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MSI in grade one

I've mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: theory of mind is a phrase that's used to refer to the development of the knowledge that what you, as an individual, know is not known to everyone else. Up until the time one develops theory of mind, lying is impossible -- a lie relies on the fact that what you know is not the same as what other people around you know.

Most children reach this stage early -- and at three years of age, they can, in fact, lie. It's a natural progression, which parents will then spend time trying to curb, and it's positive precisely because it indicates developmental growth. It is, however, hard to appreciate this in a cheerful way when your own child is lying to you, but it's the silver lining on the cloud.

My oldest son didn't fully develop the ability to lie until he was seven years old. But the slow development of theory of mind did occur.

(If it makes anyone feel any better, I didn't know the phrase "theory of mind" until my son was well into six years old, because that's when we received the first solid diagnosis. I did understand that he wasn't aware that what he knew was not universally known, but that was acute, parental-paranoid observation.)

My son's grade one teacher had managed to create an environment that was consistent enough that he felt more or less safe. He found school rules confusing; he didn't understand why the children (he often used the phrase "the children" at that age) had to, for instance, walk quietly back to their classroom when in the halls between the library or the gym; when I pointed out that the noise was disruptive, I had to explain why (the children in other classes won't be able to hear their teacher, which spawned a different set of questions). He didn't understand why, if he was being quiet at the back of the room, he had to come and sit in the class circle and be quiet there, etc.

But he was comfortable with his teacher, and with most of his classmates. There were exceptions, and it was difficult. Some of the children in particular were physically violent -- in part because he was socially completely unaware of ways to integrate with that group, and in part because they were the loudest children present, and he was drawn to shouting, laughter, and high energy physical motion. There were a lot of kids in his class who actually liked him -- but he failed to notice most of them in day-to-day activities because they weren't loud enough.

As you can imagine, this can colour the impression a class leaves. His teacher was aware of the difficulty, but also aware of the fact that my son would run into it, time and again. So I explained the why of his constant approach, and she tried to keep an eye out and mitigate the inevitable consequences, lending new weight to the phrase "this will all end in tears".

She attempted, in class, to put him into groups with children who were more empathic and less hierarchical. One of these groups was the MSI group. (I'm embarrassed to say I no longer remember what the initials actually stood for; the first two were Math and Science, but I can't for the life of me remember what I was.) In practical terms, MSI was used to encourage group participation in projects.

This was done in grade one, by the teacher; the grade two teacher thought it insanely ambitious because she expected it would fall apart in pointless squabbles. I firmly believe, were it not for the particular grade one teacher we had, this would have been true. But in the main, the groups formed. During the building block session of the MSI afternoon activities, the children had to discuss a project, decide on a project and build that project.

I've mentioned that my son's teacher liked to resolve difficulties in her classroom on her own; only when she'd reached a point where she felt she was missing something, or couldn't correctly interpret certain behaviour, would she ask to speak with parents. One day, when I picked up my son, she asked to speak to me.

It seems that for several weeks -- weeks, I think it was six -- he'd been involved in MSI with two other children. The two, as the teacher pointed out, were the nicest kids in the class -- a boy and a girl. At the end of every session, he would inexplicably destroy the work of the class, to the point where the other two were -- completely understandably -- getting frustrated.

She was accustomed at this point -- the entire class was -- to his accidental acts of destruction, because at a certain point in the afternoon, my son was completely unaware of his environment; he could walk into doors, collide with desks, trip over chairs, etc. So the whole class knew enough to guide him away from anything fragile (often by standing in front of it).

This case, however, was not the same. He was deliberately destroying things. I asked a couple of questions, and then said, "I think I know what the problem is. Let me talk to him tonight, and I'll speak to you in the morning."

So, we went home. My son was, and is, a reasonable child. Destroying the project was not a reasonable act -- in our eyes. But it was completely consistent with an act of anger and resentment, even if he had nothing to resent on the surface of things.

What I suspected was that the difficulty started with the "discussion and choice" phase. By the building phase, he was already bitterly upset. I was right. I also believed that the teacher had, as she said, given him to the group with the two nicest children in the class.

And here's what was happening. The girl would start the discussion phase by saying, "I would like to build a castle." The other boy, having no set preference himself, would agree because a castle sounded good. My son? He would say nothing. When I finally managed to get him to speak about this (mostly by attempting to talk about my own grade one experiences, because matching experiences were often the only way to bring him out, even if they had to be improvised), he was upset.

Why?

Because they didn't care what he wanted to build. He felt very much that the only thing that mattered to them was what they wanted, and that he was being forced to go along with it.

You can see the problem immediately, here. I waited for a few minutes while he tearfully explained his hurt, and then said, "did you tell them what you wanted to build?" he blinked. His theory of mind was not in place, yet; the idea that what he wanted had to be communicated had not occurred to him. At all.

He also didn't entirely believe me. But he knew I wouldn't lie to him. So I expanded. I explained that when the little girl said "I would like to build a castle", she wasn't saying "so that's what you have to do whether you like it or not" in silence--or at all. Discussions can open with "what would you like to do", but there's a decent chance that she did say that, at a time when he was distracted by the building blocks themselves.

I explained that she was waiting for the other two children in the group to state what their preferences were, so that they could all then discuss them and choose one. If she wanted to build a castle, and my son said, "I would like to build a train-wreck", she wouldn't be angry or ignore him. But if he said nothing, she would assume that he accepted the idea of building the castle.

He really did ask me to explain this five times, and when he was certain he understood my claims, he went away to think about it.

I'm not kidding--he really was hesitant about it. He couldn't make sense of what I'd said, because to him, words were optional, or even worse, pointless. This would be the lack of theory of mind.

I then talked to the teacher in the morning to tell her what was causing the difficulty, and she was almost baffled by it; she could accept that it was true, but it was not an explanation that had occurred to her. She asked me to explain things to my son, and I said I would try--but I also knew, from bitter experience, that in this case, it would be like trying to teach him calculus before he'd learned multiplication; he was trying to grasp things, but they were not yet in reach.

But the next MSI afternoon was the first one in which my son didn't cause difficulty.

I asked him about it on the way home. At six years of age, he couldn't bring himself to ask for anything to which No would be a possible, logical answer; not at home, and certainly not outside of it. But he did make comments and suggestions in a roundabout way, to confirm for himself the truth of what I'd told him. To his great surprise, he understood from the reaction of the other two kids that I was right, even though what I'd said made little sense to him. He was in a much, much happier mood on the way home that day, because the afternoon was like an epiphany for him.

People weren't ignoring him or attempting to impose their desires over his against his will. They didn't know. This was logical construct on his part; it would be another year before he was able to automatically grasp this. Once he realized he did have some say, he was happy enough to give it away, because the greater difficulty -- of asking for something directly -- was one he couldn't force himself to overcome at that age.

This was the start of his slow development of that very necessary theory of mind.

It's my suspicion that full-blown autistics have never developed it.

Comments

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )
folkmew
May. 23rd, 2011 01:18 pm (UTC)
Ooh! Pick me pick me!
That sounds really familiar and I'm sheepish to admit that labeling it with "theory of mind" never occurred to me in spite of having read a fair bit on it for both my M.Ed.s and my own personal studies of creativity and development. Sighhh. That's what intelligent friends with blogs are for, clearly!

My eldest is getting along reasonably well but it's a hard path at times and I'm a bit terrified on his behalf about middle school. :-(

Wish we could sit over a pot of tea and talk!
msagara
May. 23rd, 2011 02:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Ooh! Pick me pick me!
Come to Confluence :D. Thomas is going as well.
sartorias
May. 23rd, 2011 01:19 pm (UTC)
I've seen the phrase "theory of mind" used in several different contexts, so it's difficult to parse here, but otherwise, wow. This is fascinating. Thank you for posting.
msagara
May. 23rd, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC)
I've seen it used in various contexts as well, and I'm sure I'm being inexact. But practical, I hope.
sartorias
May. 23rd, 2011 02:06 pm (UTC)
No, I checked, and you are spot on. The context most familiar to me was in Lisa Zunshine's fascinating book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, which I just took down to look at again. I'd managed to elide her original explanation into another direction. Typical!
rachelmanija
May. 23rd, 2011 07:40 pm (UTC)
It typically means understanding that there is a difference between what you know and experience, and what others know and experience.

If you don't have theory of mind, you assume that anything you know, everyone else knows as well.

Here's the classic experiment to test theory of mind:

The experimenter shows a kid two boxes. One has a picture of pencils, and one has a picture of chocolate.

"Which box has the chocolate?" the experimenter asks.

The kid points to the box with the chocolate picture. Now the experimenter opens the boxes. Indeed, the pencil box has pencils, and the chocolate box has chocolate.

Now, while the kid watches, the experimenter switches the contents. Chocolate is in the pencil box, and pencils are in the chocolate box.

Now the experimenter says, "Your mom wants chocolate. When she comes in, which box will she open to find the chocolate?"

Kids without a theory of mind will say, "The pencil box." They know the chocolate is now in the pencil box, so they assume everyone knows.

Kids with a theory of mind will say, "The chocolate box." They know two things: that most people will assume that a chocolate box contains chocolate, AND they know that their mom didn't see the experimenter switch it.

You can do simpler, non-verbal variations on this, involving hidden objects. They work the same way, to see if a kid understands that what they know is not necessarily known to others.
sartorias
May. 23rd, 2011 07:45 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the explanation.

I do get what Theory of Mind was about, I guess it was this use of 'theory' as a state of being, because 'theory' has always meant hypothesis to me. So, in other words, I would study Theory of Mind, but it would be about how kids display cognitive levels, or some such thing. It looks like they are using the term differently now. Have to get my head around it.
rachelmanija
May. 23rd, 2011 07:47 pm (UTC)
It must come from the idea that it's the ability to create theories about the minds of others.
kuangning
May. 23rd, 2011 01:26 pm (UTC)
This strikes a chord for me, not because I experienced it with my son, but because I, and many other abuse survivors, have had the same problem, if not for same reason. You can reduce an otherwise-normal human being to that state by making it plain that their input is neither required nor welcome, and they'll spend years trying to overcome the learned response. I'm glad your son had someone able to guide him through it before he could really become mired in the hurtful cycle of I think no-one cares what I say so I don't say anything so people expect me to not say anything and don't care that I don't say anything; it's not at all a pleasant state of things.
msagara
May. 23rd, 2011 02:05 pm (UTC)
You can reduce an otherwise-normal human being to that state by making it plain that their input is neither required nor welcome, and they'll spend years trying to overcome the learned response.

Yes, this. I think a lot of the struggles of parenting on our part (our being husband and I, not parasites and I) were an attempt to make the world less threatening and less personal.

Oddly enough, I think the ASD actually helps in this case, because the ability to generalize the worst-case is slower to develop. The ability to generalize at all in social situations lags a lot, though.
la_marquise_de_
May. 23rd, 2011 01:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you. This is fascinating.
beccastareyes
May. 23rd, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC)
I wonder how much this type of thing reverberated to affect me in later life. I'm on the spectrum myself, but wasn't formally diagnosed until middle school when my little brother, then about 3-ish was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and my mother asked the psychologist to talk to me, because a lot of the traits she saw/read about were present in me, but less so. I've never been good at communicating my desires within a group, but I've gotten better with practice -- even before my diagnosis, I was labeled 'has trouble making friends/interacting with peers'. I could easily see how early interactions when you're not aware that you need to tell your peers things could turn into the attitude of 'I don't know how to tell them things (and have them listen)', even when you are around the nicest people in the world. It shows the benefits about catching these things early so people growing up don't get semi-adaptive coping skills**.

I might have mentioned it before, but your conversations with your son remind me a lot of my mother and brother. Mom was pretty tireless about figuring out why my brother did things he did*, and how they could help him.

* Asking him, and, when she couldn't grasp his reasoning, occasionally asking me if I could serve as a autistic-to-neurotypical bridge.

** Dunno what else to call 'the things you learn to keep yourself okay, but usually are not the best thing you can do'. My refusal as a kid to work in groups if I could at all help it, meant that I could control the results better, but didn't help me learn how to work in groups.
msagara
May. 23rd, 2011 02:23 pm (UTC)
** Dunno what else to call 'the things you learn to keep yourself okay, but usually are not the best thing you can do'. My refusal as a kid to work in groups if I could at all help it, meant that I could control the results better, but didn't help me learn how to work in groups.

I think, given a choice, my son for much of his early life (until the last few years) would have done the same: avoid working in groups. In grade one, he had no choice; I think a different teacher would have let him work in a corner on his own because the integration process was very, very time-consuming, and the other children could find it very frustrating.

But yes, while it would be comfortable in the short-term (and even long) it wouldn't readily offer situations in which the opportunity to open up a bit, or re-evaluate, existed.

I think we were trying, as much as possible, to be objective; the put ourselves in the shoes of the other children, as well. It's easy to be protective, especially when your child has difficulties; when he's upset it's hard to focus on the fact that he hasn't been deliberately hurt. The pain is real, but in many cases it's due entirely to interpretation. It's hard to keep that in mind.
beccastareyes
May. 23rd, 2011 02:52 pm (UTC)
The other thing I remember I liked was when asked to work in a group, the teacher explained to me why, or it was something I could grasp. In art or lab science, we often got projects that required a limited number of set-ups or needed more than two hands. In English or foreign language classes, we might be doing a play that needed multiple actors, or practicing conversation. Harder was the 'I have given you a lot of work, so divide it up so you all don't have to do it', because I would try to push for the 'work twice as hard on my own' -- though some of that was the non-AS-specific thought of 'a group could be full of people who won't do the work, but want me to cover for them for their good grades'.

But getting used to those helped prepare me for late college/grad school where my peers and I -- all highly motivated and intelligent people -- had to work together to learn the material because graduate-level science can be hard. (Not to mention how collaborative science was, which would have blown my ten year old mind.)

Also, it seems a lot like remembering 'this isn't your fault, or his/her/the other kid's fault, but a problem because you two are different and that happens', is a good thing to reinforce.
(Anonymous)
May. 23rd, 2011 04:36 pm (UTC)
protecting one's child
the thing I had the most problem with was the teachers who only saw the behavior that was born of frustration and labelled him a behavior problem instead of looking at the causes of frustration and trying to solve those.

My son is very smart, highly verbal, and the things he just could not "get" were sometimes subtle. Wish I had know about theory of mind when he was younger; that might have helped.
(Deleted comment)
joycemocha
May. 24th, 2011 12:06 am (UTC)
Re: protecting one's child
One of the interesting things you run into as a special ed teacher is the discovery that in certain cases, kids with ASD, ADHD, learning disabilities and emotional disturbances can have overlapping issues. Now the way you address these issues might differ between the kid on the autistic spectrum and the ADHD kid, but the issues are very similar, especially with regard to executive function, social awareness, and perspective-taking.
(Anonymous)
May. 24th, 2011 04:11 pm (UTC)
Re: protecting one's child
The techniques for managing the challenging behaviours may be the same, but the underlying attitude makes a difference. If my NLD son was "merely" a behaviour problem, no one tried to address the needs that kept him from getting frustrated.

When he hit high school, his teacher actually read the information I supplied to her, passed it on to his other teachers and then set to work proactively finding solutions. It made all the difference.
msagara
May. 24th, 2011 04:33 pm (UTC)
Re: protecting one's child
the thing I had the most problem with was the teachers who only saw the behavior that was born of frustration and labelled him a behavior problem instead of looking at the causes of frustration and trying to solve those.

This is the thing that we desperately, desperately feared. Because one or two of the teachers did see my son that way (the stair monitor being a prime example). And, as you've no doubt discovered, it can be so damaging =(

The reason it wasn't allowed to become a problem for my son was his teacher and, as important, the Principal, didn't. But in the school yard, it could have been a difficulty.
aanna_t
May. 23rd, 2011 02:21 pm (UTC)
When my kids were very little, I often had to ask them to "use their words" rather than just glowering. That really clicks with what you explain about your son.

To take that one step farther, might that phrase be a helpful tool with ASD, too? I teach one ASD student, and my best friend's son also has Asperger's. They seem frustrated so often... I wonder if this is one reason why.

How would your son react if asked to say what he is thinking? Do you think it would be helpful?
kate_nepveu
May. 23rd, 2011 04:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I tell SteelyKid (2 3/4) "you have to tell me what the problem is, just making (sad/whiny) noises doesn't help me understand."

(Now I'm distracted by trying to decide if when she tells us about stuff that happened when we weren't there, she indicates any awareness that we don't know it already. Hmm. When I say, "So how was your day?" she doesn't usually start with the morning before daycare, when I was there, but that's maybe not that reliable an indicator, because often we ask at the same time "So how was daycare?", so she may have learned to associate the two questions. Hmm.)
orzelc
May. 23rd, 2011 06:07 pm (UTC)
I had some conversation with SteelyKid recently that had me thinking along "toddler theory of mind" lines, but I don't recall exactly what. She sometimes gives the impression of thinking that we know things we don't, but I'm not sure if that's a limitation of worldview or just expression ability.
rivka
May. 23rd, 2011 08:22 pm (UTC)
I remember getting in a big argument with Alex when she was SteelyKid's age, because she wanted us to sing the song they'd sung in music class at nursery school and I didn't know what song she meant. She thought I was just being difficult. It was amazing to see how such a hugely verbal and obviously intelligent kid just could.not.understand when I said "I wasn't there, so I don't know."
joycemocha
May. 24th, 2011 12:07 am (UTC)
Often a kid with ASD may not have those words to hand, or be able to easily retrieve the appropriate words. You kind of have to know where they are in their ability to express themselves. And when they get upset, they may lose all ability to verbally function.

(my son was one of those at a young age)
aanna_t
May. 24th, 2011 12:12 am (UTC)
Good point. I'll just add it to my little mental toolbox with those caveats. Thanks =)
mightydoll
May. 23rd, 2011 02:34 pm (UTC)
Investigations! :)

I could comment more, but I have a wiggly baby in one hand
roseaponi
May. 23rd, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating.

I never did ask for things if I thought the answer would be no. I still don't. This is one reason why it's so hard to submit my writing anywhere - the rejections, no matter how nice, make me feel physically ill. But I think that reading as much fiction as I did growing up really helped me with putting myself in others' place and figuring out why people do things. I think now (at age 31) I'm finally really getting a grasp on how to relate to people.
jennifergale
May. 23rd, 2011 05:45 pm (UTC)
Here via sartorias...

Wow, does this ever make sense.
finnyb
May. 23rd, 2011 06:41 pm (UTC)
I will be thirty in June, and I still have not totally figured out the whole "people don't know everything you know without being told" thing.
(Deleted comment)
estara
May. 23rd, 2011 09:24 pm (UTC)
Wow, so much to digest - again. Thank you for posting.
artbeco
May. 23rd, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you've made the time to get back to these posts! I'm finding them very helpful personally for dealing with one of my boy's friends...

One of my boys has a friend who is autistic/aspberger's- I'm not sure where he is on the spectrum, but he's in mainstream grade school, so pretty high functioning, I would guess. The school actually makes a lot of effort on his behalf to help him learn socialization skills and fit in and not get bullied. It's always been quite difficult for him, and his classmates, to work with his issues. Casey has been friends with him since kindergarden, but it's not been smooth sailing, ever.

They're in 4th grade now and his friend *appears* to have developed the ability to lie and manipulate things to get things the way he wants them. He may be seeing the situations and things that happen in his own way, rather than the way the other kids do, but it's causing major conflicts. It's led to nasty accusations and parental phone calls back and forth and involvement with the principal and such, and Casey is really frustrated and very hurt with it all.

The culmination so far was a conversation with his parents where they had a sort of seismic shift in how they were viewing reports of their son's behavior, recognizing some of their son's behaviors from other situations and extrapolating what might be going on at school. They ended up thanking us for Casey's involvement, stressful as it was for them all, and saying it gave them much-needed insight into how their son was developing and things they needed to deal with. I have trouble imagining the difficulties they've faced and will have to keep dealing with. Your posts help quite a lot in understanding what might be going on, even though the circumstances are different.

The rather unhappy conclusion at this point is to just keep the boys apart for a while, let them both cool off and hope that Casey's friend can get past this stage. Not sure what will happen long term.

Sorry, this got too long! It's just been a hard place to be in for a while now, and it's good to read of ways to look at it all...

( 32 comments — Leave a comment )