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.

 

 

 

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