Theory Of Mind (Remember Other People Have Thoughts and Feelings, too)

By Kate Bringe

*“Interestingly, people with autism have difficulty comprehending when others don’t know something…” *

I am frequently baffled by how people can not know things. Don’t they want to know everything? How can they not hunger to learn? I want to know all the information, so I’m prepared. I do not want to wing it. I want to be able to make plans A through G for upcoming events. Not knowing all the available information for an event, like a holiday or trip, causes anxiety. I’m not trying to be nosy; I’m trying to compensate.

When I was around four years old, my great aunt and uncle gave me a teddy bear for Christmas. I already had a teddy bear though. His name was Teddy, and he wore blue overalls with red trim over his short, matted fur. I loved him very much. This new teddy bear was naked with long, silky fur. It was a nice bear, sure, but I already had Teddy. Why would they give me this bear when I had Teddy? I stood there, a four-year-old in her frilly Christmas dress, suddenly thrust into a conundrum for which I was unprepared.

In my mind, I’d just received this brand-new bear and maybe he was meant to replace my very best friend, Teddy. Fancy Bear’s fur was clean and fluffy; his eyes were large and shiny. Teddy, my beloved, had matted fur and smaller eyes. Would he feel dingy next to this glamourous new bear? Would he worry that I wouldn’t love him anymore? Would he be afraid of being shunted aside for this flashy upstart? What if he thought I thought he was trash now? Was my mom going to throw away my ratty, old bear? Teddy was my first and most cherished friend. This newcomer would never unseat him in my heart! My four-year-old mind couldn’t process all these feelings quickly enough. Given enough time, I may have figured out that these two bears could be friends, and everything would’ve been fine.

My gears were stuck, though. Thoughts and feelings were storming through me and everyone’s eyes were on me. I knew what response was expected of me but how could I accept this new bear when I didn’t know what was to become of Teddy? I couldn’t lose my best friend. I had to protect him! I struggled for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do or say and finally looked up, right into my great aunt’s blue eyes, and blurted, “I already have a teddy!” I hurled the new bear back into the box for emphasis.

It goes without saying my mother was mortified. My great aunt was generous in heart, but she also had very rigid expectations of proper behavior and I’d totally blown it. In their minds, I was simply not being grateful for the lovely gift of a new teddy bear. My mother immediately apologized to everyone for my outburst and excused us from the room. She took me into the kitchen and spoke sternly to me about the importance of being grateful and how nice it was of Auntie B and Uncle E to buy me this lovely bear. She told me I should graciously accept the gift and thank them for it.

I was confused, heartbroken, and humiliated. Everyone knew I was being scolded. I hadn’t intended to offend anyone, but I couldn’t express what was going on inside me either. I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to convey my thoughts and feelings. Mom marched me back into the living room and everyone turned to look at me. I felt such a deep sense of shame, but I did what was required of me and thanked them for the bear. I was angry that no one understood how I felt. I was angry that I was unable to express myself. I was angry that they’d given me a bear when I already had one. I was afraid that I was going to lose Teddy. I was afraid to open any more gifts in case they were also things I already had. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I didn’t belong. It was the first time that I considered I might be different than everyone else. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I couldn’t trust my family. I had discovered that I was blindfolded and in the social equivalent of an undocumented minefield.

For the next 33 years, I would search the house for my gifts (or I’d open them with an Xacto knife once they were wrapped) so that I’d never be surprised again. I’d know what they were, and I’d have time to prepare myself to react in a socially appropriate manner. Even when the gifts were something I wasn’t thrilled about, I would be ready and able to graciously thank the giver and make a nice comment about the gift. If there were any last-minute gifts, I always smiled and kept my gaze on the packages as I opened them so that I wouldn’t inadvertently make any inappropriate faces. Again, I would say something nice about the gift and how thoughtful the giver was. My efforts paid off. I never received a gift-related reprimand again. Knowing what I was receiving alleviated the greatest amount of anxiety I felt each time Christmas, or my birthday, came around. There was always the social piece that I struggled with, but at least I never had to worry about what I might find inside one of those brightly wrapped boxes.

Time and experience have brought intellectual understanding. I understand that no one knew what I was thinking and feeling about Teddy and the new bear. Auntie B and Uncle E were not frequent visitors and probably thought a teddy bear would be a splendid surprise for a four-year-old. At the time, it never even occurred to me that they wouldn’t know I had a bear. The Teddy Bear Incident was never brought up again, so I kept all my confusion and anger inside. Years later, my mom and I talked about it and she was surprised that it had made such an impact on me. Apparently, no one else thought it that big of a deal since I was only four years old. She explained that Auntie B and Uncle E didn’t know I had Teddy and had picked out the bear on their own, which was a revelation to me. Even after all those years, it still hadn’t occurred to me that they hadn’t known about Teddy.

The feelings, though, have never gone away. That experience is seared into my emotional memory. It was the first of many scars and a defining moment in my life. What seemed like no big deal to the neurotypicals in my family was enormous to me.

Again, time and experience have brought me perspective and understanding. I’m autistic and the way I process events and emotions is different from the way my family processes them. I learned that as an adult. I sometimes wonder now how that Christmas would’ve been different if they’d known I had autism. Would they have been more patient with me, aware that I processed differently and needed more time to work out The Bear Situation? Would Auntie B and Uncle E consulted with my mom on a good gift idea? Would my family have helped me work through what was bothering me when I displayed distress? I’d like to think all of the above, because even though our family had a lot of rocky patches, I know they loved me, then and now.

Whatever became of the new bear? I don’t know. I have no memory of him beyond that night. Teddy, though, “greets” me every day from his place of honor on my bookshelves, still my first and oldest friend.

*Quote from Stephen M. Edelson, Ph. D.





Making Friends When You Have Anxiety

I have never been that person who had a lot of friends but I do like to have a couple of close friends in town that I can do things with or vent to when things get tough. In the last 20 years I have not had that and at first it did not bother me so much because my Bipolar Disorder controlled my life. I was either dealing with my depression and did not care really if I had friends or the mania took over and I was doing a lot of different things and did not realize I was missing not having friends in town. I have my friends on Facebook and I think that was helping at that moment.

As I dealt with my Bipolar though I began to realize how much anxiety I had. It had been covered up for so long and now I am having to deal with it. I am also having to deal with the fact that there is this void in my life and I finally figured out that I was missing having a friend or two here in town that I could just do something with. As my kids are getting older they are not needing me as much and I see others out and about talking and laughing and I think how nice that would be. Then I start to tear up because it is almost a paralyzing fear that takes over thinking about trying to make a friend. My heart starts racing and I worry about what would I even talk about really?

Do I even know how to keep a good friendship going? I have not had a true in town friend in 20 years. I was in the Navy the last time I had a friend. That seems so long ago. I struggle in my mind with I really want to do this yet I do not because I do not feel confident enough. Right now I have a friend from childhood and we do these videos to each other which is really helpful so I can get some of that anxiety out and talk about it. I feel at times like this should not be so difficult to do yet I struggle so much. I see some of my kids struggle with it too. How can I help them with it if I can not help myself?

I do listen to my doctors and do a lot of mindfulness meditations and other helpful things for anxiety because I want to be able to control it. I hope one day I will find a friend that likes me just the way I am. All I can do is take it one step at a time.

Mental Health Awareness Month #8

Mental Health and Aging

The United States Surgeon General reported that while most older adults enjoy good mental health, nearly 30% of those 55 and older experience mental disorders that are not part of the normal aging.  The following are some of the most common disorders:

  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

The statistics on mental illness in seniors are sobering, but with knowledge and vigilance, caregivers can stay aware of the emotional and mental health of their older loved ones and make sure they are properly treated if they are experiencing a problem.

You might not be surprised to read that the most common mental health issue among the elderly is severe cognitive impairment or dementia. An estimated 5 million adults 65 and older currently have Alzheimer’s disease — about 11% of seniors, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Depression and mood disorders are also fairly widespread among older adults, and disturbingly, they often go undiagnosed and untreated. The CDC reports that 5% of seniors 65 and older reported having current depression and about 10.5% reported a diagnosis of depression at some point in their lives.

Often going along with depression, anxiety is also one of the more prevalent mental health problems among the elderly. Anxiety disorders encompass a range of issues, from hoarding syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). About 7.6% of those over 65 have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, says the CDC.

One of the ongoing problems with diagnosis and treatment of mental illness in seniors is the fact that older adults are more likely to report physical symptoms than psychiatric complaints. However, even the normal emotional and physical stresses that go along with aging can be risk factors for mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression.

As our loved ones’ age, it’s natural for some changes to occur. Regular forgetfulness is one thing, however; persistent cognitive or memory loss is another thing and potentially serious.

The same goes for extreme anxiety or long-term depression. Caregivers should keep an eye out for the following warning signs, which could indicate a mental health concern:

  1. Changes in appearance or dress, or problems maintaining the home or yard.
  2. Confusion, disorientation, problems with concentration or decision-making.
  3. Decrease or increase in appetite; changes in weight.
  4. Depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks.
  5. Feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness; thoughts of suicide.
  6. Memory loss, especially recent or short-term memory problems.
  7. Physical problems that can’t otherwise be explained: aches, constipation, etc.
  8. Social withdrawal; loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable.
  9. Trouble handling finances or working with numbers.
  10. Unexplained fatigue, energy loss or sleep changes.

Don’t hesitate to seek help if your loved one is experiencing any of the symptoms above, urges the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation.

There are professionals out there willing to help, including your family doctor, who is always a good place to start. You could also consult a counselor, geriatric psychiatrist or psychologist. The important part is not to stand by and suffer alone.

With the combined efforts of caregivers, family, friends and mental health professionals, we can help ward off mental illness in our older loved ones and make sure they are on the right track to healthy aging.

Written by: A Place for Mom

Mental Illness Awareness Month #7

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)(also known as Social Phobia) is an Anxiety Disorder described as an overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in normal social situations. People with SAD have an intense and chronic fear of being judged by others and of being humiliated by their own actions.

Can SAD be dangerous?

To a certain degree, yes. People with SAD suffer from distorted thinking, including false beliefs about the negative opinions of others.  In addition, it has been found that these individuals often suffer from consequences of social withdrawal and also are prone to depression.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an Anxiety Disorder that usually develops after an individual has been involved in one or more terrifying events in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened. It is a severe and ongoing emotional reaction to an extreme psychological trauma.

What can cause this?

The trauma may involve someone’s death or a threat to someone else’s life, serious injury, or a threat to physical and/or psychological integrity, such as instances of sexual abuse. In some cases it can also be from profound psychological and emotional trauma, apart from any actual physical harm. A person suffering from PTSD is affected to such a degree that normal coping strategies and defense mechanisms fail to provide adequate relief.

Bipolar Disorder is a serious mood disorder that causes individuals to swing between extreme feelings of high and low (mania and depression). Bipolar Disorder deeply affects one’s energy levels, attitudes, behavior and general ability to function.

In the United States, about 5.7 million adults — about 2.6% of the population — have a condition called bipolar disorder. Of those, 1.5 million adults live with Bipolar I Disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). The condition tends to start in late adolescence or early adulthood, but it can appear in children and older adults as well.

Can it be treated? Yes, speak to your medical physician right away and tell them what symptoms you are experiencing.

Mental Health Awareness Month #6

In men, depression can be a serious yet treatable condition.  Around six million men suffer from depression each year.

Symptoms of depression: 

Changes in appetite that result in weight losses or gains unrelated to dieting,  restlessness or irritability, feelings of worthlessness and difficulty concentrating, or making decisions or thoughts of death or suicide or attempts at suicide.

You are human.  Many men feel ashamed of being labeled s depressed, but remember that you are a human being, and that depression is treatable.

Children’s Mental Health

For parents/guardians, the key to successfully handling mental disorders in children is to recognize the problem and seek the appropriate and necessary treatment.

Conduct Disorder- Children with a conduct disorder have behavior that shows a strong disregard for the rules of society and life in general.  Conduct disorders are often one of the most frequently seen mental disorders in children.

Get help-Do not be afraid to ask for help getting help, as the appropriate treatment for conduct disorders is essential.  Treatments are aimed at helping and guiding young children in order for them to realize and understand the effects their behavior has on others.

Are Mental Illnesses Inherited?

Yes, many mental illnesses are hereditary.  The most common mental illnesses that are passed on in an individual’s genes are Bipolar Disorder and schizophrenia.  If you believe that your child may have inherited a mental health trait from yourself or another family member, speak with our child’s doctor.  Be sure to inform him/her of your family’s mental history and express any questions or concerns you may have.

Mental Health Awareness Month #5


Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that manifests itself in children.  Traits of autism include delayed language development, hindered social skills, persistent fixation of physical objects, and overall problems with communication.  Asperger’s is a sub-category of autism.

Postpartum Depression

Postpartum Depression affects women who have just given birth.  it can range from moderate to severe.  Giving birth brings about all sorts of new changes and emotions, and many women experience the blues, but diagnosed Postpartum depression is more intense and full-blown.

Recognizing Early Warning Signs of Mental Illnesses.

Serve mental illnesses such a schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely emerge out of the blue.  Instead, family, friends, teachers, co-workers, or the individuals themselves start to notice that something is not quite right gradually.

Signs and Symptoms to Be Careful About.

Problems with concentration, memory, or  logical thought and speech that you haven’t experienced in the past.

Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, or smells as well as an overwhelming feeling to avoidance of over-stimulating situations.

When should treatment begin?

As soon as possible!  There are clinics that specialize in mental health disorders around the country, testing is normally scheduled relatedly quickly.

Mental Illness and Suicide.

Mental health studies conclude that people with poor mental health are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide.  Every year in the United States, more than 36,000 individuals die by suicide while hundreds of thousands more attempt it.  More often than not, these occurrences are due to chemical imbalances in the brain.  Here are some tips for dealing with suicidal thoughts:

KNOW that help is always there.  Seek the help of a counselor or call a suicide help-line.  Death is not the answer and will not solve your problems.  There is hope for you.

ALWAYS take your medication.  Individuals who are prescribed antipsychotic medications should under no circumstances stop their medication unless otherwise directed by a physician.



Mental Illness Awareness Month #4

Bullying and Mental Health

Children that experience bullying may experience serious emotional and mental disabilities.  Bullying may interfere with social development, and self-esteem.  Children who have been bullied are also at increased risk for problems with anxiety and depression.

What can I do as a parent?  Help your child to understand what bullying is and teach them how to safely stand up for themselves and others.

Always communicate.  Check with your children often.  Listen to them.  Know who their friends are, ask questions about school, understand, and listen to their concerns.

Child Abuse and Mental Illness

Child abuse is becoming an epidemic, and studies show that it can change how the brain functions.  These changes appear to be significant enough to cause psychological and emotional problems that extend into adulthood.

Prevent Abuse.  If you suspect a child is being abused, immediately report your suspicions to the proper authorities.  Do not remain silent; a child’s well-being may be in your hands.

Be An Advocate.  Let children know that it is okay to go to you or another adult if they are having problems or are worried about something.  Ensure them that what is going on is not their fault.  Encourage them to speak out if they themselves or anyone they know is being mistreated.