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.

3 thoughts on “The beautiful and dangerous innocence of the autistic mind

  1. I’m autistic and I remember manipulating my parents when I was a five, mainly by looking sad because I know that parents don’t want their children to be sad. Then having a meltdown when they asked me to do chores, I would just keep crying, because I thought that parents would want their child to be mentally okay. They stopped asking me to do chores. About the cruelty, I would say I can only harm people that are close to me and people on the internet. I’m normally kind and generous but for some reason I like breaking hearts and find it interesting to see how much people can hurt, because I don’t see cruelty every day. I don’t like lying and I don’t recall lying as a child. I think I’m honest and blunt, I don’t sugar-coat things. However I do have the imagination to lie, when I was 16 I gave my friend my knife because she wanted to stab someone (I was naive), but then her parents found the knife in her room and asked her why she had it, so she texted me to think of an excuse, and it was, “My mother bought me the knife because I was doing The Duke of Edinburgh Award, and we were going up the mountain so I brought the knife with me in case there were panthers. Then I used the knife to open a bag of lollies and then put it in my friend’s bag by accident because we both had pink bags.” and they believed it. Having said all that I still see myself and everyone as perfect because I don’t believe in free will.

  2. Yeah. I’m a 9th grade high functioning autistic, and I still feel like what you described. Or like I know about the dirty stuff, but I don’t use it as much as I find my friends mentioning it. Yeah, a lot of times, people also laugh at me, and I didn’t know why. Someone literally had to say “They’re not laughing with you.” For me to get the message, and still I’m confused about it. To be honest, I think the worst of it was in elementary school, especially 4th and 5th grade. I wouldn’t call it bullying, but I just faced a lot of exclusion because I am “weird”. I just normally played alone at recess, but I didn’t really mind. But hey, not everybody’s story is different. I actually consider myself very lucky to be able to walk and talk today.

  3. It just occurred to me autism may be related to the refusal to partake in original sin.

    What is “original sin”? I am not a Christian but I think that Genesis explains the developmental formation of the human self. Genesis is quite plain that God made adam (the human) male and female (mentioning this fact twice). Eve was then made as a companion for adam. If Eve was not the first woman, then what was she? I think that this “helpmeet” or later the “paraclete” that Jesus mentions, is the intra-psychic other (“Other in mind”) mentioned by various psychologists such as

    Freud “Super ego” or “acoustic cap”
    Lacan “(m)Other”
    Adam Smith (a psychologist before he was an economist) “The impartial spectator”
    Bakhtin “superaddressee”
    Mori Arimasa “Third person” (provided by European but not Japanese language such that “I” means more than a “you for you” as it should do)
    George Herbert Mead “generalised other”
    Philippe Rochat “Others” (in mind)
    Jefferson “Reason” (female)

    These (or this) other in mind is theorised to be essential but little is said about it. Only Lacan (in obscure hints) and Rochat (2009) suggest that the “Other” we have in our mind is an earlier developmental stage of the self. What earlier stage?

    Lewis & Brooks-Gunn (1979) argue that the first self is the self which we enjoy as we see ourselves wave our own hands.

    “Gregory is also about 3 months old. Lately he has begun to coo loudly during those moments between waking and calling his mother by crying. One morning, Gregory’s mother walks quietly into his bedroom and finds him awake, on his back, with his right hand extended above him and to the right; his head is turned towards his hand and he is watching his fingers move with considerable interest.

    The proprioceptive feedback from the two events and actions (looking and moving one’s hands and fingers) are both located in the same nervous system. This example differs markedly from the first since the child can operate on both events, rather than just one event, being external to the organism. The infant, having control of both actions can turn to look at the object or have the object move into the field of vision. This duality of subject and object must represent the beginning of the self as distinct from other.” (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979, p.3.)

    This enjoyment of watching fingers move is shared by autistic children (and perhaps adults). It is in babies accompanied by the formation of a first visio-proprioceptive, “I seem myself move,” or “I see I” self for short.

    Rochat claims that this self remains, and that the self has layers like an onion (Rochat, ). Neurotypical children and adults somehow manage to “identify” the earlier “I see I self with the objectified self as seen in mirrors or expressed in our self-narrative. Thinking that our reflection in the mirror is on this side of the mirror too is a mistake. Our faces, names, and I are symbols for others. But neurotypical children make that mistake and grow up.

    Why do we make this mistake? Freud claims that the two become one because we are ashamed of the relationship between our selves, and hide the more real one. I think that this is because as we are introduced to ourselves as object in mirrors, or our names, we enjoy these objects from the point of view of our mothers. That is to say we play “mummies and babies” in our minds, just as children play with dolls. This relationship that we have with ourselves becomes more and more self-serving, gooey, and eventually sexual, which is when it becomes *really grotesque*– so much so that we can no longer see it– and “sinful.”

    Autistic children refuse to take a bite of that apple, and waving their fingers in front of their eyes, and referring to themselves only in the third person, remind themselves that the I (see I) and the me are distinct. Sometimes autistic adolescents self-abuse. But if Freud and I are right about what is going on in neurotypical heads, perhaps autistic self-abuse is tame in comparison, and redeeming. This video makes me cry, and sorry.

    So, come out of the desert, and lead us to the promised land! This last sentence is going right off the wall but, I am not autistic, and I do have a nasty relationship with myself, thought I can’t quite see it, *methinks*.

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