Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I’m a bit judgy. Not in a bad way, I don’t judge peoples’ character- just their actions. These days at least. I will fully admit that as a child, I was pretty terrible. And it all comes down to one thing: Theory of mind.
This topic is one that that comes up a lot in the Autism discussion and tends to be highly debated. Some professionals believe that Autistic people don’t have it at all, while others argue that it, like many other autism symptoms, exists on a spectrum. This is what I’m inclined to believe as well.
The way Theory of Mind is explained is when someone has Theory of Mind, they know that other people have thoughts and feeling different than their own. So, just because I’m feeling sad, doesn’t mean the person next to me is also sad. Neurotypical children develop this skill at about four years old, and oh boy can I tell you, I definitely did not know anything like this when I was four. Or five. Or ten or twenty.
Let’s just call me what I was- a judgeypants. I judged everything everyone did, mostly because they were doing things that I didn’t like. Let’s just pop into my kindergarten-aged brain for a moment. At that age, I despised bananas. I still do, but that’s not the point. So if someone’s eating a banana next to me, I’m disgusted. I can see the texture, I can smell that pungent banana smell, and I feel one thing. Hate. My heart is bursting with banana hate, but my brain, however, is beginning to judge. Bananas are terrible. Why would this person eat something that they hated so much? This was a question that I couldn’t answer, and it brought forth the judgments.
Do you see where I went wrong? It’s pretty obvious now, but back then, it never crossed my mind that someone could have different opinions than me. So what was I supposed to think? The way I was observing the world, people kept doing things they hated, eating things they hated, and the worst part, they didn’t even have the gall to act like they hated it! Or so I felt. That was all intertwined at that point.
Embarrassingly, no one challenged me on the difference between My feelings and Their feelings until I was in my twenties. I use the word challenged because the idea had been mentioned before, but I had elected to ignore it because it confused me. Which is pretty much how I dealt with things up through my mid-twenties. I don’t suggest it.
For me, even thinking about Theory of Mind related things kind of hurts my brain. Logically, I know that everyone’s brain’s work differently, and that my thoughts are unique to me, but it takes me that extra step to get to that knowledge. I regularly have to remind myself to remember what the other person might be thinking. And at first, I had to do this every time I talked to someone. Anytime one of us expressed a feeling or an opinion, I had to say “Self, don’t forget that they’re their own person.” Every. Single. Time. Thank goodness, if you do this long enough, it becomes pretty automatic, and on top of that, you start being able to recognize that feeling, that internal judgeypants feeling bubbling up and you’re able to respond to it before it becomes an external judgeypants situation.
There’s an activity that tests for Theory of Mind, called the Sally-Ann Test, if you want to look it up, and it is the most frustrating thing in the world for me. I’ve taken it on my own, and with a psychologist, and even though I know what the right answer is, I can’t stop my brain from picking the wrong one. I know the answer! How dare my brain make me wrong! I suppose that shows the strength of Theory of Mind; even when you’re right, you’re wrong.
I feel like most professionals look at Theory of Mind as an interesting tidbit of Autism, and they don’t acknowledge the huge effect that it has on social abilities. Children especially use play to practice social skills, and knowing that other people think and feel differently than you is like the number one social skill. It’s a skill that gets more important the older you get, at least in my experience. One thing I’ve realized about myself is that I am very intolerant people feeling differently than me. Not so much in a difference of opinion, but if I’m angry and no one else around me is, it makes me almost irrationally upset, because I spent the first twenty-some-odd years of my life assuming that everyone felt like I did.
While it’s hard to keep myself from having that immediate reaction, I’ve gotten much better at not letting it alter my actions. I do this by drawing on my innately curious nature and challenge myself every time to tell myself a story about what they might be thinking. Of why they might be thinking that. Using one of my favorite autism coping skills, “Turn It Into A Puzzle”, I not only get to practice thinking about other peoples’ internal processes, but I also get to explore why I’m feeling what I’m feeling.
So, am I still a judgeypants? It could be said that since I’m able to recognize and quickly shut down my judgments, that I have shed my judgy ways. But I think I would argue otherwise. My argument would that judgment is not inherently harmful, and that used correctly, can even be a positive. I see my judgeypants status as making a good thing out of a not so good thing. Which in my experience, is what being autistic is all about. So I’ll shout it from a mountain top. I’m Curious. I’m Autistic. And I. Am. JUDGEYPANTS.