Theory of Mind (or, Remember Other People Have Thoughts and Feelings Too), Part 1

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By Kate Bringe

 “Theory of mind refers to the notion that many autistic individuals do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view. Furthermore, it appears that they have difficulty understanding other people's beliefs, attitudes, and emotions…” *

My internal life is frenetic. A million thoughts, feelings, and sensory registrations happening every waking moment leave little time to consciously dwell on other people’s thoughts and feelings. The way my mind processes information is like a machine. Input comes in and is analyzed, collated, categorized, and filed for later reference. Things like someone being unhappy because the shirt they wanted was sold out in their size are considered frivolous garbage-data. Their shirt sob-story has zero do to with my current task or the twenty-three other things currently pending in my internal queue. My initial reaction is to dismiss them and move on, but I need to catch myself. I have learned how important it is to acknowledge them and show empathy, even if I don’t understand what the big deal is about a shirt. I mean, can’t they just order it online and move on? Problem solved, right?

Their problem, in my mind, equates to:

Right shirt not available at store = order shirt online = problem solved.

Their problem, in their mind, equates to:

… ?? …um…give me a sec…uhhhhh …

Nope, I’ve got nothing. I have no idea what their problem is with this shirt. I don’t get it. I mean, it’s a shirt! It’s not like that time I went to buy pink, frosted, six-sided dice and they didn’t have any so now I have to wait four whole days for them to come in the mail! I really wanted them today and now I’m so disappointed because I was really excited and…oh…wait a minute … their shirt thing is EXACTLY like that time with my dice.

Suddenly, I can relate to their shirt boggle. I understand now! I may not be emotionally invested in their disappointment, but understanding why they feel that way makes it easier to take time away from my task and interact with them without frustration.

This is very much a learned skill. I’m certain that I have appeared cold and uncaring because I couldn’t comprehend why someone was telling me something or displaying an emotion. While I usually understand the words, I often don’t understand the emotion behind them.

If you’re angry, tell me with words. Don’t just tell me something while making an angry face. I might miss the angry face or mistake it for something else. Tell me straight out that you’re angry with me and why. Tell me when something is bothering you. If you don’t say anything, I consider everything to be going fine and will be surprised and confused when you come to me with a long-standing issue.

Being able to relate to others on an emotional level is critical to the success of autistics in the working world. If we do not learn, and practice daily, the skill of relating to others as unique beings, then we will fail in our efforts to develop and maintain social relationships and fulfilling employment.

To be continued in Part 2, arriving in two weeks.

*Quote from Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. 

- As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the experiences or opinions of others on the Autism Spectrum and/or Mind Shift.