Friday, February 10, 2006

Mind-reading and the illusion of understanding

I'm finished with Simon Baron-Cohen, et al 's Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-Read. I haven't read the whole thing, but I'm done with it.

As I described in a previous post, the book outlines a very structured technique for helping children identify emotions in other people. It's a systematic approach, and I'm certain that it works. But it left me with one question:

So what?

So what if my son can tell that you are happy/sad/angry/afraid? So what if he knows why you are happy/sad/angry/afraid? So what if he can predict that a particular set of circumstances will make you happy/sad/angry/afraid?

What does any of that matter if, ultimately, he doesn't care that you are happy/sad/angry/afraid?

It seems to me that this very structured (and, to me, rigid and inflexible) approach is a very "autistic" way to teach about human emotion.

The model suggests that solving problems like the following will help children with autism understand "desire-based" emotion: James wants chocolate ice cream. His mom gives him vanilla ice cream. How does James feel? (Choose one: happy or sad.)

It makes me want to scream.

Perhaps James feels neither happy nor sad. Perhaps he feels vaguely unsatisfied. Perhaps he first feels disappointed, but then feels the excitement of discovery as he experiences vanilla for the first time and finds he likes it even more than he likes chocolate. Or - gasp! - perhaps he won't perseverate on the ice cream; perhaps, instead, James will say to himself "It is a beautiful sunny day, and while I don't really care for vanilla ice cream it doesn't matter all that much in the broad scheme of things. I think I'll just skip the ice cream and play on the swings instead."

If I want Bud to be successful in the world, I need to help him understand and make sense of the flexible, evolutionary, constantly changing world of human emotion. I am doing him a disservice if I set low expectations and define success as a rigid understanding of a series of "if this, then that" scenarios. I need to help him become a broadband communicator - to read, interpret, and respond to multiple cues simultaneously and automatically. Since that's my goal, I need to choose the educational pedagogies and intervention models that are best able to help him get there; and for that reason, mind-reading won't be included in Bud's curriculum.


Wendy said...

I can't help but think that that book was obviously meant for girls! Only women are completely attuned to the emotions of other people. Men are clueless. They assume that we're happy unless we tell them otherwise. I don't have enough fingers and toes to count the times that my dear husband hasn't realized that I'm annoyed/angry with him. So Bud will be a man one day, he'll be oblivious to any emotion coming from his wife, he'll be like every other man I know. :)

(I'm really not this cynical in real life and I dearly love the men in my life, clueless as they are!)

Anonymous said...

right on, mom-nos!!! i couldn't agree with you more. it's the whole, WHY BOTHER piece that really compells me, the piece that lives in all of us, on and off the spectrum. it's just all about how to uncover it!

kristina said...

For Charlie, it has been good to start with the small and simple and then to work in the flexibility from there. It's rather like teaching Latin which (as I noted to my students today), you learn those principle parts through memorization--rote and dry. And then one day when you think your head is going to burst, you're reading---Catullus, and Horace's odes, and you understand why (for the meaning) Cicero breaks every rule and sticks the verb 16 words away from its subject. Contrary to any DSM-IV or other criteria, Charlie's mind is very flexible and open to adaptation!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! Just the other day, I attempted to explain the nuances of our emotional lives to my 4 1/2 y/o (who, as I have said before, I see in your descriptions of Bud). We had left the house and she was upset because her father had to go to work and was not with us. I asked if she was sad, to which she replied (with a dejected sigh) "yes". Then I asked if she was happy because we were going to spend the entire day together. Here she paused, and then said yes, again. I said "see? Isn't that funny, how you can be sad and happy at the same time?" She repeated it, seemingly taken by the concept - "I'm sad because Daddy's not here, (long pause) but happy because I'm with you". And then she laughed. And so did I. Because really, it's funny, and amazing, isn't it? And truly, life isn't so clear cut, and our kids should have the opportunity to learn that, too. I'm not saying it isn't important to help our children recognize and identify basic feeling states - if that's what they need. But it's got to go further than that. We've got to go further than that. We owe it to our kids.

Thanks again - and congrats on your blogaversary (did I spell that right???) You truly are a writer, and an inspiring, thought-provoking one at that.


MOM-NOS said...

Kristina, your comment reminds me once again that "if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism." When I climb up onto my soapbox about intervention models, I try very hard to make sure that I'm spouting off about what's right FOR BUD, and not suggesting that it is, definitively and universally, what's right. As you know - quite literally - one boy's garbage can be another boy's gold, and there are many paths that lead to the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

kristina said...

Indeed yes! I would say the same goes with teaching Latin---when I was getting observed, colleagues pointed out my digressive teaching style instead of moving from Point A to Point B to Point C and on and on. --- But I wonder if our desire for so much difference among our children with autism is not unlike what has happened with multiculturalism and
ethnic identity in the US: We have become more pluribus than unum, so to speak.

The good thing is, we have so many teaching options and treatment protocols for our children. As when you're at buffet, it can be pretty hard to make the right choices.

I've been working on Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference---he's not world's greatest writer but I was impressed after hearing him speak at a Princeton-Eden Institute Conference a few years ago. Much more humility in him than his books give away. Homo sum; humani nil a me alienum puto!"

Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Interesting post. I am always harping on the theory and listening to those with autism..the one thing that sticks in my mind is how real-time deciphering or reading is difficult. We can teach to read body-language, but real-time processing always seems to be the challenge.


Anonymous said...

wow, thanks for saying that! Solenbum, being 3.5, is still vague on the mind-reading biz (which is still age appropriate) but he DOES seem to sense when we're upset. On occasion he'll come to us and make attempts to comfort us, but for the most part, it's not high on his list.

In short, when I've thought about Sol's inability to mind read I too have thought, "so what?" and then I've felt guilty because I've worried that i'm doing him some sort of disservice. I'm please to find that I'm not the only thunkin' that way.

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MICHELLE said...

I have a son on the spectrum. I have been modeling positive social interactive skills with him since he was 2 yrs. Old. I teach him about feelings and emotions, he has his own feelings even though he is autistic. He still has problems socially, but he can say when someone is hurt, "I am so sorry for you". I don't know if he truly feels empathy for the other person, but just being able to say that automatically when he sees that someone is hurt allows his classmates, siblings, and peers to see him as a person with feelings, and not the unfeeling autistic child.

I work to help my child feel comfortable with himself and the world around him. For the woman who wrote who cares -- I care. I care that these children be given the tools they need to function in the world, who cares -- my son cares -- just because he has problems making friends, doesn't mean he doesn't want any, or can't ever get any.

With positive reinforcement many of these children can do great things--it is hard work--who cares?--We as parents should, because if we don't who will?

Mariam Mohamed said...

i'm from Egypt, this book was the main program to have Master, it's amazing for children with autism , and it change the neuroses paths in brain , so if you had work with it , you have continue working hardly with other programs to develop your child abilities , cause now or after this program he can know more and teaching is getting so easy than before, believe me .. this program not just for emotions and beliefs , it's for the whole understanding of the others and surrounded environment . or like they say "the Radar" is getting better .