Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre (which is not misspelled), is working on projects like empathy and mindblindness. He has extensively researched a core cognitive feature of autism: challenges with theory of mind,
By theory of mind we mean being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.We had our own little version of Baron-Cohen's classic Sally-Anne "False Belief" test last Friday while delivering meals on wheels. Every time, the food set up is slightly different. Today, one meal included a hot lunch, three bags of crackers, milk, and salad. Pamela was in charge of handing me the latter three items as usual. Because she manned the cooler, she knew the meal included both milk and salad. David and I did not know about the salad, so we only asked for milk. Pamela must have thought, "They know about the salad because I know about it." So, she never volunteered the fact that we were forgetting the salad. With only six meals left to deliver, Pamela handed me both milk and salad. So, we ended up backtracking to make sure all of the clients got their allotment of greens!
Experts in the field of autism are addressing theory of mind in different ways. Nearly everyone mindreads unconsciously (no, I do not mean psychic powers or paranormal states). We interpret, predict, and participate in social behavior and communication through theory of mind: reading facial expressions and body language to determine the mental states of other people. Clearly, the first step children with autism must learn is recognizing facial expressions, and Simon Baron-Cohen developed two DVDs to teach this (Transporters for Thomas the Train fans and Mind Reading for mature audiences). I agree with Baron-Cohen when he claimed that children can improve this social skill through practice, but I prefer the non-technological route. Like our kids already get enough screen time, eh?
I also agree with him that recognizing emotions may not be enough to transform behavior. Without a guide, children with autism may not understand how to use this greater understanding of emotions in real life. Through RDI, we adopted the approach of teaching this skill through daily lifestyle activities in the real world. We have had many, many situations in which we remained nonverbal and Pamela made decisions about what to do based upon our facial expressions. Now, we are taking baby steps in theory of mind by working on sharing perspectives.
Our first step focuses on concrete things: physical barriers that prevent she and I from perceiving the same thing. I wanted to build a positive episodice memory in this uncharted territory, so I made it very easy and obvious. In my first lesson with Pamela, I covered my face (blanket, poncho, cap, blindfold) and let her know there was a problem without direct prompts: "uh-oh," "I'm blind," and "I can't see." Pamela is very playful person, and I knew she would like it. I tried to slow down my actions at the critical moment of discovery. So, I caught her attention and slowly covered my vision. Pamela laughed and then would remove whatever it was. After she showed me she understood the need to address the problem physically, I added more challenges and she met them all with a little bit of scaffolding!
Yesterday, at Walmart, I found opportunities to work on this objective. Pamela was looking at a TV guide from the magazine stash near a closed checkout aisle. I stood perpendicular to her and stared at boxes of turtle chocolates. Then, I used a lot of declarative language. "Mmmmm . . . I see chocolates . . . Mmmmm, they look so good." She was so absorbed in the TV guide that it was pointless. Later, we were in the book section. I was again perpendicular to her so I opened my eyes wide, gasped, and said, "A spider!" She didn't see any arachnids, so she walked in my direction to check out the books on spiders. We were back to back in the electronics. She was studying the digital converter box, while I was looking at computer games. I had my back to what she was seeing. She wanted me to look and did lots of pointing and verbalizing, and I responded with, "I don't see it. I see games." I had to scaffold her by moving closer to her and putting her hands on my face. Then, she turned me in the right direction.