Thursday, June 14, 2007

Got Theory of Mind?

Blogging on theory of mind, Joey's Mom wants to know what this rot is. Good question.

She sets it out nicely:
In a basic simplification, I understood that the "theory of mind" means that one person can understand that another person has a mind. It is being used as a shorthand for the ability to pick up and react to other people's emotions, because you understand that they HAVE emotions, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, etc., and that these emotions, thoughts, etc. might be different from yours.
Then she points out that:
Setting aside that I know a lot of non-autistic people who have a lot of trouble with the second part of that, I haven't yet met an autistic person who didn't have these abilities. They might not be able to react appropriately to other other people, but that seems to be more a problem of processing and accessing proper response.
I agree 100%. Our guy, if anything, is over empathetic. When he was a kid, if he was riding a bicycle and he saw someone else fall off a bicycle, he would keel over immediately. If someone was being shot at on TV, he would shout, "They are shooting at me!" He could not watch baseball because, when either side lost, it would be more than he could handle. At the same time he failed the Sally Anne test and therapists duly worked with him on theory of mind.

Joey's Mon goes on to say:
People who are not autistic seem to come up with the odd ideas when they just can't get the fact that there are people in the world who cannot communicate orally- or even verbally. They seem to have their own problems with "theory of mind" in that they can't understand that there are other ways to communicate.
I agree, and I think it goes beyond communication. I think many people have trouble imagining minds that work differently than their own. Recently, I told MK the story of Icarus, he didn't much care about the moral, but he would not stop asking about how Daedalus dealt with his grief at seeing his son die before his eyes (something I had not mentioned in my condensed version). Of course, no professional would notice this because they are always too busy pointing out inappropriate fixation on details, preservation and lack of inferential thinking (because the things he infers are often different from what "normal people" infer).

If you grew up in a town that had only red roses and had never heard of any other kind, and then drove quickly through another town that had only yellow roses, you would be likely to say that the new town lacked roses. In the same way, psychologists have developed all sorts of tests to determine when and how NT kids start modeling other people's minds. So when a kid comes into their office, they have a quick look for the typical signs of that typical modeling, and if they don't see it, they conclude that it is there. The idea that it might be there, but different, never occurs to them.

The blogger also comments:
Theory of Mind seems to be just another way of trying to depict autistic people as something less than human. Of taking away their sense of humanity by taking away their sense of community. It is easier to make an object of a person you believe is making an object of you.
That certainly would make sense, but I'm not so sure about the motivation. I guess all psychological musing contains an element of objectification. That is, after all, what we are asking of psychologists -- we ask them to give us an objective description, so that we can at least pretend that what we do for our kids is rational.

We need to keep in mind that simple models of anything so incredibly complex as the workings of the human mind are bound to be wrong. The task of the psychologist is a bit like that of the weather forecaster. We know they are going to be wrong much of the time right from the outset, but we still hire them.

I don't think they produce bad models with the goal of objectifying people. I think it is the consumer who asks for objectification, and the bad models represent a best effort to meet that demand.

Nor am I ready to abandon the line of inquiry and intervention that goes with theory of mind. MK needs help in following conventional clues about what is going on in other people's minds and behaving in an interactive way that takes that into account. When he turns his back on classmates or complains about them when they are standing right there, it is clear that, at that point, he is not concerned with the sort of things that will be going on in their minds.

This morning, he started a conversation with, "You know when the bunny goes up in the air, and then it turns over. That's so funny." I'd never seen the video clip in question, and MK had failed to take the contents of my mind into consideration when starting the conversation. MK's going to have less satisfying conversations if he does not get better at this.

From the other side of the coin, MK will tell me the same thing dozens of times. If I call him on it, he admits that he knows that I know. Given that he himself gets very annoyed when people tell him things that he already knows and given that he very much wants to make me happy, it seems odd that he does not make the content of my mind a determining factor when deciding what to tell me.

Bottom line, it is clearly wrong to say autistic people lack theory of mind. But it is also useful to note that the social interactions of autistic people are sometimes different from the social interactions that would be predicted by the theory of mind model in NT people. If one of the goals that an autistic person has is to be able to interact with NT people in a way that is regarded positively by NT people (obviously this does not have to be a goal at all times, but it sure can be useful), then the theory of mind model is going to be a useful benchmark and a useful way of discussing behavior.


Steve D said...

Nice analogy about the roses. Another would be something we learn in Psych 101 - a small group of Australian aborigines live in a heavily forested area. Through all of their developmental years, they never set foot into open space. Once they do entor open space, they do not immediately possess the ability to perceive distance. n other words, if they see a kangaroo 100 yards away, they believe they are seeing a very small kangaroo a few feet away.
It is not surprising, I guess, that us humans have a hard time understanding other people's mental machinations. Is it harder for an NT to understand an autsitic person, or the other way around. I submit that it is equally difficult in both parties.

Joeymom said...

Usually when Joey is telling me something over and over (granted he is much younger than your son, besides being a different person completely) it is not because he doesn't take into consideration that I already have the information. He knows he wants to communicate with me, and provides me with the information and words he can access. When he tells me four times "I want milk" as I am pouring it into his cup, he may be actually trying to tell me something like "Thank you for getting me the milk!" The words he can access to communicate with are "I want milk" so that is what comes from his mouth.

I'm not against social skills learning and training, speech therapy, etc. but I worry when I see Joey's school personnel act like he is a thing rather than a child; when autistic adults are shut away and treated like furniture instead of people; when people actually say to me things like, "It's not like he cares about his brother- he doesn't know what that is! He's just copying a response he's learned." This kind of objectification too often results in denying autistic people their rights as fellow human beings.

VAB said...

If MK had said "I want milk," four times in a row at Joey's age, we would have thrown a party :-) But I get what you mean. MK did, and still does to some extent, use repetition as a kind of small talk. It's all good.

I think that, with our guy, sometimes he does model what is in other people's minds, and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes that information is available to him, and sometimes it's not. What is more, sometimes it's available, but only with a bit of deliberate recall. (I can say the same about myself, or for that matter, just about anyone.) It seems that the ability to access that modeling information gets stronger with practice, which is no surprise.

I see what you mean about school staff. Yes, it definitely can be easier for them to objectify people. You are right not to accept it. This year, I went to the principal about a teacher making statements about MK that were in the realm of medical diagnosis, and reminded her of what the law says about these things. I also reminded a school SLP that she did not have a license to practice psychology.

I did that for the reason you mention: I don't want them objectifying MK. Now they are reluctant to say things of that nature and, I believe, the more a person says a thing, the more they believe it, and the more they act on it. And vice versa.

So I guess, for me, it all comes down to who using the concepts and what they are using them for.

A Bishops wife said...


This is very insightful conversation. They brought up the "Theory Of Mind" at juniors IEP and I had no idea what they were talking about. Thank you.