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!

How lack of expression can lead to assumptions of ignorance

Today I was reading a blog post written by a mother of a child on the autistic spectrum. She was saying for several years she thought her child didn’t ‘get’ Christmas, but recently her child said something that made her realise that she had ‘got’ it all along. The child had simply never before expressed the fact that she’d got it, so the mother didn’t realise that she actually had.

This made me think about my life, and how there have been quite a few times when I’ve said something, and people have looked surprised and expressed in some way (either through words or behaviour) that they now realised that I had a lot more understanding and insight than they’d thought.

I imagine it has happened a lot more than I realise, especially when I was a child and I had less awareness of how people were reacting to me. The first example I can think of is when I was 14. I didn’t understand physics lessons at school. We had a rather dithery physics teacher, who was nearing retirement, and who had difficulty explaining physics and difficulty controlling the class. I will call her Mrs Short, which is not her real name.

Mrs Short would spend ages doing experiments which we had to watch, and then nothing would happen, and she would tell us they hadn’t worked. I would be completely confused, because I had no idea what was going on or what I was supposed to be learning. I didn’t pretend to be interested in the class, because such pretending had not even occurred to me at that age.

Mrs Short found me stupid and rude. She’d found a piece of paper on which another pupil and I had been exchanging written notes, and I’d written that I found physics boring. Mrs Short, having found the note, interrupted what she was teaching us and announced to the class that I apparently found physics boring.

‘Is that right?’ she asked me, in a loud dramatic way. ‘Do you find physics boring?’

Totally oblivious to any implications of my answer, I answered truthfully, ‘Yes.’

The class was amused. Mrs Short was not. She said with a tight voice: ‘Well, I’m sooo sorry that the class isn’t interesting enough for you.’

Looking back, I imagine she’d been expecting me to be embarrassed and to deny it and apologise. However, at the time, I was unaware of any such expectations, and also unaware that I’d done anything wrong. I wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest, because I didn’t see any shame in being bored.

After this incident, Mrs Short went out of her way to try to humiliate me in physics lessons. She would mock me whenever I asked questions, whenever I did anything wrong, whenever I didn’t understand what I was doing (which was most of the time). I observed this, and tried to analyse it in order to understand it. I worked out that Mrs Short must hate all students who write notes to each other in her class – but then that didn’t quite make sense, because Mrs Short was being quite friendly to the other girl who had written notes to me. So maybe my note was worse in some way – maybe because my handwriting was messier or something. Or maybe she hated people who didn’t understand physics.

Then one day, in a physics lesson, a girl from the other science group knocked on the door and asked if I could be excused and come to the nurse’s room, because my sister was there and asking for me. Mrs Short said yes, so off I went. This girl told me that my sister’s best friend had died, and my sister was upset, and she had wanted me to sit with her. So I went and sat with my sister for a while, and talked to her and said things to help her calm down and to comfort her. And then, when my sister was calmer and had stopped shaking, then I was sent back to the physics class. I went back into the classroom and sat down in my seat. It didn’t occur to me that anyone would want an explanation, but then everyone was asking if my sister was all right. So I explained to them what had happened, and that my sister was upset, but that I had spent some time with her and she was doing a bit better now.

And after that, Mrs Short stopped making fun of me, and was friendly to me. Not just in that lesson, but in all subsequent lessons. I observed this change in behaviour and tried to work it out logically. My first logical deduction was that Mrs Short liked people if their sister’s best friend died. But I observed too that she was extra nice to a girl in the class whose mother had died, so I expanded this interpretation and wondered if having some connection to death made Mrs Short like you more. Maybe she was quite a morbid person, I decided. (See how it is very hard to understand people when you are on the autistic spectrum and you have to analyse each behaviour like this to work out a pattern! As an adult you have more understanding from more experiences, but as a child, you have no wider context from which to understand such things.)

Then, on parents evening, I found out the reason for Mrs Short’s change in behaviour. My mother went to parents evening and reported back to me what the different teachers said. Mrs Short apparently told my mother that she’d originally thought I didn’t care about anyone or anything, and that there wasn’t much going on in my head, but then something had happened which surprised her and showed her that I was a responsible, caring person, and she was very impressed with me.

I was quite astonished by this. I didn’t understand why my behaviour was so surprising – of course I would go and sit with my sister when she was upset. And besides, my relationship with my sister had nothing to do with physics lessons. So I still had a lot of confusion with cause and effect here.

But in retrospect I realise that it was one of many occasions where people assume that I lack understanding or feeling, because I haven’t actually explicitly expressed to them this understanding or feeling. With Asperger Syndrome, body language and facial expression tend not to be very revealing of what is going on inside – I know for myself, I have to make a conscious effort to express appropriate reactions and feelings in my face and voice. And this is something that for many years I simply didn’t know I had to do.

So if my face and body are not expressing anything, and I’m not verbally telling people what I’m thinking and feeling (because it doesn’t occur to me that they want to know unless they ask a specific question) then people may assume that not much is going on inside my head. And if an autistic person never realises this, then the assumptions can last their whole life.

In fact, recently I’ve really been coming to understand more clearly the importance of expressing my awareness and understanding and feelings to people, because people feel more comfortable with you and can trust you if you have conveyed who you are and what you are thinking and feeling, and how you make decisions. I will probably write more about it in future blog posts, because there are many more examples.

I realise that this example here actually illustrates more Asperger issues than I’d originally realised. These are different from the main issue I was trying to illustrate, but I’ll list these too. I think this example also shows that people with Aspergers can have difficulty with:

  1. realising that people don’t always want you to tell the truth (it took me a long time to work this one out, because no one actually ever admits that they don’t want you to tell the truth)
  2. understanding why being bored could offend people (how I saw it was that being bored was simply an experience inside my head – the idea that anyone would take it personally was beyond me)
  3. trying to understand other people’s behaviour and motivations when they don’t explicitly tell you (if Mrs Short had taken me aside and explained exactly why she was upset with me – well, if she’d explained numbers 1 and 2 of this list – then things would have been much easier for both of us)

So there are a lot of potential confusions when you are on the autistic spectrum.

On the one hand, if I don’t let people know in some way what I am thinking and feeling, they will assume that I am not thinking or feeling, or that I am thinking and feeling something quite different, and potentially quite sinister.

On the other hand, if people don’t let me know what they are thinking and feeling (and in a far more explicit way than they may think necessary) then I get confused. I don’t assume, which is the difference. I try to work out logical patterns.

So in conclusion, I’m realising that there is actually a need for both sides to be more explicit. But since I am the ‘different’ one, I probably have to take the initiative, and as well as sharing my own thoughts and feelings, I also need to explain to others that they need to be more explicit and direct than usual in explaining their thought processes to me, and not to assume I will understand things that they haven’t said.