Theory of Mind, Thanksgiving, and Moving Forward


A commendation on a very rough day.

As many of you may know, Michael was laid off last month (right before his birthday). It’s put a decided crimp on our holiday cheer, but we’re trying to focus on the positive. He’s got some good leads, but as this is a perilously difficult time to get a job we’re hunkering down and preparing for the months to come.

When it comes to Liam’s school though, we’ll do everything we can keep him there as long as possible. In spite of his very good week the last time we posted, he’s had a tough go. Not without moments of triumph, but certainly harder than usual. Unlike normative children, he struggles to put into words what’s bothering him — we know that Michael’s job loss weighs heavily on him, and that he understands his school is costly.

But there are things in life that are beyond price.

As difficult as the past few weeks have been, including the drive out here to the Coast, Liam’s overall success is beyond belief for us. As parents who have tried everything, and failed at every turn (or so it feels), there are no words for what this means for us and for him.

From his teacher (and at the end of an email about his recent swearing problem at school… sigh… — and yes, he’s 8, but he’s huge so I totally understand referring to him as 9…)

– He is working very hard and is one of, if not THE most noticeably improved student(s) in our class.
– His self-control is lightyears beyond what it was in September.  He catches himself calling out and will raise his hand and wait patiently to be called on every day in class, (most of the time he doesn’t even have to do that! He just raises his hand and waits!). He stands quietly in line. He completes 80% of our transitional “silent minutes”, of which we have SEVERAL each day, with next to no issues.
– His frustration threshold is growing quickly, and he has been learning and utilizing new skills to identify and ebb the flow of explosive emotions.
– He can accept not getting what he wants, without blowing up, yelling, screaming, or crying, (not every time, but those make for great teaching moments).
– He has been responding well, the first time, to redirection, (again, not every time, but more often than not), even if it’s a redirect away from something he wants to do, or doesn’t agree with.
– He’s using his words to express his emotions, not just getting upset and throwing an incoherent fit.
– He is blossoming socially. He has lots of friends, and is quickly learning the interactions and skills necessary to make even more!  Watching him generously sharing his RC Cars with peers, (even if it meant he didn’t get the fast one, or one at all!), was so much fun!  Almost every day on the playground, he’s a just a plain old 9 year old kid, not a 9 year old with autism, or a 9 year old with the social awareness of a 2-3 year old, (I hope that hits the note I intended it to…).  It’s weird for me to think back to the first day of school, and Liam crying, refusing to go stray even a step from Michael’s side, or speak a word to me or any other person at the school.

One of his biggest struggles lately has to do with what’s called “theory of mind” — in short, that’s his empathetic ability (or lack therof) and the skill that means he can understand that people around him have thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and emotions that aren’t necessarily like his. Sometimes it’s harmless and just annoying, like the 70 times he kept talking to me about a certain car schematic in a game even when I politely told him that I’d heard enough and was focusing on something else. That Michael and I aren’t crazy about Minecraft and cars doesn’t occur to him, even when we’ve told him dozens and dozens and dozens of times.

It extends to emotions, especially our emotions. If I’m sad or upset (and let’s face it — unemployment during the holiday, plus a kid with Aspergers, and my own work/life balance is a stressful pot), Liam just doesn’t understand — it comes off as if he doesn’t care, often, and then he acts up as a kind of pressure release. It doesn’t work. But for Liam, he’s always projecting his own expectations onto the people around him: how they behave, why they do what they do, what they’re thinking. If you tell him you feel a way that he doesn’t agree with, he’ll push back. “No it’s not.” “No you’re not.”

He may get better at this, but he may not. What truly goes on in his mind is beyond me some days, and I pray he learns to understand and accept people around him and learn to let go of his innate inflexibility of change. And his fear of change. And his fear or other people’s emotions and thoughts (because I think that’s a big part of it). “I don’t care” are words I hate more than anything in his vocabulary. Even if he doesn’t mean it half the time.

As his mother, I want to foster a sense of empathy and love for the people around him, even if it’s buried deeper than in most. There is safety in building up a fortress around yourself — at least it seems that way — and opening yourself up is a dangerous, often painful experience. But it’s what connects us. And around our small but beautiful Thanksgiving table this week, that’s what I thought about.

I hope some day he will truly know how much he’s loved and supported.

I think he’s starting to.

Apropos of nothing the other day, he said to me, “You know, Mom, 2014 has been the best year ever!”

“Oh?” I asked. “Why’s that?”

“Because I found the best school in the whole world!” he cried, as if I was the biggest dope (his favorite new word) in the world. (This coming from the kid who’d throw up to get out of class starting in kindergarten, and systematically hated almost every teacher or aid he came in contact with.)

I should have known.

Oh, he wants remote controlled cars and video games and car kits for Christmas. But it’s my job to know what his true needs are. And he’s told me, right there. There’s nothing more important than keeping him in school.

I know the holidays are tough for everyone. But if you’re shopping on Amazon or doing charity shopping for the holidays, we ask you might consider Liam. Every little bit adds up, especially in this season. Especially right now.