In Which I Impute Some Thoughts on Theory of Mind to a Self-Reflexive Actor

Today has been one of those days in which time goes twice as fast as it ought, with the result that it is noon and I am only just sitting down with stacks of research.

As part of the Epic Quest for Seminar Paper Completion, I recently read Matthew K. Belmonte’s article “Does the Experimental Scientist Have a “Theory of Mind”?” (Review of General Psychology 12.2: 192-204 (2008)).  Belmonte notes that “theory of mind” means something rather different to psychologists than it does to literary critics, with the result that the two groups often “talk past each other” instead of talking with each other.  

Since I was certain to run into this problem eventually, I’m grateful to have run across Belmonte’s piece so quickly.  But what I find particularly interesting is that, from an (singular; my) autistic perspective, even those of us who demonstrate this coveted “theory of mind” don’t actually demonstrate what’s described by either psychologists or literary critics as “theory of mind.”

Belmonte notes that psychology’s most broad definition of “theory of mind” was the ability to “impute[] mental states to [one]self and others” (quoting Premack and Woodruff, 1978), or “the ability to make inferences about what other people believe” (citing Baron-Cohen, 1985).  Yet the “passing” of a theory of mind test, for many autistic people, has required us to produce not what we infer about what other people believe (suspect, assume, predict, anticipate, plan), but what we understand that an allistic person would infer about what other people believe (etc.).  And, for mainstreamed and/or “under the radar” autistics, this capability is most often tested not in psychologist’s offices, but in language arts classrooms.

For instance: When I was in sixth grade, our school district switched to a new set of English Language Arts textbooks: the Prentice-Hall series (I believe Grade 6, “Copper,” is now called something like “Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes”).  In the editions we had, each book began with an annotated version of some short story; the annotations, printed in blue ink in the margins, were supposed to act as a guide and prompt for “active reading.”  

One of the most coveted “active reading” skills, if the annotations were to be believed, was the ability and willingness to “predict” the actions of the characters, based on the information revealed as one read the text.  I distinctly remember the Grade 6 reader exhorting us, just two paragraphs into the first story, to stop and “predict” the protagonist’s actions.  

I also distinctly remember the annotations giving a sample prediction and an explanation of it that was, to my mind, completely spurious.  The prediction was neither what I would have predicted based on what I might have done in the protagonist’s place, nor was it apparently supported by anything in the first two paragraphs of the story.  I remember being highly annoyed with this “prediction,” having learned enough about didactic texts by that age to recognize that the annotations were of course going to be “right” about the story’s outcome and were going to pat themselves on the back for being so.  (They did, in fact, do both.) To my mind, all the annotations did – and therefore, all “predicting” did – was ruin the story.

The spuriousness of the prediction, the utter lack of evidence on which it was based, and the gross assumption that every reader would make approximately the same choices if in the protagonist’s place went utterly unchallenged by our teacher as well.  Instead, it was simply assumed that we would all come to the same basic prediction, given the first two paragraphs of the story.  Nobody was asked if, or why, their own prediction differed from that in the text; we were all treated as if the same prediction was a foregone conclusion.

The prediction, of course, was an allistic one.

This basic chain of events – read story in class, teacher and text blithely assume we all make the same prediction, read on – happened over and over again during my K-12 education.  Long before the Prentice-Hall Grade 6 reader, I had figured out that the “right” answer to any question demanding predictions or assumptions was the allistic one.  My bank of “right” answers in these cases were allistic scripts; they were not ever genuine descriptions of what I actually deduced from the facts or what I would have done in some protagonist’s place.  

I do fine on “theory of mind” tests as long as I stick to the script bank.  The moment’s I’m actually asked to analyze the evidence or to speak “as if,” however, one of two things happens:

1.  I answer like a lawyer, law being my only other “script” for analyzing evidence, or
2.  I freeze.

The second one happens because without the allistic script bank or the courtroom rules of evidence, I don’t have the tools to speak “as if.”  It’s not, I assume, because I can’t – it’s because I’ve never been asked to do so.  I have never genuinely been asked to put myself in a protagonist’s shoes – or if I have, that “self” has been an allistic version of me, not the actual me.

I’ve had the experience of trying to put myself in the shoes of an autistic protagonist exactly twice.  The first time was in reading Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time just before my own diagnosis; the second was in reading Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, in which I figured out the protagonist is autistic long before the text mentions it and was disappointed to find the text expects readers to be surprised by that news.  (I refuse the predicting impulse when reading nonfiction life writing; it feels too much like telling other people how they should experience their own lives.)

Both times, I cried.  Because literary depictions of people like me simply do not exist – or if they do, and the protagonist is not explicitly identified as autistic, the allistic reading majority goes to extraordinary lengths to argue that the protagonist is one of them, not one of us, and I get, once again, to cross “We’re all a little autistic!” off my bingo card.

Because of this, I’ve approached everything purporting to discuss autistic “theory of mind” as if “theory of mind” means “ability to predict what allistic people would do in this situation.”  That’s not entirely a new skill – every marginalized group becomes good at predicting what the majority will do, simply as a means of survival.  But it casts work like Baron-Cohen’s and Belmonte’s in an intriguing and often revealing light.


About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is a freelance writer with a decade of experience and a passion for creating new things. As Verity Reynolds, Dani is the author of the Non-Compliant Space series Buy her a coffee:
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