“Theory of mind” is the ability to understand that your beliefs, intents, desires, imagination, etc. are yours and yours alone and that other people don’t share them or know what’s in your mind without you telling them. So for example, if you want to go out to dinner with your spouse, you can’t automatically assume he knows this – though you might want him to. You have to speak up and tell him before you slam him for his supposed insensitivity (who, me? I’ve never done that). Many people have theory of mind issues but people on the ASD spectrum tend to struggle with this issue more than others.
We work on theory of mind a lot in my house. In the beginning, we worked hard just to get our son to tell us what was on his mind. Then we graduated to him assuming we knew but teaching him to tell us anyway. My other son has this problem too since of course they share genetics. It makes for fun mornings. I can’t tell you how many fights I’ve had to break up because “I wanted that book.” “Did you tell your brother that?” “No! He should know.” Or how many times I’ve heard about homework assignments that are due in mere moments that I should’ve known about because the boys knew about them and can’t I read their minds? Now this may sound like a typical boy thing (sorry, guys, most little boys really are less attentive to details than girls are), but when it happens with such intense frequency, your choice is to either accept that you’ve lost your mind (not completely out of the question) or accept that your kids have an issue that you have to address.
Consequently, I’ve gotten a little smug about my theory of mind skills. Not only is this an issue I work with my boys with on a daily basis, I’m a writer, a great communicator, so I’m ahead of the game.
Evidently, not so much.
This morning I realized that, while my kids are fully aware that the short film I’ll be shooting this summer is about autism, I’ve never told them why I’m doing it. I just assumed they knew or could somehow read my mind and know my intentions.
So I carefully crafted in my head how I would talk to them about the reasons I was making this film. I would sit them down and share with them the fact that autism isn’t easy for anyone, in part because not enough people understand autism, and that if I make a film that can help people understand autism, then maybe more kids will get diagnosed earlier and be less anxious and happier and learn to talk to girls and so on. That last one I knew would get my older son’s attention. Satisfied that I’d get my deeply felt intentions across, I sat down with the boys.
“You guys know SIX LETTER WORD is about autism, right? Have you thought about why?”
“Because Anthony has autism.” August’s equivalent of “Duh.”
“That’s not the only reason.” I launched into my spiel. Anthony and August’s eyes glazed over. I tried the girl comment. Eh. Not so interested. They had bigger and better things on their minds, like the papertoy monster book they’d recently gotten obsessed with.
I sighed. Such was life with boys. And then I grinned. Not ASD or ADHD boys, just typical boys who were more interested in making toys and hanging out than in the motivation behind the movie their mother was making a whopping two months from now. Just the way they’re supposed to be.
Theory of mind or not, we’ve come a long way.