The beautiful and dangerous innocence of the autistic mind

I was always taught that children are cunning creatures, that they quickly learn to manipulate their parents and that, as a parent, one must be on guard for this because that is the way brats are created. I was also taught that kids are mean to each other, that even well brought up children can be nasty and even cruel to others given half the chance. Again words of wisdom were spoken to me warning that I need to watch out for this because thinking your kids can do no wrong is also the path to bratdom . Finally I was taught was that one needs to actively teach kids is the importance of honesty. Left to their own devices, kids will often lie to get out of trouble. It’s no good relying on their natural inclination to be honest as honesty is a virtue that needs to be taught rather than being innate. Again it is the foolish parent that thinks their child would never lie to them!

These pearls of parenting wisdom are probably all very true for neurotypical kids but we have learned that, along with most of the rest of the parenting rule book, they don’t apply to kids with autism like Bean. Taking each of the 3 childhood sins (manipulation, cruelty and fibbing) in turn I’d like to explain how things are different for kids like Bean. There are many negative aspects to autism and certainly many more things for us to worry about than parents of neurotypical kids, but with these 3 things his autism actually means we have it pretty good. It’s also important for others to understand a bit about how the autistic mind differs and how these differences may affect our parenting style. These insights might also help you with your interactions with our little boy.

1- Manipulation

Bean isn’t cunning, he has little or no guile and he does not manipulate others because he simply does not have the necessary theory of mind to do so. In order to manipulate someone then one needs to be able to put oneself in that persons mind. We need to be able to think “if I do X then they will do Y”. A simple example will be the thought :

“If I cry, even though I’m not really hurt, then I will get attention from mummy.”

This is a common bit of manipulation that almost every parent will experience at some time. If the behaviour is reinforced by giving the desired attention then the result is one of those whingey whining cry babies that are so irritating for all to be around. But Bean has never even attempted this because his autism prevents him from making that very basic inference about how his action will affect another person’s behaviour. So when Bean cries it is because he is hurt and that’s all there is to it. This applies to other forms of manipulation as well, crying for attention is perhaps the most basic manipulation possible other more sophisticated types are completely beyond our boy. This purity of purpose and intent is actually quite beautiful if you think about it!

2- Cruelty to others

Thinking about the cruelty kids often display to their peers, it clearly requires at least the same type of inferences about other minds. A basic thought process might be

“Tom likes that toy, if I take that toy it will upset Tom, that might be funny!”

This process again involves understanding that another mind (Tom) has feelings about something and that those feelings can be changed by an action. We have all seen kids do this type of thing. Indeed already we have witnessed Zoo deliberately taking Bean’s favourite toy and you know damned well he is doing it precisely because he gets a reaction. There is that crafty look in his eyes, he knows he is being bad, he knows Bean does not like it and he knows that Bean will react! But I have never seen Bean do this type of thing, not once. He simply does not have the basic concepts to do so. Now I have seen him take toys from other kids and I have seen those kids get upset but Bean always seems a bit perplexed by the reaction! He took the toys because he wanted them and didn’t even consider the other kids feelings about the matter. There is never any malice aforethought with Bean!

This is somewhat of a double edged sword. On the one hand it means that Bean can behave in a selfish way that upsets other kids but on the other hand it means that he is never deliberately cruel to other kids. If he does upset them it’s just by accident, he didn’t mean it because he lacks the ability to plan such things! Again this innocence is a really beautiful trait that we find in very small babies but, as his brother is testament to, quickly disappears.

3- Lying

The ability to lie does not require the same theory of mind as the ability to manipulate or to be cruel but it does require a sense of planning and imagination that Bean simply isn’t very good at. If lying about a past event one needs to understand that this past event happened and then imagine a preferable scenario and present that false account as truth. At the very least one needs to have a good concept of time and then the ability to imagine something that didn’t actually happen. Bean struggles with both these things, he lives very much “in the moment” and conceiving of past and future events is difficult to him. Similarly imagining things that he has not directly seen is hard for Bean, when he does engage in imaginative play it is always variations on a theme from something he has seen directly, so he might act out a scene from a DVD with some toys and it will normally be a carbon copy of the scene and we might, if we are lucky, have him change the name of the character in the DVD to the name of the toy that represents the character. That is the current limit of Bean’s imaginative leaps and this means that lying is really hard for him! When he does try to lie it is so obvious as to be laughable.

Further thoughts

Whilst these aspects of Bean’s autism are absolutely lovely they do have their negative consequences. Bean’s innocence leaves him very vulnerable to his more manipulative, crueller and more dishonest peers. Now it may sound like I have a pretty negative view of kids, really I don’t, I just have a realistic appreciation of the fact that they can all be little shits from time to time and that very much includes Zoo and Bean.

I guess my point is that, whilst Bean can be a little shit, the way he is a little shit is different to other kids and the innocence described above means he is far far more likely to be on the receiving end of shitty behaviour from his peers than “normal kids”. He is already getting the short end of the stick from Zoo and Zoo’s not even 2 yet! So imagine how easy it would be for a fellow 4 year old to push Bean around? This coupled with the fact that kids can work out quickly that Bean lacks the communication skills to grass them up means he is doubly vulnerable. We have seen this happen already and its heart breaking, the really sad thing is that Bean does not even understand when kids are being mean to him, he just has a bit of a puzzled look on his face not quite getting what’s going on. The sad fact is that the majority of autistic kids get bullied at school. Thanks for reading and if you are with Bean at any time when other kids are around keep an eye out for our little boy.

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