Thoughts on the Mindset of Individual People
(Author's note: I would like to thank Jason Bradford and his research on neurobiology for inspiring many of the ideas on this website. Dr. Bradford is an ecologist and an author about environmental issues that are present in the world today. He has also done research about what causes people to be delusional. His essay, "The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion," provided the basis for some ideas that are presented in this essay, especially the idea describing how people are unable to get it about autism for logical, mental reasons. While his essay describes similar ideas in terms of people's failure to understand ecological issues, it also was useful in explaining to me why people in the autism community sometimes fail to understand ideas and ways to help autistic individuals that appear to be pretty simple to others. Anthropologist Marvin Harris' philosophies on "cultural materialism"--the belief that the way people think and their way of life is just as much based on the reality in which they live as well as their religion--also influenced this essay as well.)
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I will always be indebted to my mother for my entire life. She was the person who gave me the opportunity to live in an environment where I am free to write my essays on autism, and present about autism. She was the one who helped me become the person I needed to be, and to acknowledge at times when I needed to be myself even when she disagreed with how I felt. In her words: “I don’t always acquiesce to your stress, but I’m always on your side.” My mother is, of course, a neurotypical person. But she is very understanding. And she has introduced me to many other neurotypical people who are also understanding of my autism as well.
However, I have met many neurotypical people who are unwilling to acknowledge and respect somebody’s autism. They either think it is non-existent, or if they think it exists, believe it must be exterminated at all costs. Or they believe it is the responsibility of the child to “deal with his autism” because that’s what he “has to learn how to do” in order to live his life. Or they look at a depressed autistic person and try to cure his depression by suggesting he do things that neurotypical people like to do, like go out and find a friend to talk to. Many neurotypical individuals have bluntly stated to me that I am not autistic.
So I have wondered—why is this? Why is it that some neurotypical individuals are so adamantly unwilling to acknowledge autism? And at the same time, why is it that other neurotypical individuals are willing to acknowledge autism? What is going on in their mind? Originally, when I was eight and nine, I thought those people were just bad people. But as I got older, I realized that those people did not think of themselves as bad people. Finally, at an autism convention, I got into a discussion with other autistic individuals about the issue of fire drills. Our debate topic was this—do you tell a child in advance prior to a fire drill if they are sensitive to the loud noise or not? I had thought such a debate was unnecessary, for I believe that such an accommodation is obvious in that situation. However, I was wrong. Three people in our discussion adamantly stated that you cannot tell a child in advance prior to a drill for their own specific reason. Pretty soon our discussion was polarized on whether or not you agreed or didn’t, and the debate got nowhere. I said my goodbyes, got up, and left. I realized that I had come across to them as an adamant person about a ridiculous belief, which was the same way I felt about them. I was incapable of changing their mind—and they were not going to change mine.
I found something interesting. The people who were against notifying kids prior to a drill all had been in situations where the alarm sounded in school and it wasn’t a drill—but it was a false alarm. The basis for their belief was that since you aren’t told in a real fire, why should you be given notification if it’s a drill? On the other hand, those who supported my view all knew children who could be benefited if they knew prior to a drill—and believed that in the best of all possible worlds, drills should be notified so that people will know if it’s a real fire or a false alarm, and then know when to be serious about the event.
Why was everyone so adamant about their opinions, however? I thought about this for a while, and then I remembered something.
I remembered all of the fights my mother had with professionals about my autism. I realized that the arguments at this table were not that different with the fights my mother had. And because of this, I’ve come to realize that there are logical reasons why some neurotypical minds, in some cases, are apparently incapable of understanding autistic people or accepting the concept of autism. I am not a psychologist or a neurobiologist. But here’s what I’ve found out.
People are, for the most part, a product of two things. One, their life experiences—what they have experienced and what they have heard other people experience. Even if a person has only heard someone else’s experiences, they have experienced hearing that person, and thus that knowledge is still a part of their mind. Also, if a person knows something exists but has never seen it—for example, seeing the city of Tokyo on a map but never actually going to Tokyo, they have still experienced acquiring the knowledge that the city of Tokyo exists.
Two, how they have perceived those experiences—whether they have felt something was bad, good, or neutral. Children who grow up in a strict Christian household can either feel stimulated or stifled, and this will determine whether they will either grow up becoming atheists, strict Christians, or moderate Christians. Our experiences and how we perceive them take part in creating our aspirations, our hopes, our dreams, our likes and dislikes, and ultimately, what we want from our lives. But what’s most important of all is the creation of our mindset. Our mindset consists of our beliefs, morals, values, and agenda, which can also be connected with our hopes, dreams, etc. Mindsets can range from small issues to bigger issues, from the five-year-old who thinks its unfair that he or she cannot have another candy bar to the Christian fundamentalist who thinks that his family has sinned and will be going to hell.
But people’s mindsets do not necessarily equate to their actions. People, especially if they are forced to, often times do things antithetical to their morals, or wants, or goals. However, just because they are doing those things doesn’t mean that they are doing it because they want to. Consider the civilians who lived during the Great Depression worldwide or World War II in America and England. Food and everything else was rationed or unavailable. Everyone had to be frugal. (However, what was a part of their mindset was helping their country get through the war—in other words, to fight on the home front.) But as shown from the shopping frenzies after the war, the fact that everyone was frugal during that era didn’t mean that being frugal was a part of their mindset. In fact, the opposite was true. Being frugal for most people had not trained them to be naturally frugal; rather, it had programmed them to want more than they wanted before they were frugal because they just couldn’t bear it anymore.
However, during the process of the formulation of one’s mindset, a mind-blowing event occurs in each human mind, regardless of whether they are normal or autistic, and whether it is accepted or refuted by the individual who goes through it. We learn something that forever changes our lives. We learn that the perceptions of other people are not ours. Their thoughts are not ours. They do not share our individual passions. They hate what we enjoy. And it’s not because they’re bad people. They just are different from us. And eventually we grow to either accept those differences. We might understand what they might be feeling in a situation based on what they have told us. In other words, we develop a “theory of mind.”
Or we disagree with the other person, and either accept the opposing view or believe the person is arrogant, crazy, an extremist, and/or a nut.
It is this mind-blowing event that occurs that determines how much of a theory of mind we will have in the future, and our ability to understand and feel for other people. Some people go even further and incorporate their mindset into another mindset, and even change their lives in accordance, such as people who change their careers when they find they feel much more “at home” with their new life, or change their religious faiths when they agree with the teachings of a specific religion. Others, however, are incapable of understanding any mindset except themselves, and to change would be unthinkable. This can be witnessed frequently in American politics. Liberals and conservatives collectively fail to understand each other because they have two different senses of reality. They cannot agree with each other without their worldviews being shattered.
Now let’s take a look at this event as it occurs between two conflicting mindsets—the normal mind and the autistic mind.
Take a look at the autistic mind. Here you have a mind that perceives things drastically different from the normal mind. This is where the trouble arises. The normal mind, with its style of thinking, grows accustomed to thinking a specific way. It is tolerant in situations where normal people typically suffer. But it is intolerant in situations where normal people should be behaving properly. Then the normal mind sees the autistic person, and does not know that autistic person has a totally different way of perceiving the world. And the normal person, with his normal mind, might be incapable of thinking outside his normal mind, and to consider the possibility that the thoughts of the autistic mind are valid, and might even deny they exist entirely.
[NOTE: “Normal” is defined as what is accepted by the majority of people in a situation (social, business, etc.) compared to a single person or a minority. Although this may differ between different cultures, all cultures have behaviors they consider normal.)
Is this due to arrogance? Sometimes, yes. Just as many conservatives arrogantly refuse to consider anything outside the box of conservatism, many normal people refuse to understand, or try to acquire understanding in autism. Indeed, some normal minds, as a part of their way of thinking, deliberately refuse to consider understanding autistic people. To these people, autistic people are wrong and they’re right. To paraphrase a well-known line, stated several times from the movie Matilda:
“I’m smart, you’re dumb. I’m big, you’re small. I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
This sums up the attitude of many normal people toward autistic children.
But normal people are not all arrogant. Some normal people want to understand autistic children, and want to develop a “theory of mind” toward the autistic perception. But they simply cannot. Their inability is not due to their unwillingness, but because of the way they think. And some people want to know how to think differently. If they succeed, it will be because they can think outside of themselves and their perceptions.
To show the normal person, in terms related to their experiences with autism, how a person’s mindset causes them to fail them, I shall now show you the formation, and the ultimate confrontation between a specific mindset—the mindset of friendship. This is one of those mindsets that frequently clash between normal and autistic people. And it all starts, initially, at what is perceived.
I have two sisters—both neurotypical. The older one is now thirteen. As she has grown up, I have witnessed numerous kids enter the house who are and were her friends. Kids that my sister enjoyed being with kept coming back. Kids she didn’t like anymore or her parents didn’t think she should spend time with stopped coming. But overall, my sister perceived friendship as something desirable. One thing my sister looked forward to every year was a trip to Indianapolis where we’d go see my aunt and uncle, and she could play with her cousin. Last time I visited them, I soon learned that my cousin quit playing in the band because she learned she couldn’t do anything social with anyone in the band, and, as my aunt put it, “she is a very social person.”
Now, here’s what happens in the mind as these experiences unfold. There’s a part of the mind that takes a perception and remembers it. Then it takes future perceptions, and remembers them. Eventually, it analyzes these perceptions, and if it sees a logical pattern, the mind formulates a belief based on what it sees. This becomes a mindset, which consists of the experience and the perception of the experience. So every time my sister and my cousin had a good friendship, and enjoyed it, their mind formulated the following mindset: “Friendships are good and desirable.” How did this happen? It came because of their experiences of friendship, and their perception of those friendships as “something good.”
Then, as my sister got older, she soon saw that she liked specific friendships better than other friendships. Some people were nicer to her than others. Thus, her mindset changed. “My friendship with so-and-so is good. My friendship with so-and-so is bad. I relate to my friend for a specific reason.” But the general part of her mindset did not change: “Friendship, in of itself, is good.” And with these feelings, loyalty emerges. The need to defend this mindset, if challenged, becomes apparent. My sister often defended her right to have a friend, or her right to spend time with her friend over her family if she was challenged by her parents. In her mind, she was defending a desirable friendship. And sometimes my mother would allow her to have a friend she did not agree with, acknowledging a different view.
But now, imagine what would happen if my sister was raised differently. Even though my sister did experience rejection many times, what if every person she tried to make friends to as a child rejected her? What if, every time she asked to play with someone, they said, “No. Go away.” What if, whenever she tried to do anything with another child, the other child rejected her, or even made fun of her? And finally, what if a neighboring adult punished her and yelled at her for doing something embarrassing, and sent her to her room every time she tried to do something social?
This might seem as something you’d see in a fantasy book, but no, it is in fact the experiences of most autistic children.
Since the perception is much different, even though the experiences might be the same, a different mindset would emerge. “Friendship, in of itself, is undesirable and should be avoided.” And this is the mindset of many autistic children. And when they are forced to make a friend, they will try to defend that mindset at all costs.
So the neurotypical child grows up, becomes an adult, and retains that mindset that friendship is desirable. Then the neurotypical adult becomes a parent. Now let’s assume that child is autistic. And the parent’s child has grown up with the autistic mindset that friendship is undesirable. When the parent decides it’s time for the child to make a friend, the confrontation occurs. The autistic child resists his parent, and the parent forces the child to interact. Or the confrontation occurs with the social worker. One of the “mandatory” goals in school is that the child make a friend, and so the social worker prepares the child for this moment by “scripting” him, telling him everything he must know to make a friend. But friendships and social interactions are the result of spontaneous decisions, not scripted material. So it inevitably fails, and the autistic child is just simply rejected even more.
The autistic child cannot understand why he HAS to make a friend. The normal adult cannot understand why he cannot stand friendship, and even thinks that he or she is doing a wonderful thing to the autistic person’s life, even after the autistic child has said “no” numerous times. And all this is based on their experiences. Their experiences are telling them that what they are doing is logical whereas the other person is illogical. And that is, in most cases, the groundwork for a fight or a power struggle.
For those of you who believe an autistic child who wants to be alone should, you might be wondering: “Why can’t the normal adult respect the autistic child?” For those of you who believe the normal adult has to teach the autistic child friendship, you might be wondering: “Why can’t the autistic child acknowledge this?”
Remember, some of us can change our mindsets in the fact of countervailing evidence, and even embrace this evidence. Others cannot. Those who can understand autism will have had to do this at one point, and thus are able to change their mindsets regarding autism. Those who want to understand autism will welcome information that changes their mindset, as they have been looking for it all this time. To others, such evidence can only be pushed so far until the mind rebels. They cannot change their mindsets without a fight. The fact that they are getting defensive when you, the parent, are trying to explain your child’s autism to them tells you that the prospect of their mindset being under attack is too much for them, and it would be too painful to change. So for those of you who are wondering why so many neurotypical people (or anyone) “don’t get it,” realize that their life experiences have created a mindset which has made them unable to understand the autistic person.
If someone is consumed by their mindset, they’re not going to change. This is not specific to people without autism—many autistic people have been equally rigid as neurotypical people. This illustrates that while the autistic mind and the neurotypical mind do differ, there are many things that we have in common as well.
And remember, history teaches us that those who adamantly cling to their values do not change. They die defending it. If their society changed it’s because the people who clung to those values all died out. Your goal is not to change a person’s mindset if they will not change—but to instead surround yourself with those who share your mindset.
However, because the life experiences of an autistic person are different than for a normal person, in order for a normal person to understand an autistic person and vice-versa, they will inevitably have to think outside their own experiences. That is why this issue is so important. It’s also important because everything, even the theories I mention above, almost always has an exception, and just because a person hasn’t seen an exception to a rule doesn’t mean an exception might not arise in the future.
It is still ironic, however, that it is this rigidity, this mind-blindness, this unwilling to change, and the inability to change mindsets, that we typically blame the autistic person for, when neurotypical people are equally guilty in their own way.