Theory of Mind – Yours or Mine?

As I wrote yesterday, my kid had had a night with not enough sleep and had a difficult time in the morning. I was in my bed trying to write a couple of emails while I heard my partner talk to our child about how he (our child) was feeling. I know my partner well enough to say that my partner was truly trying to understand how our child was feeling, but I got frustrated from listening to their conversation anyway. Why was my partner asking such irrelevant questions? I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why at the time, but a couple of hours later it hit me: My partner couldn’t intuitively relate to what our kid was experiencing.

A lot of the literature about autism talks about how autistic people have difficulties with theory of mind and are unable to see other people’s perspectives. Also, there are claims that autistic people don’t intuitively know what other people feel and think to the same extent as people who aren’t autistic. What I see with me, my child and my partner is something else. I often have an intuitive sense of what my child (who is autistic) is experiencing but I don’t have that with my partner (who isn’t autistic). My partner on the other hand usually doesn’t have that intuitive sense for me and my child.

I don’t think it’s as simple as having or not having theory of mind, I think it has something to do with relating to people who are similar to us. Experiencing sensory overload myself makes it easier to think that it could be happening to somebody else. My partner describes it like I have some kind of radar that picks up subtle signals about our child being overloaded, or that the environment we’re in is demanding, long before a meltdown.

This could be one of the reasons for why I find it so hard to answer questions about if I find it hard to understand other people’s feelings, thoughts, experiences. It depends on if they tend to have similar experiences to me or not. And what’s more important: Maybe it’s a really confusing thing to claim that people who aren’t autistic are so great at understanding other people’s perspective. Maybe it’s more about that people who belong to a majority happened to meet more people that have similar experiences to themselves.

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2 thoughts on “Theory of Mind – Yours or Mine?

  1. I think this is a very interesting theory. I experienced the same. I’m a woman and I have autism, what means that people almost never believe I have autism. Besides that, I’m also studying to be a social worker. When I tell people I have autism, there are two kinds of reactions: they don’t believe I have autism, or they doubt my professional skills as a future social worker. It’s a real struggle to come out as an autistic person.
    As a student, I finally learned some crucial social skills, like understanding how communication in groups work and that there are many different kinds of groups. I had much trouble with groupdynamics, but luckily I had a good teacher who kept trying to explain it to me and when I finally understood, it really helps me, not only as a professional, but also in everyday life.
    In those lessons I noticed that many students didn’t understand my problems, but I could understand theirs. Allow me to explain. There were students who had trouble with giving negative feedback. At first, I didn’t understand why someone could find that difficult, because I have never experienced difficulty with that. But I could understand that they find it difficult and that I needed to be patient and help them with giving negative feedback. At the same time, I had trouble with talking in group. The other students didn’t understand and didn’t even try to help me. It was very frustrating.
    When I met other people who also have autism and study to be a councellor, it felt like a relieve. Finally someone who understands my struggles and doesn’t doubt my skills or my autism. I don’t even need to explain when I ask to repeat something, because they know it’s because there is too much noise and that’s why I just couldn’t listen.

    I think that people with autism are forced to try to understand neurotypicals in order to survive and live a comforting life. It’s what an autistic kid hears all day: “Do normal”, “Please, don’t act weird”. Sometimes it doesn’t even need to be said. Autistic people know they are different and try to fit in. That’s why I can understand other students, because I try to think like a neurotypical, all my life. And when I really don’t understand neurotypical behavior, I now know how I can ask for an explanation. Although I will have trouble understanding that explanation and experience learned me it’s not accepted to ask for a more detailed explanation.
    While neurotypicals never needed to understand autistic people. That’s why other students don’t understand it when I sit alone quietly when on a break. They don’t understand that I need to recover from all the stimuli and I need time to structure what’s said in class. Neurotypicals keep thinking their way when they try to understand autistic people. They try to understand sensory overload as noticing much more things, but they don’t understand the overwhelming feeling it causes. That’s why my teachers keep telling me to study more when I ask for more structure. They only hear: ‘I don’t understand this chapter’, not “I tried to understand this, and I understand little parts, but I can’t see the connections. So please tell me the structure, so I can try to understand this and only need to study two more hours. Instead of studying another five hours just to see how those little parts fit.”
    It’s definitly true that neurotypicals and autistics have had different experiences as a kid and later on in life. And it are those shared experiences that make people connect to each other. I also feel like people with autism try to be more understanding to other people’s perspective because they have to. I rarely find people with the same perspective as me, and I think many other autistic experienced that too. While neurotypicals share the same perspective many times, and find it weird when there is someone who thinks in a way they don’t understand. I find most neurotypicals unpatient. That’s why I often get frustrated. I try to understand them, but they don’t try to understand me and blame me instead.

    Liked by 1 person

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