I had shared this quick (and brief) list on the social media to illustrate my incapability (and frustration) in developing Theory of Mind (ToM). Apparently, many fellow Aspies resonate with the list. Surely, they can add a couple (or an infinitely long scroll) more to the list.
What People Think of Me
For the most of my life, most people classified me as naive and even dumb. Many people think I am a mind-reader. Some people think I am wise in my own elements.
What It Really Means by Naive and Dumb
Everything can be explained (or at least attempted to be explained) with logic and rationality. If you haven’t heard, people on the spectrum work better with rationality.
I seem to be permanently ‘naive’ because I take things rather literally, and unsuspecting of the hidden agenda or a double-meaning to words. Commonly, dumb and naiveness work hand in hand in our society.
What It Really Means by Mind-Reading
See, I am that creepy looking kid who didn’t speak to anyone, found one favourite corner and sat there for the entire day. What did I do? I watched and observed people. It is part coping mechanism, part obsession.
The first few years of my childhood were brutally ‘wrong’. I didn’t know how to do the right things, or say the things that pleased others (for the record, I still don’t). At a very tender age, I learned to pick up patterns and started to group people in categories by their behaviours and responses. People are very predictable; my ‘pattern organising’ skill got better with practise and time.
Before I knew it, I was able to predict behaviours based on classification work done in my head. It’s like a filtering program, really. You know how you can set certain rules in your email clients or readers, to sort and classify emails based on the variables and ‘behavioural’ patterns? If the email contains A and B, it goes to thrash; if the email contains A, C, and excludes B, it goes to important folder, etc.
I started to earn the title of a mind-reader. Don’t confuse this with ToM, because I did, and it caused me a lifetime of frustration and confusion.
I don’t read mind, I read behavioural patterns. It is commonly known that people on the autism spectrum are inadequate in picking up the subtle body language. I agree and disagree. I agree that I am unable to always associate the meaning of what the specific body language entails; I disagree that we are oblivious of the body language.
Let me explain further. I am meticulous, I see the smallest details, and slightest movements. I do notice the most subtle body language, but I don’t always know what it means. It’s the same as you see a foreign object for the first time, you see it, but you have no idea what it is or what it does. It is something like that for us with the body language and social cues.
So, I automate and run the ‘filtering program’ when I meet people. If you do A, and B, the combination matches my database of ‘arrogant’; if you do A, not B, but C immediately after you did A, it matches my database of ‘condescending’; if you respond to person X with gesture Y + U, it means you are secretly admiring that person.
It’s not difficult and when I break it down like that, it may seem like a complex formula, but in my head, it’s a no-brainer.
Distinction Between Pattern Recognition and ToM
The thing about this is that it is based on rules and formulas (just not the actual numeric calculation – my asperger’s is likely to comorbid with dyscalculia – difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic calculations) in a calculated manner. It’s fact based, not wild guesses. It is almost like I spend my life doing an intensive research, and the sample size continues to grow as long as I meet people (or watch television programs! People emulate behaviours of the characters in television shows!). The more samples I collect, the more accurate and versatile the ‘program’ becomes. Every now and then, I do a software update.
With the accurate prediction of behaviours, others including myself, assume that I must know what people are thinking before they say it. The truth is far from that assumption.
:: Example ::
Scenario: You sulk
A normal person makes one confident guess, it’s almost always a right guess; he or she knows what you want before you even verbalise it. He or she knows why you sulk as though there is a direct route to guessing – you sulk = you want cake but you didn’t get it.
When I run my filtering program, and make an accurate prediction, it only grosses you under a wide category. In order for me to make a guess of a vague gesture, I have to make 20 (or more!) wild guesses, and sometimes, 1 of them comes through; most of the time, the guesses are not remotely close to what your intention was. There isn’t sufficient data to process to obtain an accurate outcome; there are just too many variables.
How the filtering program works
You sulk = you are upset
(The gross categorising; and the result is actually accurate)
Then, I enter into the search bar ‘Why are you upset?’
It returns with the following:
1. Too warm (because it’s warm for me).
2. Hormonal changes (Pregnancy, menstrual cycle, menopause).
3. It has everything to do with everything I just said.
4. It has nothing to do with anything I just said.
5. Financial troubles.
6. Relationship troubles.
7. School troubles.
8. Friends troubles.
9. Family troubles.
10. Outfit problem.
11. Bad hair day.
14. Heels hurt your feet.
15. Want a new dress.
16. Want a new bag.
17. Don’t like the tea.
18. Want me to say something.
19. Want me not to say anything.
20. Waiting to see my reaction.
End result – You are still sulking; and I am completely exhausted! Then, you changed from sulking to furious. Oh dear, how did that progress from sulk to angry? Then, it starts all over again, and you end up being upset with me (whether the initial sulk had anything to do with me or not!) anyway.
With that explanation, I hope to provide an understanding to my lifelong frustration about being accurately predicting outcomes based on sets of behavioural patterns, but cannot fathom what is expected of me with a non-verbal gesture. I am constantly confounded by the conflict of definition about intelligence and stupidity, because in situation like this, I am both. It is confusing to the general public; if I can tell you are upset, why would I not know why you are upset? Then, I get accused of playing ignorant and act innocent.
What It Really Means by Being Wise
For the longest time, we (with anyone smart) conclude that I am not smart, I am wise. What does that mean? Well, simply, I seem to know a lot, and I seem to make pretty good judgement about people (refer to “Mind-reading” definition), and able to see the big picture (it really means the same, people are predictable, and are most likely to end up at the spot according to the groups that I categorise them, hence the big picture; simply, it’s cause and effect theory).
Many of us on the spectrum are able to do this; depending on the dominating ability, you may experience it differently. I visualise people-grouping in a very visual way. I could see (in my head) different pathways to different groupings. If you do this, this and that, you go to lane #1, and I can see clearly where you will end up at.
This continues to change as more updates are provided – your life choices, then I start to re-group accordingly.
Stay Simple and Give Benefit of Doubts
This should not be a privileged expectation of people on the spectrum. There is nothing wrong with the way we live our life (well, for us, it’s really not a lifestyle choice!). We say it’s warm, it means it’s warm. There is no, ‘what do you mean or what do you want when you say you are warm.’. It’s not so complicated for us.
Why is there a need to complicate a simple statement? I hear people say, ‘This is such a lovely place, it would be better if it’s cooler’. Sure, a little more poetic, but if you were expecting me to act upon that statement you just made, you are headed for an epic disappointment. I can do these:
1. Assume it is just a statement, you find the place lovely, it is already nice, and can be better if it’s cooler; and do absolutely nothing, or I’ll even say ‘thank you’, because it sure sounds like it’s a compliment – refer to lovely.
2. Dish out all my NT skills and habits that I learned by overcompensating what I don’t understand. I assume there must be a hidden meaning, and you are expecting me to act on it. To do that, I am supposed to know what you really meant, which I already explained that I have no skill in developing ToM. So, I thought you didn’t like the place, so I suggested to go to another place. Or, I ordered a cold drink to make it ‘cooler’.
I would say something like that, ‘I like the place, but I don’t like the temperature’. It’s quite clear, don’t you think? And, most importantly, it’s a comment that has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that you recommended it, or if you owned it. It’s an honest remark, not a criticism. If I wanted you to do something about it, I will tell you, ‘It’s too warm for me, can we please go somewhere else?’.
Real Life Example with Lack of ToM – Dispute at Work
I am self-employed. I design and sell dolls online. It has been the most ideal job for me since I don’t work for anyone. There is however a catch – communicating with customers.
The fancy terming of requests can be too confusing for me.
Customer: I know it’s an unusual request, and I would completely understand if you say no. You sell this in pair, can I buy A in this set, and C in that set? I am ordering set A anyway.
(I deciphered the ambiguous request as, ‘it’s unusual’, ‘she is saying it’s ok even if I say no.’)
Me: Unfortunately, they must be sold in the bundled set as they are.
Customer: I don’t understand, why not, it’s just a matter of taking A out of this set and sell it with C.
(Getting confused, I thought she said she would completely understand? Now I have to explain my business strategy?)
Me: As they are designed to be sold in the specific set, we cannot take them apart.
Customer: It’s just a very simple thing to do, well, I am definitely not going to buy both sets, so if you can’t sell them as I wanted, I am going somewhere else.
(More confused. I thought she said she was going to buy set A anyway? Now she is insisting that she wants Set Customized or nothing?)
Me: We hope you are not upset, as that is not our intention when declining your request. You had said it that it’s unusual request, and we should be given the benefit to accept or decline certain request. You weren’t expecting a positive reply when you brought it up to us and that you were going to buy set A anyway regardless of the outcome, so we fail to comprehend the ultimatum. That said, we respect your buying decision, as we hope you understand ours too, and we hope you find what you want.
Can you understand my confusion and being dumfounded by an unexpected anger? I understand people don’t do well with a no, but I decide that it’s just too hard and exhausting for me to consider what they really mean when they say they won’t be upset.
It’s the same with friends asking for opinions, it always send an immediate panic to my heart and brain. The one thing I have learn about opinion, there is no right answer unless you know what he or she wants to hear. Remember? Me and ToM, not friends? I don’t know what you want to hear, so for heaven’s sake, ask me only if you want an honest (even if it’s not what you expect to hear) opinion. My opinion should only serve as a reference; if I didn’t like your dress, it doesn’t make you ugly.
My Big Decision
I am fed up with guessing. I will now abandon the old and bad (for me) habit of pretending that I can be a successful NT. I can now stop working so hard in what I am really weak at, and draw the focus on what I am good at.