Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Theory of Mind, Context and Past Experience

I have gotten another close-up look at an important piece of the core deficits of autism.

Individuals who are on the autism spectrum are often described as having deficits in Theory of Mind.

In the early days of my child's autism diagnosis, I heard the term "theory of mind" often. No one explained how theory of mind develops until many years into the diagnosis (thank you, Dr Gutstein!). Instead the whole idea about how to acquire theory of mind was mysterious to me, and sometimes I imagined a fantastical theory of mind fairy who comes to the house and bestows it upon children in the middle of the night.

Dr Gustein (of RDI®) taught me about theory of mind, although he calls it by another name: joint attention. Joint attention develops in typical children in stages, and it made sense to him that we can go back to the beginning and grow joint attention in children on the autism spectrum if we go in the order that joint attention develops in typically developing children. (And yes, he's right, it works.)

Part of my education as a parent involved learning about all the pieces of non-verbal joint attention to help my child experience as a foundation to the verbal pieces.

Some aspects of non-verbal communication are really obvious to me. Gestures. Facial expressions. Pitch/tone of the voice. Sounds. Eye gaze.

Some aspects of non-verbal communication are not so obvious.

Context and past experience are on that list of aspects of non-verbal communication. Context? Past experience? What does that even mean? Yes, I understand that learning from mistakes allows us to make course corrections for now and in the future. But I didn't grasp the concepts the way I do now that we have moved across the country.

Since the move, I seem to spend a lot of time being frustrated because I have no context and past experience with anything in our new location. They don't DO things here they way we DID things 'back home' in our former location. I have made the mistake of assuming something was pretty much the same here as it was there and wound up scrambling to repair the breakdown in meaning. I am unable to perspective take effectively here because I am so new to the way they do things here.

None of the breakdowns are showstopping, but they are frustrating.

I'll give you a couple of examples.

At my son's honors day, I sat in the bleachers of the gymnasium. At our former location, the folding chairs on the gym floor were reserved for the guests of honor, the students. Not here. I saw parents taking the folding chairs on the floor. I figured out my misunderstanding (breakdown) and moved to the folding chairs (repair).

Eldest received info about freshman orientation that listed three days of orientation. We did not know whether to choose one day or if the students are expected to attend all three days. Since one of the days overlapped a marching band rehearsal, I deduced that the three days would be the same and that the students were to choose one day. WRONG. A neighbor with older children knew from past experience that past orientations were six hours long on one day. She phoned the school to ask if her freshmen were to attend all three days. Yes, they are supposed to attend all three days. We got a call from a student in the neighborhood who wanted to know if my girl wanted to go together and we didn't know my girl was supposed to be up and getting ready. That misunderstanding (breakdown) was more stressful, but still easy to adjust to (repair).

I keep experiencing misunderstandings because I have no context or past experience here and, honestly, the repetitive misunderstandings are sooooooooooo dysregulating! I feel knocked off balance a lot, I feel I am put into a position to simply react to events around me instead of responding thoughtfully, and I spend (waste) a lot of time trying to guess different meanings to figure things out ahead of time in order to try to avoid misunderstandings, and still have to navigate and repair a lot of them. And I am competent at recognizing breakdowns in meaning and repairing them! Imagine the frustration of an individual on the autism spectrum who is not competent at meaning making, breakdown, and repair! (I better understand the craving for repetitive behavior and the need for sameness, too.)

Since the move, I see more clearly the importance of context and past experience in theory of mind and joint attention. I also see more clearly the importance of recognizing breakdowns and being an active participant in your own repairs, and not only in a remediation program addressing the core deficits of autism, but also with our typical children.

I look forward to the time when new events for us are in the minority and we are experiencing more familiar events where we are able to use past experience and context more effectively. In the meantime, we'll keep rolling with the change and uncertainty of new schools and routines. ;)

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