|Tate, age 3 ½|
Tate thinks very literally and this often causes him to misunderstand the world around him. People with autism also struggle with separating reality from fantasy. One of the first times I realized how handicapped this made Tate was when he was around three or four years old. Tate and I were walking in a building on Kansas University’s campus and we came face-to-face with a woman wearing a hijab with a veil covering everything except her eyes. As we walked by her, Tate nonchalantly said “oh, a ghost.” He didn’t ask any questions. There was no alarm in his voice, no double-take, or any kind of disbelief at all. He called it like he saw it. He saw a ghost walking down a hall. End of story.
A few days ago, we were driving through our small town and Tate saw a black sports car trimmed in lime green parked in a drive way. Tate said, matter-of-factly, “The Green Lantern lives there.” No big deal. A super hero lives in our town. One plus one equals two, after all. Like that “ghost” and the Green Lantern, many other costumed characters have been accepted by Tate as true to life personalities. I think this, and a lot of the other difficulties Tate has interpreting his world, can be traced back to the theory of mind issue. Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings too and people are not always thinking and feeling the same way you are. It takes theory of mind to be able to empathize with others, read body language, pretend, and understand a lot of humor. Tate cannot see why anyone would have a motive to pretend to be anything they are not. This is the part that can get a person with autism in a lot of trouble when mom is not there to watch out for them anymore. Typically developing children gain some street smarts at a fairly young age. They learn to “read between the lines.” They learn that sometimes people tell lies, pretend to be things they are not, and manipulate others so they can get what they want. Typically developing kids also learn to see some gray between all the black and white rules we live by. Kids with autism don’t often learn all the exceptions to rules and gain the street smarts. People with autism can be taken advantage of very easily.
Seeing a ghost and believing a car in town belongs to a super hero are things I can chuckle about but it makes me wonder how far it could go. We see wildlife in the yard quite often. A whole flock of turkeys walked across our yard today. If a tiger sauntered across the yard while Tate was outside swinging I wonder if he would come inside to tell me or just casually say “hmmm, a tiger” and keep on swinging.
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