t consider autism from fresh perspectives, we will continue to be dogged by the problems of stereotyping and ignorance, and hopelessness.


I like your theory. I appreciate an alternative perspective. You make a lot of sense in this “theory of yours” 🙂

— added by Timmy's Mom on Friday, October 15, 2010 at 6:44 am

I threw “Theory of Mind” out the window, at least for my oldest son, when he started kissing me every time I stubbed my toe, dropped something, or had a look on my face that even vaguely resembled pain. He was three when he began reacting this way. I’m pretty sure that’s evidence of empathy.

I’d also like to put the term “low-functioning” in the same category as the word “retarded” and abolish it completely. While my child is moderately affected, will need lifetime care, and has never spoken a word, he was also wielding a computer mouse correctly at age two and reading sight words at age three. Intelligence takes many forms. I think it’s time to celebrate them all, not limit with labels.

Excellent post Susan!

— added by kim mccafferty on Friday, October 15, 2010 at 9:47 am

Excellent post! I remember about two years ago when Nick was going through yet another evaluation with a specialist that did not know him. I was in the room with him as this guy was trying to get Nick to ‘perform’. Nick had mastered these tasks and I was keen to show this guy what I knew Nick could do. Do you think my little mister cooperated? Nope. Nick would do one thing asked of him and then look right at me with the most mischievious grin and glance back at the evaluator and then do the exact opposite of what was asked. He would jump on the couch, toss toys under the table, or simply sit there. The evaluator was not impressed and gave Nick some pretty low scores. I guess he thought Nick was not capable of such acts. I knew likewise. We have seen that ‘naughty’ look and he clearly knows not to do things…but likes to see how far he can
push people. He continues his mischief at school when teachers are not looking. If that is not some form of theory of mind then maybe I am not fully understanding it…lol.

— added by amy on Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 2:56 am

I love it when kids play that game, it shows that there is so much going when they pull one over on someone. I work with a little girl in her home and she has trouble with writing, but she’s making great progress typing independently. Her teacher was shocked when I went in for a visit at school. She had no idea this little one could type. They’ve been working on it but she’s not motivated. I have a program called “Pixwriter” that speaks and pulls up a picture or an icon. I can import photos and my little friend is typing her name, her family member’s names, Barney (of course) with no model and with me doing and saying nothing to help. And she loves it. We’re working on “” now, because a few minutes of a Barney video is the biggest reinforcer. She can copy it into the toolbar and then manipulates the trackpad and types in Barney. School had no idea, but now they are on board, thankfully!

— added by Michele on Saturday, October 16, 2010 at 8:42 pm

You know, you have a pretty interesting take on this whole subject…when I read a little more about Theory of Mind I came across the same kinds of assertions that we don’t know that there are other people other than us.

This whole theory of mind thing is what the “lack of empathy” assertion is based on. I posted about empathy a while back ( and I assert that it’s not that we don’t have empathy — I find that many people on the spectrum, myself included, do. My trouble comes with a) figuring out how to show it,and b) being overwhelmed by the emotions of others. But it is not impossible.

Great post. Thanks for sharing.


— added by Nicole Nicholson on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Thanks, Nicole, that is very validating to hear.

— added by Susan Senator on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 2:08 pm