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.



Tell Me a Story – And Keep It Simple, Stupid

“Which writers have influenced your work?”

Wow, that’s a tough question. I can tell you who my favorite writers are, but it seems so pretentious to say they influenced Asperger Sunset. Besides, I write what I can’t find to read. When I realized there was little in the way of fiction featuring characters with Asperger’s Syndrome, I thought it would be fun to write something, so I did.

That said, I had to learn the craft somewhere. I’ve always been a reader, willing to pick up a story in any genre. As a writer, I am aware of style and technique as I read, but I can’t just point and say “Stephen King is one of my greatest influences.” Or can I?

A writer didn’t inspire my first story, though, it was a filmmaker. When I was 13 years old, the summer event movie had just been born. In recent years, we’d had Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the summer of 1980 we headed to the theater, eager to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was amazing! Fantastic! Even better than Star Wars! And then – it ended! Before it was done telling the story! The rebels had retreated, one of the heroes was on ice (well, carbonite), the bad guy was still in control, and we had to wait THREE MORE YEARS to find out how the story ended.

Three years? I couldn’t wait three years. That was forever! So what did I do? I went home and wrote the ending. I even typed it, single-spaced, on little half-sheets of paper so it looked like a book. Oh, it was awful fan-fiction, but playing in that universe, commanding those characters, creating situations for them, telling their stories – that was intoxicating! I was hooked.

As I continued to write, I discovered the style I wanted to develop had to be clean. In the mid-80s, I discovered Stephen King and was a fan of novels like Misery and The Dark Half. His prose was easy to read. No excessive description, no long dissertations on the meaning of life, just a set of characters in a twisted situation trying to find their way out.

Elmore Leonard, who died recently, has been famously quoted as saying “I try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” His readers didn’t want excessive description, they wanted to know what was going to happen next.

When I write, I try to tell the story through the words and actions of my characters, and apply KISS (keep it simple, stupid) whenever possible. And, unlike The Empire Strikes Back, I promise to wrap up all the major storylines. A few minor ones, however, may be left undone… and if someone, somewhere, wants to take a shot at finishing them, they could discover the gateway to an amazing hobby!

Asperger Sunset is available in paperback or Kindle at

On Writing, Aspergers, and Sunsets

So I’ve written a book. Yep, me and about 400,000 other people on the web. Asperger Sunset is my baby and I want to share it with the world. Time to start blogging.

Asperger Sunset is a mystery featuring a protagonist with Asperger’s syndrome. Russ Dante is in the wrong place at the wrong time, witnesses a murder and has to solve the crime, all while coping with the new revelation that the quirks and odd traits he’s had all his life actually have a name: Asperger’s Syndrome.

There’s a huge amount of nonfiction dedicated to Asperger’s Syndrome, but very little fiction, and most of that is aimed at children. Russ is an adult who appears normal most of the time. Only when under stress do his symptoms become problematic. As the tagline goes, witnessing a murder qualifies as stress. And so we’re off.

Why sunset? I love clouds. Sunrises, sunsets, brilliant puffy summer clouds, creepy roiling storm clouds… images you simply cannot capture with a camera. Russ is able to secure that beauty with his artistic talents – he has a set of oil pastels and an ability to see colors that others simply do not have. Including me. My drawing talent, on a scale of 1 to 10, is zero.

There’s also the ritual of sunset. Every evening on Sanibel Island, Florida, hundreds of people gather on the beaches to watch the sun sink into the Gulf of Mexico. When I am lucky enough to visit, I attend the sunset ritual every night.

And as the sun is going down, all of those people facing west are joined in a single moment. Some toast the setting sun with wine, some take photos. Some are wealthy beyond belief, some scraped the money together for a daytrip. Some are with family, some are grieving lost loved ones. Many carry invisible challenges – cancer, abuse, PSTD, or autism.

But in that moment as the sun sets, all are equal. All are human, and all are deserving of love and compassion. That’s what I love about sunsets.

Welcome to my blog. I’m eager to exchange comments with folks on the topic of writing in general, Aspergers, or my new project, which is a paranormal mystery walking the very fine line between image and truth. And be sure to take a moment to enjoy the beauty of the next sunset you see.