Neurotypical Impairment of Autistic Theory of Mind.


A weightlifter - well-built and chiselled - is bench-pressing in the gym. A second person walks into the gym as the weightlifter is about to do a rep, but is unable to due to muscle failure. The weightlifter, with his arms trembling, veins popping, teeth clenching and sweat pearling down his face, gives one last push, but try as he might, it is no use - he is unable to extend his arms straight as the weight is just too heavy for him to lift.

The person who just walked in and witnessed this arguably embarrassing situation is most unimpressed.

‘Is that the best you can do?!’ the person scoffs. ‘You can’t even do one rep?! How pitiful!’

The weightlifter, likely feeling a bit insulted, immediately goes to defend himself: ‘You walked in on me just as I was performing my final rep!’ the weightlifter exclaims. ‘I did 9 more before you arrived!’

‘Oh, sure you did!’ teases the person, who then walks off sneering.

Now I’m sure most people would use a little more logic in that situation. Let’s say that the weightlifter was telling the truth; he was on his 10th rep. Let’s also assume that the weightlifter hadn’t only carried out 9 successful repetitions before failing on his 10th, but that he had broken his own record and was thoroughly pleased with himself. This circumstance would make the comments of the cruel cynic, who only witnessed his final and unsuccessful rep, all the more crushing.

I would argue that this is similar to how a lot of autistic people feel upon receiving judgement following a meltdown (which is, for the record, completely beyond their control).

Let’s imagine an autistic teenager sitting at the dinner table with family and friends. This particular autistic person is desperate to participate in this mundane activity without incident. They sit in their chair, battling to ignore the sensory assaults such as the cacophonous clinking of knives and forks, or the ominous presence of human beings seated either side of them; their breathing and moving around spreading throughout the vessel of autistic person, wreaking havoc from within their being. They suffer hot and excruciating anxiety upon being asked a direct, simple question, drawing upon every vital energy resource they have to give their interlocuter the socially acceptable response that they expect from the struggling autistic teenager, who, by this time, is about to reach their limit.

The parents of the autistic teenager are aware of their child’s condition, but do not fully understand what it is like to see and feel the world from the vantage point of an autistic person, so are naturally at a disadvantage. The family friends are further removed. They have extremely limited knowledge of autism - by no fault of their own - but such a dearth of knowledge when in the company of a person who lives and breathes autism everyday can prove disastrous, as the autistic person wants nothing more than for the internal battle they face alone, every minute of everyday, to be understood; even though this battle is likely invisible to all but them.

The autistic person, prior to everyone arriving at the dinner party, proposed that everyone should go for a little walk after dinner, and their parents agreed. The weather outside, although not raining, is dour and grey. At some point during the meal, one of the family friends propose that instead of a walk, perhaps everyone should stay inside and play charades. The rest of the table agree as the weather is not great and it could rain at any second. That is to say, the rest of the table agree apart from the autistic teenager who has just had their picture stamped out of existence. The autistic person has just about tolerated the grating noises, overbearing company and torrid conversation up until this point, but the sudden change of schedule proves too much.

Change to the autistic person is akin to a menacing shadow being cast over the world obscuring everything from view. Change is to suddenly go blind, deaf, and senseless all at the same time. Change is to disappear. The autistic person seeks to establish order and harmony by crafting a sturdy boat (routine) to sail over an alligator-infested swamp (the inherent disorderliness and unpredictability that is life). Sudden change is the sinking of the boat of routine into treacherous, disorderly and identity-shattering waters.

The autistic teenager ceases to try hard to appear normal (even though no one was aware of how hard they were trying up until this point) and goes into panic mode. This manifests as crying and protesting and banging their head on the table, perhaps with a few expletives sprinkled in, which are perfectly justifiable considering the autistic person has just had their entire world pulled out from under their feet. If the original plan of going for a walk after dinner is not realised, the autistic person will die (at least that’s how it feels to them).

A person - a family friend - at the table says: ‘Don’t be so rude and selfish! You can’t always get what you want! Your parents have made you a lovely meal and you are embarrassing them and making yourself out to be ungrateful. You don’t see anyone else throwing a tantrum do you? Show some respect!’

The autistic person has been negated. ‘No one understands what it’s like to be autistic’, they think. No one has recognised how hard they’ve tried prior to this incident. No one is even considering the fact that this behaviour has nothing to do with wilful rudeness, but is the result of a panic attack. A panic attack resulting from the plan being changed; a worst nightmare for many autistic people. No one seems to care or consider that autistic behaviour cannot be judged by Neurotypical standards.

The autistic person thinks to themselves: ‘Why isn’t it disrespectful when I am expected to be someone I’m not when in non-autistic company? Why isn’t it rude that people haven’t even bothered to understand my condition before judging me? Why am out of order for expressing my true feelings? Why is it not unacceptable of them to essentially negate my behaviour as an autistic person and expect me to behave ‘normally’; a concept well beyond my reach? Why are they not grateful that I have staved off my ‘unfortunate’ autistic traits just so they could enjoy their meal? Why are they not appreciative of the fact that I wanted to enjoy the meal as well and tried my hardest not to do anything ‘too autistic’ purely out of respect for them? And why oh why does the person with obvious drawbacks have to adjust their behaviour when those with fewer drawbacks don’t have to make any compromises at all?’