Sally, Ann and the Theory of Mind

What I’m playing on the FABULOUS baritone ukulele right now (thanks again, Lisa!):

Palms of Paradise by Frank Loesser and Fredrick Hollander

Consider the following:

What is your first response to the question “Where will Sally look for the ball?”

Most people will say that Sally should look in the basket for the ball, since that’s where she put it and where she would expect to see it. My first response is that Sally should look for the ball in the box, since that is where Ann put it. This is because I have a poor Theory of Mind, one of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome.

The Oxford Companion to the Body describes Theory of Mind as thus:

‘Theory of mind’ is a catch-phrase in contemporary psychology, referring to a universal human tendency to attribute mental states (feelings, beliefs, intentions, attitudes) to oneself and to others. ‘Mentalizing’ has much the same meaning. Mental states are used to explain and predict other people’s behaviour intuitively — as if guided by a theory about the nature of mind.

Imagine you are watching a movie. ‘Why did the detective duck into the doorway? Because he thought he was being followed.’ This explanation holds even if the detective was not actually followed by anybody. What counts is that he believed he was being followed, and this determined his behaviour. Belief is more significant than reality. It is vitally important not to confuse mental states and physical states. To achieve this, the human brain is equipped with a mechanism that represents mental states in a special way. The underlying mechanism is likely to have an innate basis, which explains why social learning early in life is both rapid and universal.

Where those of us on the autism spectrum tend to get tripped up is in the difficulty or inability to put ourselves in another’s head to easily understand their emotions or intentions. While this sounds simple, having a poor Theory of Mind has ripple effects that permeate our dealings with everybody, whether it’s loved ones, a colleague or a barista at Starbuck’s.

This is what makes an Aspie chronically misread social situations. It’s hard to know when to stop talking about ukulele music of the 1920s when you’re completely unable to read the faces of the people around you. Boredom simply doesn’t register.

In addition to seeming to be self-centered and just generally clueless, it makes understanding what is going on in a given social situation very difficult to comprehend, such as knowing when to speak, what topics are off limits, sarcasm, or how we are being perceived.

Some of us are lucky enough to have developed work-arounds that allow us to usually be able to function somewhat normally. It’s hard, exhausting work and takes constant monitoring of what we think would be appropriate to say or do. Still, it does give a person a unique view of life.

And an obsessive love of the ukulele.

So how do you deal with a person with a poor Theory of Mind? Be patient and don’t assume we understand what is going on. Just take us as we are, warts and all, and realize that we probably didn’t mean to do or say whatever may have offended you.

The One That Got Away

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks


This is the tale of the one that got away.

If you’re a reader of my earlier posts, you can see pretty clearly that I love Tin Pan Alley songs from the 1920s and 1930s. Many of these songs became famous through Vaudeville performers. At that time, the ukulele was ragingly popular but it was really too soft to be played in large concert halls. The solution? Cross a banjo—which is much louder—with a ukulele. Thus was born the banjo ukulele, or banjolele. It has the tuning, strings and size of a ukulele with the gloriously obnoxious twang of a banjo. So where does one find a banjolele these days? eBay!

It turns out that there are quite a few banjoleles out there, and most of them need quite a bit of restoration. Since I’ve discovered Red Zone Guitar Works in Pasadena, it has become my go-to for fixing and restoring guitar-based instruments. They set up my old soprano uke, did a spectacular job on my Aunt Eunie’s baritone uke, and are currently working on my Dad’s old Martin uke and my Grandfather’s beloved banjo.

Now, this was my first foray into the world of online auctions, so I had some reading to do before I bid on anything. For those of you who are unfamiliar with eBay, bidders enter the highest amount they would be willing to pay for an item. Anyone who counterbids will raise the price by that amount. If, for example, the current winning bid is $15.00 and I enter $150.00, the amount bid will show up as $16.00. If someone else tries to bid $30 for the same item, the amount will show up as $30.00, and so on.

I had heard something about the practice of sniping, but really didn’t understand it fully. Sniping is when a bidder waits until the last few seconds of an auction to bid a dollar or two over current bid to win the auction at the lowest price. In eBay’s FAQ section, this practice is definitely frowned upon.

I set my sights on a terrific banjolele from the early 1920’s, with bidding started at $10 and an ending date of 6 days away. Being the smart cookie I thought I was, I put my maximum bid at $70 with the idea that I could have some wiggle room if the bidding got hot, and still come in with a bottom line figure of about $150, which would including shipping and restoration.

A few bids came through, but after a day or two the price hung at $33.00. Cool! I started watching it like a hawk with Asperger’s syndrome. This was my temporary Special Interest, and I was obsessing over it. For days it stayed at $33.00. On the last hour of bidding it was still at $33.00. With my nice maximum bid at over double the current, I couldn’t lose. With 5 minutes to go it was still $33.00. Throw the steaks on the grill—I got me a banjolele!

I checked eBay when the steaks were done to confirm when I might get my new banjolele. The final bid? $71.00, $1 over my bid. I got sniped!

This is where being Aspie begins to suck. I was livid. Suddenly I was back in elementary school with some snide asshole pointing and laughing at me for not understanding the finer points of eBay. My thoughts began to spin like wheels stuck in mud as my temporary Aspie obsession turned to Special Interest ire. I was sure that the banjolele—my banjolele—was going to continue to collect dust in a closet, or worse, hang idly on the wall of a TGI Fridays between an old bicycle and a creepy Kewpie doll because of some idiot’s need to win. I was going to play it! I was going to treat it right, restore it and make it sing again, goddamn it!

Thank God I married someone patient.

After finally calming down, I realized that I really don’t need a banjolele at this point. I still have a lot of learning to do on the ukulele before I branch out, and I already have three fabulous ukuleles at my disposal. At some point I’ll invest in a banjolele, but now really isn’t the time, and I could certainly use the money for something else.

Still, it was a beautiful banjolele.