Back in October of last year this question arrived in the Diecast mailbag. A lot of people have asked me this same question over the years and so I figured it was probably worth answering. On the other hand it felt a little too long, involved, and focused-on-me for the podcast.
As an autistic person myself, I couldn’t help but notice that the experiences you describe both on the diecast and in your life story series on the blog (especially regarding sensory rocessing disorder, such as your difficulty processing two auditory streams at once) are very similar to what is experienced by both myself and my neurosiblings in the autistic community. Have you ever considered whether you might be on the spectrum yourself, or possibly been evaluated as a child? (Autistic kids who learn to hide their symptoms to avoid bullying frequently slip through diagnosis.)
Edith is probably referring to the early chapters of the Autoblography. I won’t try to summarize all of that personal history here. If you’re curious, you’ll have to read the series. I certainly exhibited a lot of odd behaviors when I was young. And if I’m being honest, I’m still pretty eccentric at 45. In fact, there’s a lot of personal strangeness that I left out of the Autoblography because it would have taken too long to explain or would have been too personally embarrassing.
I began writing a response to Edith’s question months ago, but then forgot all about it until the topic popped up again on Twitter when someone said:
"Autists don't have a theory of mind"
It's not like we *can't*. We just didn't get one for free out of the factory. We had to roll our own.
— Mr Bones (@mr_bones_rises) July 20, 2017
To which I responded:
Never been diagnosed with autism, but this speaks to me on a deep level.
I was 19 before I began to understand what everyone else did at 6. https://t.co/pEKMC3gyXo
— Shamus Young (@shamusyoung) July 21, 2017
On one hand, I know it’s really annoying when people go around diagnosing themselves with complex things that they don’t totally understand. On the other hand, when autistic people describe their struggles it sounds pretty familiar. So while I’m reluctant to go around claiming I was / am autistic, I can say fairly definitively that I had some sort of profound neurological dysfunction that greatly inhibited my social development. These days I would expect a kid behaving the way I did to end up diagnosed with something. My malfunctions were off-putting to the adults in my life and prevented me from forming stable relationships.
Whatever my problem is, I couldn’t have been diagnosed with autism because autism itself is a new-ish idea. Our current understanding of it didn’t solidify among academics until the 1970’s. Before this, it was lumped into schizophrenia, which seemed to be our catch-all term for “This person is strange and we don’t know why”. This was long before the internet, which means it took a couple of decades for that understanding to work its way out into the general public where it would be understood by parents and school systems. I didn’t hear the word “autism” until the 90’s or so, long after I’d become an adult.
I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand how I was different or where my problems came from. Just one example of countless memories in my life:
It was the last day of school and I found myself talking to the phys-ed instructor. She asked me, “What was your favorite part of the year?” I hesitated. Is she asking what is my favorite memory from the last 12 months? Is she asking what my favorite memory is since the turn of the year five months ago? Is she asking what my favorite memory is from this particular school year? Is she asking what’s my favorite memory from this school year, but limited to the events of her class? I have no idea what this person is asking. Terrified, I raced through all these possible interpretations of the question, trying to figure out which one she intended. I’d learned that people disapproved if I took too long to respond to a question, but I also hate having disastrous conversations where I misinterpret everything and cause confusion.
Just about any other kid would immediately understand what was going on here. It’s the last day of school, and looking back over the past school year is part of creating closure and determining which memories we’d like to preserve. Usually you didn’t need to ask people this question. People would reminisce without prompting. “Hey, remember that time in wood shop when Mike stuck a pencil in the band saw eraser-first and it flew halfway across the room? Remember when Janet was trying to open her pudding and the lid was stuck and when it came off she splattered it in her own face? Remember that one awesome fight between Big Chris and T-Bone?” This is a completely common ritual, and everyone understood it intuitively. It was never taught. The rules were never written down. Everyone knew how this ritual worked. Everyone but me.
Now, this moment alone wouldn’t be a big deal. Everyone has moments of embarrassment and awkwardness while growing up. But this sort of caught-in-the-headlights bafflement was part of my day-to-day.
Getting back to the Tweet that got me thinking about this again:
Theory of mind is the understanding that the people around you have their own beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, and viewpoints. This awareness usually develops in early childhood. VSauce has a pretty good explanation of it in his video Is Your Red the Same as My Red? The classic experiment to test for it goes like this:
You’ve got a couple of dolls and you enact a scene for a small child. Let’s call the dolls Bert and Ernie. Bert and Ernie have (say) a fidget spinner. Bert places the fidget spinner in a toybox. Then Bert leaves the room. While he’s gone, Ernie moves the fidget spinner from the toybox to a desk drawer. Then Bert re-enters the scene and says he wants the toy. At this point you ask the child, “Where is Bert going to look for the toy?”
If the kid’s Theory of Mind hasn’t quite formed yet, then they will say Bert will look for the toy in the desk. The thing we’re trying to show here is that they haven’t quite gotten the idea that other people have access to different information, and that there are things Ernie knows that Bert does not. Theory of Mind typically forms at some point before age 5.
Having said all that, I don’t know that a lack of “theory of mind” is how I’d describe my particular dysfunction. I was pretty well aware that people around me were other minds with their own thoughts and ideas. In fact, I remember being sort of acutely aware of this because I was never able to figure out what in blazes they were thinking or what they wanted from me. I only had my own mind to use as a guide, and my own assumptions never matched what people were thinking. I wasn’t indifferent to other people. I remember really wanting to win the approval of others and the maddening sensation that I could never really pull it off. I remember the terror of being thrust into an unfamiliar social situation (a new group of people) and knowing I was going to be flying blind. I wouldn’t know who to avoid, or who might be “safe” to interact with. I wouldn’t have previous experience to draw from with the new group, so I knew I was going to make a bunch of mistakes and accrue a fresh load of embarrassing memories before I got the hang of them.
I didn’t know how to answer questions, I didn’t know how to smooth over hurt feelings, I didn’t know what other people would find funny, and very often people got angry with me for (from my viewpoint) no reason at all.
The older I got, the more sophisticated the expectations became. All I wanted to do was avoid scorn and disapproval, but the game was ramping up in difficulty faster than I could learn. At the same time, the cost of failure was becoming higher. As a child, having a teacher rebuke me and act like I was an idiot was terrible, but once I hit my teens I discovered it was nothing compared to a few cutting words from a pretty girl.
Maybe this inability to intuit the expectations of others is simply a milder version of the lack of ToM? Maybe it’s a totally different problem. It’s hard to say.
At age 19, it all clicked into place. I’m not sure what finally did it. Maybe it was because I’d graduated high school, and social interactions were less terrifying. Maybe some important part of my brain just developed really, really late. Maybe my various successes have given me confidence. Maybe I’m still the same sort of doofus, but out here in the real world this awkwardness is lovable instead of off-putting. The rigid conformity of school cultivates a really ugly sort of tribalism, and maybe getting away from that was all I needed.
But if I had to guess, I think I’d suggest that I was born with some part of my brain not working right. There’s some app that’s comes pre-installed for most people, but was missing for me. After years of practice, I managed to get the rest of my grey matter to pick up the slack. It’s like a computer without a graphics card. Yeah, you can put the rendering load on the CPU, but it’s going to be slow and put an incredible strain on the machine.
For example: Edith refers to the fact that I can only listen to one person talking at a time. If I’m on the phone and someone else walks up to me and tries to speak to me, I lock up. I try to listen to both people, fail, panic, and find myself unable to recollect what either one has said. I need to stop both conversations and make them take turns, even if if the second conversation is something simple like, “I’m going to the store, ask [the person on the phone] if they need me to get them anything.” Trying to listen to two people at the same time in a live conversationIf it’s a recording I’m fine. It’s not deciphering the words that puts pressure on me, it’s trying to balance the social expectations of two different people. creates a feeling of panic and frustration.
I suppose this is one of the reasons I enjoy this kind of writing. I can communicate with lots of people at once without getting overloaded, because the whole things runs asynchronously.
The thing is, before I was married I sort of assumed everyone felt this way about being interrupted on the phone and so people interrupting me were just being thoughtless assholes. It wasn’t until I observed my wife negotiate two different simultaneous conversations involving three people on two unrelated topics that I realized there was something “wrong” with me. It’s not just that she can do it, it’s that it’s not even a big deal to her. It’s so natural for her that she found my frustration and annoyance to be completely inexplicable.
Brains are funny. I don’t know how mine would have been diagnosed If I’d been born 20 years later, but I’m glad I’m out of those rough years now.
 If it’s a recording I’m fine. It’s not deciphering the words that puts pressure on me, it’s trying to balance the social expectations of two different people.
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