Theory of Mind — Whose?

Since embarking on my intense detailed quest to find out about my own Autism, I have read countless articles, academic studies, books, and personal anecdotes about the one thing that causes the greatest and deepest anguish among Autists – the so-called lack of proper Theory of Mind.

My own mental and emotional state has run the whole range from the eureka moments, to concrete realisations, to self affirmation, to self-loathing and yes, common to many Autists who really care, an overwhelming drive to overcome and overcompensate for what we are incessantly told is our lack, our weakness, our negative handicap. However, from out of this quagmire, one nagging question has slowly arisen. If these wonderful clever reports are accurate, which no doubt they are to a certain extent, then why is it that the folks with so-called expert adeptness at Theory of Mind never seem to be able to figure out what I am thinking, feeling, or needing? Nearly half a century of existence, and I am still trying to expiate for my terrible Autistic “sins” — to no avail — even with a whole lot of explaining and positive overtures to find a common ground. Nope. Very little success.

I have found love and acceptance among a very very few, but these view me with a kind of sweet, patient, doting fondness and, sometimes, an over-protective instinct, rather than as an equal to be discovered, uncovered, savoured, and communed with. These wonderful people who love me so much, to whom I owe much of my survival, they love me to bits. But they do not understand me. And none of them has ever made the effort to even read one single book on Asperger’s Syndrome, even when I pleaded to them to do so. Nope. They are happy with their own perception of me. And should I even dare to be ungrateful? I don’t dare to revolt. So long as they accept that I am weird, I am odd, I am different, and just care for me, what more can I ask for?

I long for real depth of communion. Thus far, I have only found two individuals with whom I can speak freely and honestly, without the danger of shocking them, and with better than 50% understanding. They are far away — one in New Jersey, one in New Mexico.

Where are the people so clever at Theory of Mind? I have not met any, except for those who have been really clever to find my weak spot and use me, abuse me, manipulate me. Is this what neurotypical Theory of Mind is all about then? How to read others’ thoughts and intentions in order to dance around the campfire of a subtle complicated game of power? In that case, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to be a part of this grand “theory,” this epic convoluted drama of cruelty and delight in suffering.

That is what the academic studies never tell you. They just show you what you lack, compared to the others who have it. But is this Theory of Mind really so great to have? For what good purpose, if only to negotiate and manipulate? Frankly, I am tired of always trying to read other people’s minds and always bending over backwards and in every compromising position to try to be sensitive to other people’s feelings.

I am the opposite of not considerate and not empathic. I am self-destructively considerate and empathic — but where has that landed me? I spend 80% of my emotional thought-life trying to figure out other people’s intentions and hidden meanings, and trying to be caring, loving, gentle, considerate. But I do not even command half as much space in their minds or hearts. Not even with their supposed adeptness at Theory of Mind would they bother to try to understand my feelings, my thoughts, and my desires. That is the truth. Painful? Yes, but truth is truth.

How could you say I have no empathy when I am thrown into the depths of hell, crying into the empty suffocating darkness as I resonate with your pain, your terror, and your grief? How could you say I have no compassion when I ache to be of help and comfort to you while you kick at my face? You want me to read between lines that you don’t even bother to write, you want me to see beyond my own world into yours, but you don’t deem me worthy enough to share it with me.

To those who think that having a Theory of Mind is so enviable, think again. Is not literal honesty, straightforward caring, and just being willing to listen when spoken to, is this not enough grace and beauty to offer to a world full of mental and emotional game-playing?

Theory of Mind. Indeed. Whose?

About the Author: Spunkykitty is an artist with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, Spunkykitty: My Wonderful World, and is reprinted here by permission.

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12 Responses to “Theory of Mind — Whose?”

  1. bjforshaw says:

    Wonderful writing – your feelings come through so clearly. At times a poignant and even painful cri de coeur; I know so well the feeling of participating in a game where nobody will tell me the rules.

  2. Ben S says:

    As I often say to Rachel, THANK YOU. I’ve only now, at 41, and three years post-diagnosis, been able to feel okay with my impatience and outrage and the hypocrisy that expects me to have a superpower that no other person I meet has either, but believes they do. mass delusion.

    So much of what you write here is true for me. Throughout my life, I’ve had the few who regarded me with that same sweet, patient fondness that occasionally infuriated me. Unfortunately, that never satisfied me, I’m not sure why. The NT’s I’m close to don’t have that kind of communion in their lives, why do I want it so much? Maybe because i don’t even have that baseline understanding that they (think) they do.
    Theory of Mind. Indeed. Whose?

    This one is goin’ PDF!

  3. I am deeply touched by your experience. In my work teaching the art of human relationships through horsemanship, I spend my days teaching communication and relationship skills to my NT students who want to experience more connection in their relationships. I had an experience several years back with my very first autistic student that transformed my limited understanding of autism. In a fraction of the time it usually takes my NT students to learn to connect and communicate with a horse, the autistic student achieved an absolute miracle with the horse she was working with. Building trust with any animal takes time, and this took only seconds. The sensitivity, intuition, empathy, communication and understanding that it would take to make this possible is nothing short of extraordinary. That experience changed my life and helped me realize that those with autism are not only able to connect with others, but they are actually gifted artists of connection that we NT’s need to go out of our way to learn from if we ever hope to understand what we are capable of in relationship. Thank you for reminding me of that day, and for sharing your gifts.
    Here’s a link to the article I wrote about that day in case you’d like to read the story. http://www.interplayacademy.com/2009/11/autism-and-horses/

  4. Sybil says:

    wow!! I don’t think I’ve ever read what I feel, so articulately expressed.

  5. Curator says:

    So eloquently and honestly put, all my deepest pains and frustrations, shared by another soul, and communicated here… I don’t think we lack this theory of mind they speak of though, If anything, I think we just lack some of the barriers between it, and our hearts, that they seem to have… the only people ive ever known to actually take the time and make the effort to learn who I am, to understand me as I try to understand them, have been others on the spectrum… to most NT’s, I barely even exist, and the rest…are as you describe above…

    Theory of mind…pfft, what good is their version of theory of mind, if they ignore the heart and soul?

  6. Lisa DeSherlia says:

    You may well have been describing MY experience with the world, including my own family! I do not yet have a formal autisn diagnosis but I am am beginning the process. I’m also starting to work on material toward a memoir I want to write. My family loves me but they DO NOT understand me and I’m petrified to reveal what I’m setting out to do. But I know I have to try to gain their support sometime. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Spunkykitty says:

    Many thanks for all your wonderful comments! And a big Thank You to Rachel who is doing such wonderful and powerful work here on her Autism and Empathy site. I’m very honoured to be a part of the AS community. Autism Spectrum Condition is far from a disorder in the way that the rest of the world views it. As I work on my own research in sensory and cognitive features in Autism Spectrum and their influence on the creative process, I am frustrated at how almost non-existent is the voice of the Autistic researcher. We are everywhere in the high places of academia and research, in Maths, Physics, even Art, but where are we in the field of Neuroscience? I hope this blog will grow and gain the notice of researchers in this field. Bravo, Rachel! Bravo us!

  8. Julia says:

    Bravo! Adeptly expressed frustrations that many (like me) have had with the NT world. I wish I knew people like you before I gave up in person relationships. Late[r] in life diagnosis of ASDs can be overwhelming enough without the reactions and misconceptions of the family. My own brother talks of Asperger’s/autism as a tragedy to “happen” to me and his son [thanks a lot autism fundraising in the media :( ]. “Theory of mind” is still a science-concept in its infancy as far as I am concerned.

  9. Xanthe Wyse says:

    beautifully written. Apparently I score low in the ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘empathizing’ quota – yet another way to ‘prove’ I am deficient in this world. No wonder aspies are prone to depression

  10. [...] also The Misleading Nature of the Deficit Model, Theory of Mind — Whose?, and pretty much all the rest of Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s Autism and Empathy [...]

  11. Cate says:

    Thank you! Thank you! I am a “neurotypical” mom who read you quoted on Leelo’s mom’s website, and you made me cry. I wasn’t even aware of how angry I am until your words so adeptly summed up how I feel — how unfair it is to have to throw so much energy into accomodating and understanding everyone else’s viewpoint and needs and having so little returned. I feel so validated by your words right now — THANK YOU.

  12. Classical Cipher says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am a woman who has no diagnosis but is pretty obviously on the spectrum, and I recently had several “friends” ridicule and shame me for failing to understand another person’s perspective correctly. An internet friend (no quotation marks) pointed out the irony – that by calling me names and taunting me and refusing to explain the situation even when I humbly explained my inability to understand and asked for them to please clarify, they were displaying a rather shocking lack of empathy themselves. And I, too, have had bad experiences with the few people who do understand me – one predatory person in particular who understood me perfectly and used it to abuse me over several months while I tried desperately to be useful and forgiving and a comfort to him. Sure, I don’t understand why NT people act the way they do, but neither do they understand me, and unlike them, I don’t have the luxury of shrugging and going “that’s just the way they are.” Thank you, thank you, thank you.