Sunday, May 6, 2012

Theory of Mind

I often wonder what Ethan dreams.

I've tried to ask him. I never realized what a complicated thing it is to describe a dream to a child. This is another one of those areas that you never think about, with typical kids. At least I didn't. When Anna was little, one day she came into our room and said, "I had a bad dream." I didn't think, "Wow! She knows what a dream is!" I just asked, "Really? What happened?"

I have no idea what age the "dreaming milestone" is typically reached, but we've most likely passed it. Or maybe he's such a deep sleeper he truly doesn't remember his dreams. All I know is, I will ask Ethan if he had any dreams the night before, and he'll undoubtedly say, "Yeah!" And so then I will ask, "What were they about?" I'll then see his eyes scan the room and land on a certain object. "They were about...trains!" he'll announce.

Ethan, I have said several times, dreams are pictures in your head. You see them while you're sleeping.

I see pictures OUTSIDE of my head, he responded once, glancing at pictures on the wall.

We ran into a similar issue the other day, as I was cleaning with Ethan nearby, mildly irritated because yet another song from the kids' XM radio station was running through my head again and again and again.

"Arrrgh, I can't get that song out of my head!" I exclaimed, more to myself than him.

Ethan looked at me in a funny way. "There's no song on your head," he said.

I then attempted to explain what it meant to have a song going on inside your ears that you didn't sing out loud, feeling much like I was back in 4th grade, doing one of those assignments like "Try to Explain How to Make a Peanut Butter Sandwich to a Space Alien."

There's a lot of talk out there about autism and something called theory of mind, or namely: the ability to attribute beliefs, intents, desires, knowledge, etc. to oneself and to understand others have beliefs, desires and so on that are different from one's own. Some people have theorized that those with autism lack a theory of mind, and therefore can't take another's perspective or point of view, and have difficulty with empathy and interpreting others' emotions.

I see this in Ethan sometimes. The most humorous is in playing hiding and seek, where he still thinks that sorry, if he can't see me, then there is no way I can see him. He just doesn't get it. Or he will announce where he is hiding, not understanding that the point is for me to walk in a room and not see him and try to find him.

But, as with most people on the spectrum, he doesn't fit the stereotype completely. He gets other people's emotions. I mean, he's strangely intuitive. I will sigh and he'll ask me what's wrong. Dan's voice gets a little tense and suddenly he'll say, "I don't want daddy to be angry." Show him a picture of a person expressing almost any emotion and he can rattle it off. One time we loaded up a computer program for autistic kids that was about understanding other people's intent by following their eyes (What is the man looking at? Which ice cream flavor does he want to eat?). Ethan aced every question on the first try.

So with Ethan right now, we are dealing with a somewhat different theory of mind. It's really the ability to understand that we have minds. It's grasping what that silent world is up above our eyes that dances with thoughts and intents and pictures that aren't on paper and songs that aren't on the radio. I find it fascinating that he understands when someone growls in frustration that they must be mad or slams a door that they're probably angry, but doesn't get that if his hands are over his face, I can still see him.

There are all kinds of facets to learning about perspective. Sometimes with autism it's as if the learning is turned inside out and upside down. But I suppose it doesn't matter how you get somewhere, as long as you get there, or get further along than you were when you started.

An addendum: This morning, before I'd even had a chance to post this, I was in the kitchen with the kiddos when Ethan announced out of the blue, "We had a different car." "What do you mean?" I asked him. "In my dream," he answered. "We had a different car, and then the road was breaking." Well. Who would've thought?


Floortime Lite Mama said...

ahhhhh what an interesting post
Loved the end part

Anonymous said...

so very interesting. i liked the way you explained what a dream is, by the way. and i love the addendum - he's getting it!