The day the world turned green: thoughts on theory of mind

One thing that can be frustrating about having Aspergers is the stereotypes people associate with it. People on the autism spectrum apparently don’t have ‘theory of mind‘ – that is, we are apparently not able to realise that others have different minds from ours and might see things differently from how we see them. This is pretty daft – if we were really unable to realise this, we would never bother speaking to anyone, because the very act of speaking to someone assumes that the person we’re speaking to does not already have the knowledge that we are sharing. And there are plenty of people on the autism spectrum who speak, and who want our voices to be heard.

Our minds do work differently, but it’s more subtle than this. Multitasking is difficult, and switching from one mindset to another doesn’t come automatically. So we may not automatically think about the fact that other people see things differently when we speak to them – this is a skill that we learn differently from how neurotypical people learn it. But this doesn’t mean we don’t know in theory that others have different minds. This knowledge can be worked out by logical deduction.

I remember working it out when I was five years old. I was lying in bed early one morning. I’d woken up, but the rest of my family hadn’t, so I was lying and thinking about the world, as I often did. I was thinking about other people, visualising people as lots of dots in space, and realising that I was one of these dots – just one dot in many. And I was thinking about how, if I was one of those other people, I would not have the inner landscape that I had – I would have a completely different inner experience. It was all visual to me – I didn’t know the word ‘mind’, but I was visualising my inner experience, as a sort of vast landscape inside me, and visualising everyone else having separate ones. And realising that no one else would ever experience my inner landscape – they each had their own. That I would never switch to be someone else and experience theirs, and they would never switch to me and experience mine. I didn’t have words to express these pictures and patterns in my mind – the words that I used to express it to myself were ‘I’m me and everyone else is them, and this will never change’. I kept repeating this to myself, and my mind felt like it was hurtling into some vast infinity that was exciting and terrifying and too vast to grasp fully.

There were many things I was somehow sort of aware of, through images in my mind, but had never put into words. Many people on the autism spectrum say they always knew they were different. I was definitely always different, but it was not something that I had defined as a concept, or put into words. Mostly in my mind was confusion about other people and how they operated.

And really, if you experience life very differently from others, and you don’t have the ability to consciously conceptualise and define this feeling, ‘theory of mind’ is going to be rather different for you from how it is to neurotypical people. More challenging.

I found a story I wrote when I was 9 years old. Our teacher had told us to write a story, entitled ‘The day the world turned green’. So I wrote a story, just making it up and not thinking much about it, but as I reread it now, I see the concepts my mind was somehow unconsciously grappling with as a child – if you are experiencing life differently, is it because there is something wrong with you, or is it because there really is a reality out there that others aren’t seeing? Two separate realities? How can you convince others of this when their minds don’t see it? And wouldn’t it be lovely if one day it all changed and we all saw things the same. I have decided to post my story here, in the hopes that it might shed some light into the way a child on the autism spectrum can experience life. For confidentiality, I’ve changed the names of my sisters to Amy and Lucy (which are not their real names). And for authenticity, I’ve left the writing exactly as it was, complete with two spelling errors.


The day the world turned green

One morning, when I woke up, everything was green. I was very surprised and a bit scared. I got up and looked out of the window and everything was green, even the sky. I thought that I was dreaming. I got dressed and went downstairs. Mummy was making breakfast. I asked her why everything was green and she said that everything was not green. I was very surprised and told mummy that I really must be dreaming but mummy said that I was not. I began to be really scared. I went upstairs and woke Amy up. She was cross at first but when she saw that everything was green she was surprised and asked me why everything was green. I said that I did not know. I woke up Lucy and she started to cry. I asked her why she was crying and she said that she had something wrong with her eyes because everything was green.

We all went down for breakfast but Amy ran upstairs again, screaming. I asked her why she was screaming and she said that she did not want green breakfast. Lucy and I did not want green breakfast either. Mummy thought that we were playing a trick on her and she was cross and made us eat it. “Ugh, it tastes green,” I said and Lucy and Amy agreed. “Mummy it’s true,” said Lucy. In the end mummy believed us and took us to the optition. But he said there was nothing wrong with our eyes at all. “But everything is green,” I said. Mummy slapped us and said that we told naughty fibs. When we were going home I noticed a green thing in the sky. When we got home mummy switched on the television and told us to watch it and not to tell more fibs. On the news it said that a green flying saucer was flying around making some people see green and not others. We told mummy and she was sorry she had not believed us. The next morning the flying saucer gone and we could all see propely.

Just to add, apologies for such a long break before updating this blog. I’ve been incredibly busy with college, and also rather exhausted and unwell, due, interestingly enough, to college staff not realising/believing that my sensory experiences are different from the norm, and that I really do need a few reasonable adjustments! The idea that some people have a completely different sensory experience is quite alien (no pun intended!) to quite a lot of neurotypical people, it seems – and it does make me wonder… if we Aspies were the majority, we may well be questioning their theory of mind abilities!

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5 Comments

  1. Hello, I also find the stereotyping of people with Aspergers syndrome and Autism frustrating. I’m a qualified nurse and just seeing and hearing other people in the profession making assumptions about patients with As is a typical practise, however since becoming qualified I’ve been trying to change people’s perceptions on this in my ward. I’ve recently started a blog about this and one notable case of stereotyping and discrimination and be found here:-
    http://nurseteaspoons.blogspot.com/2011/12/as-and-nursing.html

  2. I am so glad you write about this theory of mind thing. I have noticed that I often have problems creating a theory of mind of others, but also that they have equal difficulties creating a theory of mind for my mind. 🙂 Very few are able to create a correct theory of mind for my mind. Persons with autism seem to be best at it. 🙂

    So I simply guess that those that came up with the idea that people with autism in general have difficulties with creating a theory of mind simply noticed that people with autism have a hard time understanding how neurotypicals function. But they didn’t seem to have thought of the simple explanation that people with autism simply have a very different inside world and *therefore* have difficulties understanding neurotypicals. People with autism simply find it hard to relate to neurotypicals. Just as neurotypicals have a hard time understanding people with autism and therefore also have their problems with ‘theory of mind’.

    It is a bit like if humans met some aliens. Both would have difficulties creating a theory of mind of the other part!

    And, it is even known that many men have difficulties just understanding women, i.e. creating a theory of mind of women! And that women have similar difficulties with creating a theory of mind for men.

    So, from my own experience, I do not believe that people with autism in general have problems with theory of mind. Not more that neurotypicals. I believe it is simply a matter of how different the other person’s mind is from your own. 🙂

  3. Hm. As I understand “theory of mind” from my SLP sister’s explanations, the concept that other people think differently and experience life differently than you do is just one point on the scale that is theory of mind, and one of the lower points. It goes up from there, through empathy for other people to a point which is “walking in the other person’s shoes” – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s position and understand why he or she is reacting the way they are because of how they think and how they interact with the environment.

    I’m empathic. Even my sister says so. 😉 But I can’t put myself in someone else’s shoes. I just don’t get it. (It’s weird, because I can write neurotypical characters in my stories, but I can’t put myself in the shoes of a real person and get insight into their way of thinking.) So I don’t have complete theory of mind.

    ToM is very much like ASD in that it’s a spectrum. Some people are all the way at the top, able to put themselves in other people’s shoes with no issues, etc. Some people are at the bottom, unable to even realize that other people are different from them. And most of us (or, at least, most of us with ASD) are scattered throughout the rest of the spectrum, coming to rest somewhere or other along the line, but not necessarily at the very bottom rung.

    In other words, a person with ASD may have some Theory of Mind, or none, but we usually aren’t in the very top rung.

    Okay, also read through the Wikipedia link in your post (and went, “Ugh! What do they have against laymen! I have an interest in neurology, but this is way too dense to wade through!”), and I notice that most of the earlier stuff seems to oppose what I said above (*seems* to – wading through it was difficult, as I mentioned). But the rest of the stuff links to what my sister was taught, the version above. That it’s a spectrum, and people can be on various rungs therein.

    It also mentioned that people with Asperger’s tended to score significantly better than people with autism (though I’d be interested in knowing exactly how they defined “autism” for those tests, especially if they were talking high-, mid- or low-functioning; it wouldn’t surprise me if high-functioning autistics scored closer to our fellow Aspies than mid- or low-functioning autistics), which might potentially explain it.

    *shrugs* I’m not a psychologist, or an expert in neurology. From what I understood of that article, and from what they were saying about the parts of the brain that were activated, most to all people on the spectrum *have trouble* with theory of mind. We aren’t necessarily incapable of using it to some extent. And we can use strategies and adaptive behaviour to mimic it, if we can get there.

    Anyway, there you have my 2 cents. Take it for what it’s worth….

    😉 tagAught

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