Theory of Mind: Why It’s A Two Way Street

In my novel, Asperger Sunset, Russ prepares a nice homemade meal for his sister, Misty, to thank her for taking care of him over several recent difficult days. But he is beginning to seethe with anger because she’s late returning home from work. He takes it personally – doesn’t she understand he’s put all this work into dinner for her? Why is she snubbing him by being late?

Then he remembers what he’s read about people with Asperger’s having trouble with Theory of Mind – he knows he’s put in a lot of time cooking, but his sister has no way of knowing that. She’s not late on purpose – any number of things could be holding her up. His anger fades as he reasons his way through the situation.

I believe people with Asperger’s don’t actually lack Theory of Mind, they just need to think through situations more methodically than most people, and they often find it difficult to truly understand something that has happened to someone else until they have experienced it themselves. That doesn’t make them broken or unable to empathize with other people, it means they take a different route to get there.

In the 2009 movie “Adam,” a character with Asperger’s Syndrome develops an intimate relationship with a woman named Beth. At one point Beth is describing one of the deficiencies in the relationship and she says she yearns to be with someone who can look into her eyes and know exactly how she’s feeling. Adam, of course, can’t.

What angered me about Beth’s comment is that while Adam can’t read her thoughts or emotions, quite frankly, she can’t read his, either! She doesn’t understand him any better than he understands her. The Theory of Mind “deficiency” seems to only apply when dealing with “normal” folk, and that’s unfair.

I have a vivid memory of my own first encounter with Theory of Mind. I was nine years old, and my grandmother called during the day – this was unusual. From my mother’s side of the conversation, I was able to figure out the call was reporting the death of my great-aunt, a distant relative who had recently suffered a stroke. After a couple of minutes my mother gave me the phone and my grandmother and I chatted about the usual kid stuff – school, activities, and so on. I returned the phone to my mother and she hung it up.

I remember feeling uneasy, sensing I should say something, but I didn’t know what. The call had come at an unusual time of the day, and hearing from my grandparents was usually a pleasant thing, so to break the tension, I said, “that was a nice little phone call, wasn’t it?” As you can imagine, I was met with a very angry response as my mother was processing the grief of my aunt’s death and found my comment profoundly insensitive.

From my point of view a very distant relative died, I had little understanding of death, and I did, in fact, have a nice conversation with my grandmother. I had no clue that I needed to incorporate my mother’s feelings before I tried to engage her with the comment about the “nice little phone call.”

When dealing with someone who is socially challenged and they say something that seems inappropriate or out of character, take a moment to see if there is, in fact, an extra step that’s missing. People with Asperger’s rarely intend to hurt other people’s feelings, but the Theory of Mind roadblock often leads to comments that are perceived as insensitive. A little more understanding from both sides can go a long way.

 

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