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.