One trait commonly associated with autism in the research literature is alexithymia, which refers to difficulty expressing feelings in words. Although many people have had occasional experiences of not being able to find the right word to describe how they feel, psychological studies have shown that autistics are likely to report having such experiences more often than others. In one well-known study (Hill, Berthoz, & Frith, J Autism Dev Disord Vol. 34, No. 2, April 2004) which used the Toronto Alexithymia Scale, approximately 85 percent of the autistic participants received scores that indicated some degree of alexithymia. By contrast, only 17 percent of the non-autistic group received such scores.
The researchers speculated that the higher alexithymia scores of autistics may be related to having a mode of thought that is not based on theory of mind reasoning. I believe they’re on the right track here; but when considering the conclusions to which it leads, as the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” Or in this case, perhaps, a gleefully chuckling pantheon of imps and poltergeists and various assorted pagan deities.
Theory of mind is a form of social reasoning that involves making quick judgments about the apparent intentions, emotional states, and thought processes of others. When viewed in the historical context of brutal warrior societies, where one mistake in judging a man’s intentions might mean death, its evolutionary survival value is obvious. No doubt many autistics in the ancient world met the fate of Archimedes, who scolded a Roman soldier for disturbing his circle diagrams while not realizing that the soldier was about to kill him.
In matriarchal cultures with little violence, a style of thought developed that recognizes more ambiguity and complexity. Andrew Lehman (citing Gregory Bateson) characterizes it as primary process. Mark Stairwalt, using the terminology of archetypal psychology, refers to it as a polytheistic style of consciousness.
Research studies in psychological science often are designed to require participants to choose from among simple answers. This is well suited to the reasoning process of those who operate in theory-of-mind mode. But what happens when questionnaires written in this format are given to people whose brains are hard-wired to perceive more ambiguity and to contemplate the resulting pantheon of possibilities?
I’ll use as an example one of the items from the Toronto Alexithymia Scale, as quoted in the study mentioned above. It asks for a yes-or-no answer to this statement: “When I am upset, I don’t know if I am sad, frightened or angry.”
Although I would describe myself as having a fairly even temper in general, I have to admit that I was somewhat upset on Saturday afternoon. My original plan was to enjoy a lazy day at the start of the holiday, but instead I ended up doing yard work for hours. When my husband went outside to mow the lawn, he pointed out to me that the neighbors’ hedge had overgrown part of our side yard and was starting to kill the grass underneath it. So I got enlisted to cut the hedge back to the property line while my husband did the mowing.
He was clearly right that it needed to be done, and I wasn’t angry with him. Still, it was frustrating to have my plan for a quiet day interrupted by work that I hadn’t been expecting. I started to cut off branches and put them in yard waste bags, grumbling to myself about how trifling and irresponsible the neighbors were for not maintaining their hedge properly. Oh well, at least I was in the shade, where the temperature was reasonably pleasant.
I could hear birds chirping somewhere in the hedge and the traffic passing by on the highway. Sometimes the noise from the highway leaves me feeling anxious because it creates a subconscious impression of being in a rush and never having enough time (as I described here), but on a holiday weekend, I didn’t mind the highway noise. To some extent it left me feeling a sense of connection to the world going past me; but there was also a melancholy aspect to it, having to do with how quickly life passes.
Then my husband, who had been mowing next to our back fence, got too close to a wasps’ nest without noticing it and got stung. I heard him yell, and for a moment I was alarmed, wondering if he had been injured by the mower. But then he told me what had happened, as he went back to the garage to get a can of wasp spray, and I felt relieved that it wasn’t anything serious.
So… was I sad, frightened, or angry on Saturday afternoon? If I could give such a simple answer, I wouldn’t have written the previous four paragraphs. And therein lies the problem.