A Mind of My Own

Chapter Twelve — I Just Don’t Understand (Part 3)

Another term The Girls used was “semantic pragmatic disorder.” When someone can’t get past the literal meaning of words, they might have Semantic Pragmatic Disorder.

Verbal communication messages are made up of words, tone and body language. If you don’t process the gestures – the nods and changing facial expressions, the smiling, the stepping back or leaning forward – you’re missing a big chunk of the message.

Not only did Malcolm have a huge problem processing the non-verbal signals like tone and body language, but he also had a huge problem understanding the words. At four years old, Malcolm had the vocabulary of an 18-month old baby. He knew some nouns and verbs, but not many.

Have you ever seen the Charlie Brown movies where the teacher is speaking and all the children hear is “Mwa, mwa, mwa?” That was what Malcolm might as well have been hearing for all the understanding he had. By the time he got to Grade 1, he was up to the vocabulary of a three year old.  Yes, we were making progress, but Malcolm was only understanding, on average, one in every twelve words said to him. It’s pretty hard to learn anything under those circumstances.

In most conversations, it is important to try to understand the point of view of the other person, which brings us to our next buzz-phrase: “theory of mind:. Many people with Asperger’s have difficulty understanding that other people have their own thoughts and feelings. Because they have no “theory of mind,” they assume that other people have the same knowledge as they do. It’s one of the reasons most people with Asperger’s can’t lie. After all, from their point of view, if they know the truth, the other person must know it too. And it’s why they can’t understand how people could lie to them, leaving them as the brunt of many a practical joke.

This lack of theory of mind also explains why an Asperger’s person’s bluntness can be so off-putting for other people. When Malcolm told his friend Teddy that she should sing the song “Wake me up when September ends,” because her dad was dead, Teddy got mad and sad. It seemed that Malcolm was trying to hurt her, reminding her of her loss and being brutal about it. But he wasn’t. Since Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day had written the song to celebrate his own dead father, Malcolm was making a link. Billy Joe’s dad was dead and he sang the song, so Teddy should sing the song because her dad was dead.

Try explaining theory of mind to an upset 12-year-old. Not so easy. I just let it blow over. But Malcolm will continue to shove his proverbial foot in his mouth because he doesn’t see from the other person’s perspective and can’t imagine how the other person feels, unless he’s feeling it himself.

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Gail Vaz-Oxlade

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5 Responses to “A Mind of My Own”

  1. Gail,
    I love reading all of your posts but the mind of my own posts are just fantastic.
    I still can’t figure out how one person can be so amazing though!
    I really hope that eventually you publish these -I think your perspective and open hearted advice will make a difference in the world :)

  2. Great post!

  3. eye-opening! (Now there’s a non-literal phrase!)

  4. Thanks again for sharing your story. Have a good weekend!

  5. I love reading your posts and do think you are truly amazing. My son has autism, microcephaly and sensory processing disorder. I’m excited about his future because we are working so hard with him. I wish I could meet you some day. I truly look up to you, your advice and your modeling of self.

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