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Asperger's Syndrome

Joe and The Mega-Sized Smoothie: Language and Asperger's

How differences in interpreting language drive misunderstanding

This post is in response to
Do You Have Asperger's Syndrome?


In the study, participants were presented with two cases, the free cup case and the extra dollar case. Participants were then asked to determine whether the actions described in the individual cases were intentional or not:

The Free-Cup Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that if he bought a Mega-Sized Smoothie he would get it in a special commemorative cup. Joe replied, ‘I don't care about a commemorative cup, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.' Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie in a commemorative cup. Did Joe intentionally obtain the commemorative cup?

The Extra-Dollar Case
Joe was feeling quite dehydrated, so he stopped by the local smoothie shop to buy the largest sized drink available. Before ordering, the cashier told him that the Mega-Sized Smoothies were now one dollar more than they used to be. Joe replied, ‘I don't care if I have to pay one dollar more, I just want the biggest smoothie you have.' Sure enough, Joe received the Mega-Sized Smoothie and paid one dollar more for it. Did Joe intentionally pay one dollar more?

The majority of those not on the spectrum judged that Joe's actions in the Extra-Dollar Case were intentional, but his actions described in the Free Cup Case were not. Those with Asperger's judged that both actions were not intentional. Mr. Machery's conclusion is that this demonstrates that those with Asperger's have impaired abilities to judge whether these actions were intentional.

I argue not. I argue that the difference in reaction can be traced to the logical, literal and precise way that those with Asperger's comprehend and use language.

My reaction upon first reading these two cases was to ask, "How do you define intentional?" Like many on the autism spectrum, I default to the dictionary definition to determine the meanings of words. The Miriam Webster dictionary defines the verb intend as "to have in mind as a purpose or goal." Joe's goal was made quite clear in the first sentence of each case - to obtain the largest size drink available.

He walked in to the store not thinking, "I think I'll get a free commemorative cup." or "I think I'll spend an dollar more on this drink than I did last time," but "I'm feeling quite dehydrated, so I'm going to buy the largest size beverage available to quench my thirst." Therefore, his intention is to obtain the Mega-Sized Smoothie. Within this frame of reference, the commemorative cup was merely a nice surprise, and the extra dollar was simply a means to an end, that end being the purchase of the Mega-Sized Smoothie.

Now, if you were to redefine "intention" in this case as "Making a conscious decision to follow a certain path to achieve a stated goal" - or, "Did he mean to do it?" - then you would likely receive the same response from a person with Asperger's as you would from any other person. As previously stated, Joe's goal is to obtain the smoothie. In the first case, the commemorative cup is a side effect over which he has no control, so obtaining it is not intentional. However, in the second case, he must overcome an obstacle to obtaining his goal - the extra dollar. He must make a conscious decision to pay the additional dollar in order to be successful in achieving the goal. By the "conscious decision" model, you would respond that the extra dollar is intentional, even though it was not his goal as he walked through the door.

It's all in how you phrase the question.

I highlighted a similar example of this a few months ago in Autism and Law Enforcement: A Plea for Understanding . Drawn from Mark Haddon's novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" - it involves a teenager with Asperger's who is found cradling his neighbor's dead dog, which had been stabbed with a garden fork. Thinking he is responsible, the neighbor calls the police. In the confusion, the policeman unexpectedly grabs the boy's arm. The boy, who is very sensitive to touch, is dismayed by this overwhelming physical contact and strikes out to stop it. Obviously, this does not go over well with the police officer, and he is arrested. At the police station, he's questioned about the incident.

Later, the policeman tells the boy that he will let him off with a caution (or warning, in US vernacular). He says,"..a caution means that we are going to keep a record of what you did, that you hit a policeman but it was an accident and that you didn't mean to hurt the policeman." The boy replies, "But it wasn't an accident."

In this case, the phrasing of the question, "Did you mean to hit the policeman?" places the incident under the umbrella of the "conscious decision" model. While hitting the policeman was not his goal, and he did not walk into the confrontation saying, "I think I'll hit that policeman," he did make a conscious decision to do so in the course of trying to achieve his goal of stopping the policeman from touching him. So, truthfully, he did mean to hit the policeman. And, in his mind, it was not an accident, because that would indicate no conscious choice on his part, which he knows that he made.

There are some difficulties with intention that manifest in Asperger's which are not addressed by Mr. Machery's experiment. These difficulties are in the area of determining emotional or social intent. By that I mean determining what a person is trying to convey when saying one thing, and meaning another. In stating "you didn't mean to hit the policeman," and indicating that the incident is "an accident" the inspector is not intending to literally state that the boy had no conscious will in hitting the policeman, but rather implying that he recognized that the boy did not maliciously seek to hurt the policeman. The boy, however, is blind to this intent, and reacts literally to the words the inspector says. It takes the inspector's follow on question, "But you didn't mean to hurt the policeman" to make his intent clear. This is the area that I believe is where troubles with interpreting intention surface in Asperger's, not the more basic areas.

The face off of literal language versus interpretive language pops up frequently in my daily life. The average person not on the spectrum tends to expect a lot of subtext in what is being said, and frequently imbue their speech with a lot of subtext. This can be infuriating for a person with Asperger's who tend not to expect subtext, struggle to decode it when it's there, and certainly don't care to apply it in their speech if they don't have to. By default, we say what we mean (sometimes to a fault), unless we are taught (or teach ourselves) to do otherwise.

These differences can manifest in even the smallest things - like ordering lunch. Today, in the cafeteria at work, I went to the Mexican food station and ordered a burrito. When it came time for me to indicate what condiments I wanted on the burrito, I gave my standing order, " Everything except sour cream." Of course, I literally meant everything except sour cream.

However, that wasn't what I got - I got everything but sour cream, jalapeños, and hot salsa.

In a little mini-experiment of my own, I have been doing this once or twice a week for several months. I have had multiple servers, at multiple different times of the day, and they all interpret "Everything except sour cream" differently. Some leave off the hot salsa and sour cream only, others leave off the jalapeños and sour cream, others leave off all three, and so on and so on. The only commonality is that none of them has ever given me " Everything except sour cream. "

I've been watching this behavior with some amusement, wondering at the cause... Is it that there is an accepted cultural definition within the patrons of our cafeteria that defines "everything" as something different than the literal definition? Is it a bias within the ranks of the servers which causes them to assume that a person who looks like me couldn't possibly want jalapeños and hot salsa, but some milder, Americanized combination? Or am I simply asking for a combination of condiments that they automatically dismiss as "weird," so they think, "She can't possibly want that!"?

Why is it so common for the average person to expect that what is said isn't exactly what is meant? Why do we, as a society, couch so many innocuous things in euphemism? Why couldn't the inspector in Haddon's novel simply state, "I know you didn't mean to hurt the policeman, so we are letting you off with a caution?" If I ask for "Everything except sour cream," why can't I get it?