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Free ebooks ==> Sharon 65 in response to theirs. She could not see into other people’s minds. She could see their facial expressions, their eyes, their smiles, yes—but not their minds. To make up for this difficulty, Sharon visualized her own emotions; for example, anger was a whirlpool that she placed in a steel box, on top of which she planted a tree. It was not that she did not feel emotion. On the contrary, she felt things deeply and experienced a whole range of emotions. It was putting those emotions into language quickly and efficiently that was so difficult. Just like Temple Grandin, if she thought of emotions in pictures, they were easier to understand. Sharon paused and looked down at her hands. This was obviously very difficult for her. I put away my pen and looked out the window. I distinctly remember seeing a lilac tree on the hospital grounds at the end of its bloom. The petals were strewn on the lawn like painful memories. My skepticism was slowly dissolving and was replaced with a growing sense of wonder and admiration. Sharon seemed to be describing the real-life experience of not having a theory of other people’s minds, of being “mindblind” as Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist at Cambridge who has done a lot of the research in this area, calls it. The idea that people with any form of ASD are “mindblind” is one of the most persuasive theories proposed to explain the kinds of social difficulties that people with autism experience. They find it very difficult to accurately understand other people—their motivations, beliefs, aspirations, and emotions. It is a difficulty in intuitive understanding, an inability to put themselves in another person’s shoes and see their world from a social perspective. Our understanding of the minds of other people occurs because we carry an implicit awareness that lies just beneath conscious experience. These concepts are available to us almost by intuition; it is like an automatic way of knowing. We don’t have to think about what to say after someone says hello to us; we know without thinking. Neither are we taught these concepts in a formal way by our parents but seem preprogrammed to learn them, in much the same way as children learn to use language. Our behavior, and the behavior of others, is interpreted in terms of inferred mental states that involve motivation, desire, and emotion. For example, if my spouse’s eyebrows are raised, I infer surprise. If the corners of your brother’s mouth are turned down, you infer sadness. We intuitively use our own set of psychological concepts to understand which motives, desires, perceptions, and emotions that are part of the experiences of another person are coming into play in any given social situation.

66 A MIND APART For the most part, we do this quickly and effortlessly—automatically. Typical children and adolescents do have difficulty reading social cues as well; of that there is no doubt. The difference is that this occurs from time to time, not continuously, and mainly for situations that are ambiguous. The difficulties here stem from a lack of maturity; they are not intrinsic to the person. For people with ASD, these difficulties occur in situations that typical children and adolescents would find obvious. It does not occur just in ambiguous situations but constantly. Moreover, people with ASD are often not even aware they are having trouble understanding the rules of social interaction. Typical adolescents are often acutely aware of their misinterpretation when it is pointed out to them, though they may not admit it to any parent or adult in authority. The difference is that for typical adolescents, it is emotions, impulses, or inexperience that get in the way of understanding social cues, rather than a fundamental cognitive deficit, as it is for people with ASD. Young children typically begin to develop a basic understanding of other people’s mental states between nineteen and twenty-four months of age, when they acquire the ability to pretend that a specific object is something else: This banana is no longer a piece of fruit but a telephone. This capacity to elaborate and use symbols soon evolves into social play activities such as playing Mommy or Daddy with dolls or with a younger sibling. By age four or five years, children have a remarkable sense of psychological mechanisms and can interpret and predict behavior by attributing mental states to their friends, their siblings, their parents, and themselves. What is not clear is the form these skills take at different ages and how they are acquired. Some psychologists believe that children acquire psychological concepts much as they learn the meaning of grammar and words; that is, these are preprogrammed cognitive skills, hard-wired in the brain, that unfold with development and experience. Similarly, having a theory of mind may be hard-wired in the brain, but a child needs experience for it to be fully realized (just like children need to be exposed to language to utilize their hard-wired skills). Others believe that a theory of mind arises in a child from an ability to project himself imaginatively into another situation. By this account, children understand not by having a theory of other people’s minds but by simulating imaginatively what must be going on in somebody’s else’s mind. A child might think that her mother is sad by intuitively imagining how she might feel under the circumstances and given certain facial cues. That

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