Barb Cohen

Mom, Am I Disabled?

Learning to Tell a Lie

Theory of Mind, neural plasticity, and the maturing autistic brain

Posted Jan 12, 2017

"Johnathan Meath as Santa Clause"/Jonathan Meath/CC BY-SA 2.5
Source: "Johnathan Meath as Santa Clause"/Jonathan Meath/CC BY-SA 2.5

How grand a celebration is a parent allowed to have when her child tells a lie and tells it well?

The summer before my daughter Sam entered high school, I confessed to her the truth about Santa.  He does not exist.  The notes from Santa were written by her parents; the stockings were filled by her grandparents; the cookies she decorated for the old, bearded man and his reindeer were all eaten by Dad.  The bottom line: do not embarrass yourself by talking to your high school classmates about Santa.  They all know he’s fabricated.

Sam struggled to wrap her mind around this.  Her parents had lied, her grandparents had lied, and her little sister had lied.  Even her own government had lied!  Every year the North American Regional Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) offers a Santa tracker on its website.  Children can follow Santa as he traverses the continents, and they can count the number of gifts—millions—that he has delivered.  To Sam, the NORAD Santa tracker served as irrefutable proof of Santa’s reality.

For the last three years Santa has not visited Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Sam has had to discard her theory about the difference between Christians and Jews: Christians, such as her paternal grandparents, have a fireplace in their homes for Santa.  Jews have no fireplace because Santa does not visit.  Instead she knows the sad truth, that we have no fireplace because the builder forgot to install one when the house was constructed.  When Santa stopped bringing gifts and everything under the tree bore cards from relatives, Sam realized I was not joking.

And so it was with trepidation that we drove north this December.  For the first time ever, Sam’s younger cousins would be celebrating with us.  Santa would be returning, and Sam must not disabuse her cousins of their belief in him.  We practiced scenarios on the long drive.  “What do you say if your cousin asks what Santa brought you?” And, “What do you say when Santa fills your stocking with candy, even though you told Grandma you don’t want candy?”  And, “How do you react if your cousins want to write thank-you notes to Santa?”  Satisfied that Sam could pull this off, we greeted the cousins with confidence.

The end of the story—and the crux of it for me—is that Sam performed even better than I had hoped.  She thanked Santa, and she agreed with her cousins’ declarations. But she went one step further.  As she unpacked her stocking, she exclaimed happily about the unwanted peanut butter-filled Christmas trees.  Then came the glow-in-the-dark bracelets.  “Glow bracelets! I love jewelry that lights up!”  She sounded so convincing that I had to ask her later if her enthusiasm was genuine.  Not at all.  She dislikes plastic and disposable anything, just as she did when she criticized these bracelets on Halloween.

Sam lied through her teeth!  She pretended an emotion.  She feigned enthusiasm. People who live with, work with, or love an autistic person understand the magnitude of this accomplishment.  Sam’s behavior was motivated exclusively by her empathy for other people.

Most descriptions of autism include as a characteristic, “lacking Theory of Mind.”  In other words, autistic people have difficulty understanding that other people have beliefs, knowledge or desires that differ from their own.  One classic test for Theory of Mind, the “Sally-Anne Test,” involves having a child watch a scenario between two dolls, Sally and Anne.  Sally hides a marble in a box and then leaves the stage.  Anne enters and moves the marble to her basket.  When Sally returns, where will she expect to find the marble?  Most children realize that Sally will look for the marble in her own box by the time they are four years old.  A very large majority of autistic children (the exact percentage varies in different research studies), and a significant percentage of children diagnosed with ADD, assume that Sally knows exactly what they know, i.e., that the marble is in the basket.  These children do not, and perhaps cannot imagine that some other person thinks differently than they do.

Theory of Mind is a useful, if insufficient, concept for understanding some autistic behaviors.  For one, autistic people rarely tell lies.  Most of us lie because we realize that doing so will accomplish some goal: keep us from getting in trouble by concealing information from an interlocutor (no, I didn’t eat the last cookie); comfort a loved one with false praise or reassurance (I’m certain everybody will love your speech); bring us a reward by shaping another person’s response (if you elect me. . . ).   We tell lies because we can anticipate the other person’s reaction to both the truth and the lie, and we recognize our own ability to manipulate the information the other person receives.  Without Theory of Mind, the rationale for lying simply does not exist.

A basic Theory of Mind is also necessary for experiencing empathy, for putting oneself in another person’s shoes.  How might I feel in a situation like yours?  How does my behavior make you feel?  Lacking Theory of Mind leads to the assumption that our own experience is universal.

If Sam’s Theory of Mind were measured on a clinical scale, I suspect she would score in the “significantly impaired” range.  She rarely understands why people act as they do, and she even more rarely anticipates or accurately understands people’s reactions to her.  So for her to exclaim over a luminescent bracelet, just because doing so will make Grandma happy, is a monumental step forward.  To exclaim using appropriate prosody is an even bigger deal.  And to exclaim without prompting borders on miraculous.

As Sam approaches her eighteenth birthday, I often despair about her ever being able to make a successful go of independence.  The last couple of months have been filled with painful reminders of her impulsivity and inability to self-regulate when she becomes frustrated.  Several times each day, I give myself a lecture about the absurdity of assuming she will cease to mature after next month.  Her brain will not suddenly harden and stop creating new neural connections. Her behavior on Christmas day proves the point. The autistic brain is no less capable of learning than any other person's.

Empathy. Dissimulation. Tonality. Who would have thought she could ever pull it off?