Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Autism Diaries: Strange Stories

Jill wanted to buy a kitten, so she went to see Mrs. Smith, who had lots of kittens she didn't want. Now Mrs. Smith loved the kittens, and she wouldn't do anything to harm them. When Jill visited she wasn't sure she wanted one of Mrs. Smith's kittens, since they were all males and she wanted a female. But Mrs. Smith said, "If no one buys the kittens, I'll just have to drown the kittens."
Question: Why does Mrs. Smith say this to Jill?
A "Strange Story" from Francesca Happe.
In her article "Understanding Minds and Metaphors: Insights from the Study of Figurative Language in Autism," Francesca Happe notes that even the highest functioning of her autistic subjects, those with normal IQs and relatively high Theory of Mind skills, made glaring errors in answering "Strange Story" questions like the one above about Mrs. Smith saying she would drown the kittens. A high functioning 17-year-old with autism, for example, said that Mrs. Smith's utterance was just a joke.

I haven't yet presented this story to J, who consistently rates as moderately autistic--and most decidedly not mildly autistic. But a recent exchange in the kitchen makes me want to (stay tuned).

"Why are you in the kitchen?" he asked.

Because I'm a neurotypical person with Theory of Mind skills in the normal range (for example, I know why Mrs. Smith told Jill she would drown the kittens), I can deduce J's subtext. He wants me to leave the kitchen so he can eat his supper in peace, without me suggesting that he use his knife and fork properly or informing him that it's late December so we don't need the fan on fast.

"Why are you in the kitchen?" he repeats.

"Because I like to be with you," I say.

"You're just joking."

"Why would I joke about that? I'm your mother and I like being with you."

"Why are you here?"

Discretely rubbing my arms against the brisk fan air, I try a new answer. "I'm enjoying the breeze in here."

Brief pause. Because I'm a neurotypical person with Theory of Mind skills in the normal range, I know he's stuck. Questioning my claim raises the uncomfortable question about why the fan is on.

But then, in an arch tone I've never heard him use before, followed by a victorious grin: "You're just trying to get me to turn the fan off!"

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

For those in your audience who may not be fully NT, can you give the answer?

Is it ... ( www.rot13.com )

Zef. Fzvgu vf gelvat gb thvyg Wvyy vagb gnxvat n xvggra? Ohg jul jbhyq Zef. Fzvgu rira guvax gung jbhyq jbex? Rvgure Wvyy vf AG naq xabjf gung Zef. Fzvgu vf gelvat gb znxr ure srry thvygl, be Wvyy vf fbzrjung USN naq qbrfa'g haqrefgnaq jul Zef. Fzvgu jbhyq fnl fhpu n aba frdhvghe.

Or is it ...

Zef. Fzvgu vf frevbhf, naq fur unf gb qebja gur xvggraf gb xrrc gurz sebz tebjvat hc naq zngvat jvgu nyy bs gur fgenl srznyr pngf be ure bja srznyr png gung vf gur zbgure bs gur xvggraf?

Who knows why humans do the things they do? For some of us, every human interaction is an exercise in anthropological/sociological experimentation. The older we get, the more interactions we have, the better we are about guessing other people's motivations, but the secret is, we're still just guessing.

Hainish said...

A high functioning 17-year-old with autism, for example, said that Mrs. Smith's utterance was just a joke.

Can we give this 17-year-old (and others) the benefit of the doubt? While "just joking" may not be the most accurate description of what's going on, it's really not far off the mark either.

Anyhow, Mrs. Smith is a horrifying figure in this story, which manages *at best* to be discomforting. I wonder how many non-NT participants in the study got that, vs. NT controls.

lgm said...

My NT teens would not say the answer involves humor. They would say it involves greed, as Mrs. Smith is trying to profit without regard to Jill's needs and would likely kill the kittens instead of setting them free if she didnt get enough money from a customer. It is highly unlikely she would actually give the kittens away free to a good home if she is making remarks like that to a customer.

If humor was the intent of the remark, the author would have indicated so by using more descriptive writing. At the minimum said jokingly' instead of 'said', but more likely with additional wording to set the scene. A fine example of poor writing.

Jeff Boulier said...

For anonymous' rot-13: Pretty sure your first answer is correct. NT doesn't mean you're psychic, it just means you're (usually) more likely to figure out why people do the things they do.