Monday, November 20, 2006

The Sneaky Bear - Another Example of 'Theory of Mind'?

As I wrote in a previous post, I would suggest that the Bear is at least occasionally demonstrating Theory of Mind, despite some expert opinions that ToM in autistics is impaired, deficient, or non-existent (especially at such a young age). Recently we had another interesting (to me at least) potential example.

From Wikipedia, Theory of Mind is generally described as:

“a specific cognitive capacity: the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.”


“This theory of mind covers two separate concepts:

1. Gaining the understanding that others also have minds, with different and separate beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions

2. Being able to form operational hypotheses (theories), or mental models, with a degree of accuracy, as to what those beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions are.“

Based on the the Sally-Ann test, 'normal' children below the age of four and most autistic children (of all ages) do not demonstrate this capability. (The link and also a comment by Camille on the previous ToM post discuss some of the issues with this test.)

A week or so ago, the Bear (who is 3 yrs, 5 mos old) was working with her IBI instructor, and her snack (chopped up pear chunks) was sitting in her bowl, nearby but out of immediate reach. At one point the instructor had to leave the room for a moment. While she was gone, the Bear reached over into the bowl to grab and eat some pear chunks, something that she would never have done while the instructor was present. What was more interesting though is that as the Bear realized that the instructor was returning, she quickly sat back and put her hands down in front of her with a 'butter wouldn't melt in her mouth' look, hiding the fact that she had been reaching into the bowl. It was the gestural equivalent of "I didn't do nuthin'!" To be clear, she didn't merely stop when she sensed that the instructor was returning, but acted in such a way to actually hide her previous actions.

Given the two conditions above, the implication is that:

a) the Bear understood (albeit incorrectly) that the instructor did not know that she had taken some of her snack (i.e. different and separate beliefs and intentions), and

b) that she formed an operational hypothesis that concealment of her actions was a possibility, i.e. that she had knowledge that her instructor might not have and that she might be able to maintain this state of differential knowledge.

As in the previous ToM post, I would suggest - if my interpretation of the Bear's actions is correct - that she is demonstrating that a child diagnostically labeled as ‘autism, at the severe end of the spectrum’ is capable of Theory of Mind, and at a young age. Again, maybe the 'experts' aren't totally correct on this one?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Bear Goes Trick or Treating

This was the first Halloween for the Bear. We dressed her as a Hawaiian hula girl, complete with a lei (double wrapped) around her neck, another lei around her waist, a grass skirt, and a garland of flowers on her ankle. Given that this is Canada, the outdoor version also included leotards and a heavy top (both very non-Hawaiian), plus a coat to hide it all. We would have also liked to put a garland on top of her head, but it would have had the same life expectancy as any hat that is not tied down.

The Bear’s IBI program put on a Halloween event for the kids, providing loot bags, and practicing trick or treating. The Bear is GFCF, so I made the ultimate sacrifice, and afterwards replaced the treats with fruit. The Bear seemed to be quite accepting of her costume, and was very interested in the fact that everyone else was wearing one too.

Momma Bear and I talked about whether we should take her out trick or treating. We live in an area that is not exactly urban. The nearest driveway is nearly 300m away from the foot of our driveway, and that doesn’t include the distance to walk up to each house and back (often a 100m or more). Unless we wanted to drive to an urban area, any trick or treating would have to be via a car. Instead, Momma Bear thought that Halloween would be a good opportunity to introduce the Bear to the X’s.

The X’s are a couple (with older children, I believe in University) who live across the street and a couple of properties down. Mr X was in politics for many years. I won’t say any more since it will a) identify the X’s (I’d like to respect their privacy) and b) more closely identify us. We often see them riding their horses along the street and wave to them, and they say hi when they see us out and about. Mr X drops a bottle of wine off every Christmas on behalf of the local riding club. We have also been to their house for a neighbourhood gathering, plus to see the start of a one of the local hunts. But they had never met the Bear. Given that she is part of the neighbourhood (and also a potential flight risk), Momma Bear thought we should let them meet her so that they would know who she was.

So we dressed the Bear up and I drove her (with instructions to just stop by quickly, say hi, and come back) down the street and up their driveway. I walked the Bear to the door and knocked. Mrs X and the family dog came to the door, and she was surprised to see a trick or treater. Given the neighbourhood distances, we were probably the first to come by in a decade. I reminded her who we were (never taking it for granted that anyone who doesn’t see me often will remember exactly who I am), and said I just dropped by to quickly introduce my daughter to them.

Mrs X said hi to the Bear, complimented her on her costume, and seemed to immediately take to her. I mentioned at that point (since the Bear wasn’t saying anything) that she did not yet speak. This interested Mrs X. She had recently finished writing a book with a character that was ‘selectively mute’ and had done some research on this subject. I mentioned that the Bear was autistic, and she said that she had done some reading about autism too, and hinted that the character was on the spectrum.

Mrs X said that she would go and get a treat for the Bear, at which point I said that there was no need. She was on a selective diet, and I had just brought her over to introduce her, so that when they saw her they’d know who she was. Mr X was not home to meet the Bear, but Mrs X really seemed to take a shine to her. She wouldn’t take no for an answer on the treat, and asked what she could give her. After listing a few things (no, no, no...) she suggested a box of raisins, which I said would be okay. She invited us inside while she went to get them. Her voice seemed to be searching for something else, and then she asked if the Bear liked rocking horses? I said I thought so, so she said that they had one and she would pull it out.

Meanwhile, the Bear decided to go walking. Before I could grab her, she walked off into the darkened house. Crap. I’m inside the doorway in my shoes, the Bear has just walked off into their house, and Mrs X is down the hall off the kitchen trying to pull out the rocking horse. Something had to give, so I apologized and walked in. Meanwhile, the Bear had circled the front hallway and came into the kitchen from the opposite side. I came up the other side, helped Mrs X pull out a large fur and wood rocking horse, and finally everyone was in the same place, including the dog, (who also took a friendly interest in the Bear).

We put the Bear on the horse, and she seemed to enjoy it. I wish that I had a camera with me, since the opportunity to get a picture of my daughter in Hawaiian winter dress on a rocking horse does not come along that often. I mentioned that she was quite the daredevil and liked amusement rides, going on them at the local park where we had season’s passes.

Mrs X appeared to be quite interested in the Bear, and seemed to want to do more. “Does she like horses?” I’m not really sure, I answered. “Well, I have to feed and water the horses later anyway, so would she like to see the barn?” Er, okay? I said that we’d only popped by to say hi and introduce the Bear, and didn’t want to be any trouble, but Mrs X ducked the opportunity to politely shoo us off. So off we went to the barn. I carried the Bear as the path was a bit mucky, and continued to carry her though the barn and stables.

The barn was quite large, with about 20 horses (both theirs and boarders). Mrs X took us round and introduced each horse and its history, one by one, including a mother with a new colt. The Bear did not smile much, but she was clearly interested. She watched and took everything in, and was quite content to be carried around the barn. She patted a couple of the horses (hand over hand) and bopped a couple of horses that appeared too interested in tasting her lei and her grass skirt. Mrs X remarked on several occasions that she looked quite observant and also quite intelligent (which is a good way to make her Dad feel proud). Mrs X knew someone else in the neighbourhood (largely defined) who had an autistic son, and talked about him and his experiences.

We had a good chat about a lot of things, including but not limited to the Bear, got a good tour of the barn and the indoor riding area, looked (unsuccessfully) for the barn cat, and watched Mrs X give hay and water to each of the horses. Again, she seemed quite taken with the Bear, and ducked the opportunities I gave her to politely usher us on our way.

After the tour, she walked us back to our vehicle, and said that we could come by any time. I mentioned that my wife and I were not horse people (we’re probably the only ones in the neighbourhood who are not, although Momma Bear has ridden before), so that this was all new to us. Mrs X then mentioned teaching the Bear to ride, and I’m pretty sure that she actually offered to teach her. I’m not sure if I heard that correctly, and I’m not going to push the point. Mrs X did also mention that riding was probably good for autistic children. Living in horse country at least gives the Bear more of an opportunity, but on that we will have to see if she is interested.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Mrs X was the perfect host, and we really appreciated the time and the kindness that she provided. After I thanked her and drove off, I realized that we had been there for an hour and a half. All in all it was a good Halloween. The Bear had a nice experience, and made a new friend.

We need more Halloweens.

(FYI, a) the picture is in mid-swing (I'm quite impressed with the camera), b) the slant on the background is real - it is a hill behind her, and c) given Canadian weather this time of year, this is a reasonably realistic representation of what her costume looked like after coats, etc. were added)

Friday, November 03, 2006

Respect Meme

Jonathan and María Luján started a ‘Respect Meme’ a couple of weeks ago, and NotMercury joined in. Their versions are here, here, and here respectively. I thought that I would join the stampede and give it a go.

1. What is respect for others?

I quite like and agree with NotMercury’s answer to this:

"Respect for others comes when we recognize our differences and make an effort to treat others the way we wish to be treated in spite of our differences"

I also like María Luján’s point about empathy being the root of a true understanding. A lot of people confuse empathy with agreement, but agreement is not required. To me, empathy is an understanding – or at least a reasonable attempt at understanding – of the position of another. Understanding another’s views does not require agreeing with them, or even liking them. But it does require listening rather than ‘selective listening’ or prejudging.

There will undoubtedly be disagreements, and it is legitimate to raise and discuss them. But disagreements over ideas, concepts, and even 'facts' and their interpretations (some forget that even 'facts' can be open to interpretation, especially when it comes to their meaning, importance, and implications) should not be treated as an excuse to attack the person with whom one disagrees. Even in the case of disagreement over conduct, one should still attempt to confine oneself to commenting on the behaviour, not the person. People make mistakes, and an error in judgment or action does not automatically render one a person unworthy of respect.

Having said that, I do not think that everyone is deserving of respect. I would suggest that one should always give the other person the benefit of the doubt, i.e. treat people as deserving of respect until they clearly demonstrate otherwise. But some people do clearly demonstrate otherwise. And then one has to choose how to respond. More on this in Question 4.

2. What are things that appear to respect issues, but are not?

I agree with Jonathan that some cannot separate the argument from their personhood, and thus incorrectly see a challenge to their ideas as a personal challenge. Confining one’s challenge to the idea itself and not the person behind can help to minimize this, but this will still be an issue at times.

A related issue is that some ‘wrap themselves in the flag’. On one side, some autistics view a disagreement with their ideas as a challenge or an attack on all of those who are autistic. "If you disagree with me then you don’t respect autistics". The mirror image on the 'all autism=mercury poisoning' side is "If you don’t agree with me then you are abusing children". Er, no, on both counts.

Another point I would agree with is that of NotMercury, who answered this with "When intentions are offered as justification for irresponsible actions." Good intentions do not automatically make one right or excuse negative actions, and should not shield those negative actions from comment or judgment. And legitimately questioning those actions can also be accomplished in such a way as to not disparage the intentions behind them (assuming that the intentions are good).

3. Is this relevant to the autism discussion and why?

Respect is very relevant to the autism discussion. I would suggest that from the point of view of the neurodiversity community, respect – and the perception (and in a lot of cases the reality) of the absence of respect - is one of the driving reasons behind their participation in the debate. I would suggest that the ‘autism = mercury’ parents also see the debate – in their case with the government and with many in the scientific community – as a respect issue, and also lack respect for the ND point of view as well as for many of its proponents. And for the majority of parents and caregivers, the respect issue revolves around government and support agencies not providing the amount of care and support that is required to improve the quality of life and accommodation of those touched by autism (i.e. not respecting what they see as the conditions required to respect the right to proper and adequate support).

I would suggest that the actions of many in response to the lack of respect that they feel they should be accorded are negatively affecting the wellbeing of all. But of course, "They started it!", so they will rail against and wait for the ‘other’ to fix the issues rather than seeking to build consensus around points on which they can agree. I would only half jokingly suggest that all involved need a course in ‘Interest Group Accommodation’. As a hint, more success can often be had by sitting at the table where the decisions are being made than by banging on the door outside. The goal is to get to the table, not to impotently make noise. Has anyone ever heard of the politics of entryism?

Some may argue that ‘rights’ are not items to be negotiated. But that is not what I am saying. Instead, I’ll use the analogy of the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Neither side was particularly accommodating of the other, nor were they willing to cede their rights where interests clashed. And at least in the Soviet case the expectation was not of long term co-existence but of an eventual ‘inevitable’ victory of communism and elimination of the other side (in its existing political form) as an opponent. Yet the two sides were still able to find common ground and agreement on more than a few issues that they shared in common, to mutual gain, while still remaining true to their long term goals.

4. What can we do to help resolve these issues?

Regardless of whether the other person deserves respect, one's own conduct is a separate issue. As María Luján quoted me on her blog:

"The real test of moral conduct is how one acts in the face of provocation. Someone else's bad behaviour towards me gives me the right to respond and to defend myself, but it does not give me carte blanche to respond in kind."

That is not an easy statement to live up to, and I would not even begin to suggest that I am successful in doing so in life. But one has to start somewhere. If my moral code goes out the window whenever someone challenges me, then what is it worth? To me, the correct response to clearly improper and sustained conduct is to point out the behavioural failings while remaining civil and true to one’s own code of civil conduct. Easier said than done. But if I bring myself down to the level of behaviour that I am objecting to then what have I gained?

To me, it all boils down to ‘Why are we participating in this *debate*?’ I am here to learn, possibly to contribute something back, and to act as a representative for my daughter until she is ready to take on this role for herself. I stand a better chance of accomplishing these goals if others are willing to engage in a dialogue. I am not here to make enemies - this is counterproductive. Some may be angered by my opposition to their viewpoints. That cannot be helped. But I can try my best to ensure that no one has as an excuse to shut down dialogue that I have personally and maliciously attacked them.

So, on to my point. Regardless of whether I respect someone, I owe it to them (usually), myself (definitely) and my daughter (definitely) to conduct myself in a civil manner, to remain true to my own ideals and code of conduct. I would suggest that – ultimately – this is the more powerful response. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that one should not defend oneself, or refrain from criticizing the arguments of others. Far from it, and I believe that I am quite vigorous in defending myself. But I am suggesting that there is a big difference between defending oneself and sinking to the level of one’s opponent.

5. How well do you think this will be accomplished?

On a personal level, I will try my best to be respectful of others, and at a minimum remain civil. At times I will fail (and should be called on this), but this is not an excuse to not try.

From an autism community standpoint, my expectations are low in the short term. It doesn't take long to find posts that have descended into slanging matches, or even posts that started at that level. Longer term, I think that answers provided by science, combined with the fact that the current generation of autistic children will one day become adults and influence the debate - probably in ways that will surprise all ‘sides’ - will be positive developments.

One of the keys to altering the tone of the debate is 'understanding' (again, this is distinct from 'agreement'), which is currently in short supply. I believe that as we learn more about autism we will find more items on which we can agree. But that will be a very long process.

As a final note, the above should not be construed as suggestive of anyone in particular. I would say that I have no issues with anyone who has commented on my blog to date (not just because they have commented here, but because we have ultimately been able to engage in a reasonable dialogue over time, even when we disagree). While I have had run-ins with some in the past, I have tried not to let it get personal, and I have found that one can (at least so far) eventually get to engage in a reasonable dialogue. I hope that others have found the same with me. As suggested on my ‘About Me’, we don't need to agree: I learn the most from those I don't agree with. And I would like to keep the discussion going.