Q&A: Who would win if all the Disney princesses fought, Hunger Games style?

Q: Who would win if all the Disney princesses fought, Hunger Games style?

Putting these girls into a Hunger Games-style arena simply wouldn’t end with a Hunger Games-style brawl.

They’re all protagonists. They’re all strongly Good, philosophically and in practical terms.

Mulan is a soldier, so she’s capable of killing, but not murder. Merida can hold her own in battle, but won’t kill an innocent. Elsa could kill everyone, but she won’t. Many of the others—Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel—have primarily social strengths, as in charisma.

They wouldn’t fight each other. They would fight the Arena itself. And it’s likely that they would win. Why? Just think about their abilities, and then imagine the many ways those abilities could be used to break the Hunger Games.

Snow White: She’s an innocent, and probably the youngest. She’s the Rue of the group—so vulnerable that nobody can help but like her. Even small animals love her; in fact, she has the power to get small animals to do her chores for her. Never underestimate the power of a squirrel, bird, a badger in the right place.

Cinderella: Another innocent, and another girl with the power to communicate with animals. Her powers aren’t as extreme as Snow White’s, but she’s capable enough. She’s also an abuse survivor—which means she knows how to deal with trauma, because she’s done it before. And she has allies on the outside—a fairy godmother with transfiguration magic, who won’t be happy that her charge has been imprisoned in the Arena.

Aurora: She’s not much use in a fight, and she doesn’t have any particular powers (she’s animal-friendly, but not an actual animal-charmer the way Cinderella and Snow White are); but she’s kind and introverted, which means she won’t upset anybody. She’s also spent her entire childhood living in a cabin in the woods—she knows how to survive in the woods. With her around, they aren’t going to starve.

Ariel: She’s a specialist, the literal Aquaman of the group. In the water, she’s faster than anybody else, absolutely unbeatable, and she can talk to creatures that live in the water. As far as animal whisperers go, Ariel’s the only one who can actually talk in two-way abstract language with her animals friends, so that means that the group knows anything that’s happening anywhere near water once Ariel gets her fish spy network going. Unfortunately, out of the water, she’s very slow and probably has to be carried.

Belle: Is a nerd. That’s her strength and her weakness. She’s read every book she can get her hands on, and she has an inventor for a father. She’s got an extremely good brain in her head, and she’ll probably be the group’s source of information, though not their chief strategist.

Jasmine: Born and bred nobility, her primary power is her charisma and ability to communicate. Totally naive outside her native environment, she nevertheless has the wherewithal to think on her feet. She’s been on quite a few adventures with Aladdin, so she doesn’t scare easily. Jasmine won’t be a major asset, but she also won’t hold them back.

Pocahontas: It goes without saying that Pocahontas, along with Aurora, will be one of the group’s major food providers. Her biggest strength is her diplomatic ability; when the group threatens to fall apart when things get rough, she can keep them together. She has some minor animal-communication ability, but nowhere near some of the others’.

Mulan: The soldier. She’s a military girl, and she’s good at what she does. When someone needs to think fast, she can. She’s good at using the environment to her advantage, and she’s good at disguising herself and others. She’s likely to become their de facto leader. She can also train others in the basics of fighting, which is very useful because many of the other girls have no experience; while they won’t be fighting each other, the Arena itself is very dangerous.

Tiana: She hasn’t got any exciting powers, but she’s sure going to come in handy. She knows how to cook, naturally. She’s lived as a commoner for a lot of her life, which means she’s more independent than most of the other girls. She also has experience with magic, and has had to survive in extreme situations before (can you get more extreme than being turned into a frog?). She won’t crack, and she’ll be useful. Tiana will be just fine.

Rapunzel: If she’s still got her hair, she’s a serious asset. Rapunzel’s hair can heal anything, even old age. She can keep the entire group healthy. And the hair isn’t just a whole lot of dead weight, either; she uses it as an aid to do some pretty cool parkour-style moves. Rapunzel is also very strong, as shown by her ability to pull people up by her hair without breaking a sweat. If she hasn’t got her hair, she’s less of an asset, but her physical strength can still see her through (and quite possibly give Ariel a way to get around out of water). Don’t underestimate her charisma, either; if she can convince a bar full of ruffians to join her team, she can talk anybody into anything. Like Cinderella, Rapunzel has survived an abusive childhood. In her case, it was mainly psychological and emotional abuse, so she’ll be the one to see through the mind games the gamemakers try to play on the girls; she’s seen them all before from Mother Gothel.

Merida: Archery, obviously. She’s as good as Katniss, if not better, and she’s one of the few girls with the ability to attack at range. She can ride, survive in the wilderness, and keep her head in a crisis. No problems here.

Anna and Elsa: Have to be taken as a set. Each is willing to die for the other, and Elsa’s ice powers are prodigious. Anna and Elsa may be the main reason why the whole group is likely to try to defeat the Arena itself rather than fighting each other: Each sister knows she wants her sister to live, and each knows that her sister wants her to live. The only option for these two is defeating the Hunger Games together. Elsa has leadership experience, having been a queen; Anna may be younger, but she’s proven herself in crisis situations already.

There’s really only two ways this can end: The girls join together to fight the Arena, and win; or the girls join together to fight the Arena, and they lose. A win may still mean the deaths of several of the girls, and almost certainly at least one such death; but they’ll be deaths inflicted by the Arena itself. The first death will affect them deeply, of course; they may actually have to go through the entire ordeal with one or more of their number essentially disabled by emotional shock. But these girls have learned too much about the power of love, friendship, courage, and hope to give up in the Arena.

That says a lot about the Hunger Games, doesn’t it? A big part of the reason why the children in the Hunger Games kill each other is that they have lost hope. Their whole world says you can’t escape the Arena; their whole culture says you can’t defy the Gamemakers. There have been plenty of people as skilled as Katniss in the Arena, who didn’t manage to defy the games as she did, because they weren’t able to defy the basic concept of the Games: “You must kill each other. There is no other option.”

Ironically, I see a lot of Hunger Games fans looking at the Arena in the same way: A lot of people go in; only one leaves. They don’t challenge that; they focus on the strategy of survival. But as Katniss knows, and as the Disney princesses would understand, the other tributes were never the enemy.

Take a life lesson from this: When the power structure around you seems to be trying to pit you against other people, ask why. Challenge the paradigm. Chances are, the people you're being encouraged to fight aren't the enemy, and chances are, you'll be stronger together.

Q&A: Faking Normal

Q: Why do you "bash" autistic people who want to learn to be normal? Why do you encourage them to be autistic?

A: We encourage people to “be autistic” because we’ve tried faking normal ourselves, and it led to a lot of pain. We want to spare them that.

I was raised by a mom who was totally in denial about my autism. She taught me to believe that I was not really autistic, that I was actually lazy, strong-willed, and bad-tempered. And she taught me that the only way to accomplish things was to try harder. If you couldn’t do it, you weren’t trying hard enough. She would look at me, laugh, and say "Just do it!" as though I were pretending I couldn't. Sometimes she said, "You're so smart." She meant, "You're too smart to have an excuse for not being able to do this." And every time I took advantage of a good day and managed to do something that was difficult for me, as an autistic person, to do, she took it as proof that I could do that thing whenever I wanted to, and was just being contrary when I couldn't do it on command.

Well, I got out on my own and I wasn’t ready to take care of myself. I could neither use a bus nor drive. I couldn’t order at a restaurant. I couldn’t cook for myself. My sleep schedule was completely out of whack. I didn’t take regular showers. And I had never made a friend. I'd made friendly contact with others; many people were kind to me when I was a child. But I had never actually made a friend.

According to what I had been taught, the solution was to try harder to be as normal as possible, to tell myself that if I wasn’t fitting in, it was my own fault and I needed to change. Well, I tried. I tried to take care of myself, hold jobs, go to college. I pretended I was just lazy, strong-willed, and bad-tempered. I was burning out, but I didn’t know what to do other than try harder. I got to the point that I broke down mentally and ended up in the hospital. Twice.

Autistic brains are not meant to operate the way neurotypical brains are, and doing things the NT way is often not the way that works best for us. Forcing ourselves to go to crowded social events is not going to help us look normal; it’s just going to make us shut down. Whereas, conducting business one-on-one or even by e-mail is much more natural and easier for someone on the spectrum, and that way we actually get things done. Forcing ourselves to “sit still and stop fidgeting” can handicap our ability to think and process information; letting ourselves stim can free our minds to work efficiently. And so on.

For those of us who are “high-functioning” and can theoretically look normal for a few minutes or hours at a time, it’s a lot like trying to force a profoundly deaf child to lip-read and speak. Oh, they can learn it; the trouble is, it takes so long to learn it that they have no time to be a child. Even once they have learned, they’ll always have a harder time reading lips than a hearing person will have with listening to speech. Sign language is much more natural for that deaf child, even though it’s not the typical way people speak.

Now imagine being forced to do the equivalent of lip-reading in every area of life. There’s a reason autism is called a pervasive developmental disorder: Not just language but every little part of how you think and act and communicate is atypical in autism. You can try to mimic normal, but it’s always going to be slow, difficult, and exhausting. Or you can do things the way your brain was meant to do them, be your own person, and reach your own potential in your own way. Focusing on what works should be the goal of autism therapy and education, and what works is often as atypical as our minds are.

5 deaths, 9 days

I think we're having a summer homicide spike. Homicides of autistics have been coming in very fast lately.

June 19: Kevin Wilkes is killed by a fellow group home resident who was known to beat him up and bully him; staff kept them housed in the same location despite Kevin's previous injuries.

June 20: The body of Aaron Pajich is found buried under a concrete slab. He was abducted by two acquaintances, then murdered.

June 21: Tammara Killam is left alone in a trailer without air conditioning. Her twin sister, also disabled, watches her die of dehydration in the Las Vegas desert heat.

June 21: Lane Lesko escapes from a "therapeutic wilderness program". He is shot by police, though unarmed, after stealing a truck from the program's parking lot and crashing it.

June 28: An 11-year-old boy, his name not yet released, drowns in the bathtub when his stepfather puts him in the tub and leaves. A physical disability makes it impossible for him to keep his head above water.

I don't know if there's a connection, if this is one of those spikes that comes after a publicized case devalues autistic lives, or if this is just randomness clustering into pseudopatterns.

Either way, it's sad.

History of the oppression of the disabled

Q: What did people with disabilities have to deal with before laws were made for them?

Well, let’s see… Infants with disabilities have always been subject to infanticide. Ancient societies, as well as some modern ones, kill or abandon disabled infants at birth. These disabilities can be quite mild—a club foot, a cleft lip.

If you were disabled and couldn’t work, in many places you had to beg for your sustenance. That would have been a hard life—on top of whatever illness was making you disabled, you’d have to deal with homelessness, malnutrition, and probably repeated assaults.

Some people with disabilities were accused of being possessed by spirits. Epilepsy was seen that way. It was not unusual to exclude people with disabilities from society; for example, in ancient Israel, a disabled man was not allowed to become a priest.

Elderly disabled people did a little better, because their disabilities came on late in life and it was then still customary to respect people who had managed to live to grow old. Their families generally provided for them, if they had families; if not, they would have had to try to survive just like their younger counterparts.

Some of the first institutions were founded by people who really meant well. They were supposed to be refuges for the disabled and mentally ill. But unfortunately, institutions quickly became hellish places where disease ran rampant, sanitation was nonexistent, and abuse was commonplace. Most people did not live long in institutions, and even during those shortened lifespans, they could not live up to their potential because they were not offered education or training of any sort. Modern larger institutions and group homes, though now subject to legal oversight, still have some of these same problems, and it is not unusual for a disabled person to die in an institution because of abuse or neglect or, notably, by being restrained so severely that they cannot breathe. The difference is that, nowadays, their family can sue.

Being able to work has always been difficult for disabled people. In ancient times, if you could do physical work, you might be okay. People with intellectual disabilities, if they weren’t too severe, might do well enough as farmers or laborers. But people with physical disabilities were unable to support themselves in a world where non-physical work was very hard to come by, and had to depend on “charity”. The workhouses of Victorian-era Europe tried to solve the problem by putting the poor and disabled to work, but workhouses ended up being places where you worked as hard as you could for no pay and starvation-level food, where families were separated and abuse was commonplace. Nowadays, we have sheltered workshops—places where people work for pennies an hour at menial tasks like shredding paper or assembling simple objects. Minimum wage laws usually have specific exceptions for the disabled, who can legally be paid little or nothing.

Disabled children usually haven’t been allowed education. In early human history, disabled children didn’t get education, but that wasn’t so unusual because very few children did. Once education became more widely available, though, schools simply did not accept disabled children. They were assumed to be unteachable—even if their intellectual development was quite typical. Blind children weren’t taught to read because raised text was cumbersome and nobody thought of Braille for a very long time; even once it was invented, it was viewed with suspicion by many teachers. Deaf children were assumed to be incapable of speaking and unable to communicate, intrinsically, and their sign language was suppressed by “teachers”. Children with physical disabilities were assumed to also be intellectually disabled; children with intellectual disabilities were assumed to be incapable of learning anything at all, and so were never taught anything, so that the people around them concluded that they had been right that the children were unteachable. Modern disabled children are offered special education or integrated into mainstream classrooms, but the problem of inadequate education still exists because they have a hard time getting the accommodations they need, and many children are still segregated in special-education classrooms where their curricula are dumbed down and they’re not challenged. Colleges are much less accessible than primary and secondary school, and it is still legal to refuse to admit a college student on the basis of a disability, simply by saying you cannot accommodate their needs.

Disabled people have always been convenient victims of murder and of genocide, whether they made good targets for the local ruffians or were wanted out of the way by the community as a whole. In the early years of the 20th century, the US eugenics movement sought to deny disabled people the right to reproduce, especially those with mild intellectual disabilities, who were called “morons” and painted as inevitably criminal and a dire threat to civilization. Many disabled people were sterilized; some died from the sterilization surgery. In Europe, Germany took the baton and ran with it, using disabled people as the test subjects for their infamous gas chambers. Aktion T4 killed 75,000 disabled Germans, and hundreds of thousands more disabled non-Germans were killed by firing squad, gas chamber, disease, or starvation. In the United States, the eugenics movement died out as we discovered the horrors it led to, but lobotomies became popular, and many mentally ill people had their frontal lobes destroyed in the name of treatment.

Today, it is technically illegal to kill a disabled person, but that doesn’t mean that we always prosecute the murder of the disabled the way we prosecute the average murder. It is not uncommon for the parent or caregiver of a disabled person to kill them by starvation, neglect, or abuse, and then to be let off with a short sentence, or none at all, by a judge who reasons that they have suffered enough having to take care of the disabled person that they later murdered. There are “mercy killings” that happen when the caregivers kill their disabled charges—not by request (that would be assisted suicide), but because they decide that their disabled charge should not live. These tend to result in quite short sentences, too. And though the killing of black people by police gets more press, disabled people are just as much at risk (and God help you if you’re both black and disabled). It’s not unusual for a person to be in suicidal crisis, staring at a knife and thinking about stabbing themselves in the heart, only for the police to be called and shoot them because they are holding a knife.

But despite all of this, there has been steady improvement. Public buildings in many countries are required to be wheelchair-accessible. Employers are forbidden to discriminate overtly on the basis of disability (though they do often manage to find someone “more qualified” or find a reason unrelated to the disability to “lay off” a disabled worker). People with disabilities can get government assistance to help them stay alive, though this income level is about 30% below the federal poverty line and recipients are not allowed to save more than a very small amount of money. Though disabled people who are abused often have a very hard time being believed when they ask for help, such abuse is still illegal and they do have a chance at justice. And people with disabilities themselves are banding together, often via the Internet, to advocate for each other. Nowadays, when someone kills their disabled child and the media call it “understandable”, a rather large number of disabled people cry out against it, and people are starting to listen.

We’ve come a long way—but we’re nowhere near equality yet. I have confidence that someday, we’ll be equal not just in theory but in practice—that we’ll get what we need to live, that we’ll work alongside our neighbors, go to school and learn what we can learn, and have our lives valued just as much as other people’s.

School bus alarms

In the news:
California bill targets school bus deaths
SB1072 would require school buses to have child safety alarms. The alarm sounds when the engine is turned off and requires the bus driver to walk to the back of the bus to turn it off.

Paul Lee was a 19 year old autistic student who died of heatstroke when he was left alone in a school bus on a hot day. It's well-known that babies and pets can die of heatstroke when left in cars, but so do disabled adults--often.

The alarm idea sounds good at first glance, but I don't think these people are thinking it through.

What comes to mind when you think about alarms? Annoying. Loud. Harsh. Maybe even scary. A school bus driver would want to turn off that alarm ASAP, not just because it annoys the driver, but because it can literally cause pain to every student with even a little auditory sensitivity.

So here's the likely scenario.
1. Driver parks bus.
2. Driver turns off engine, triggering alarm.
3. Driver turns off alarm.
4. Driver helps children off bus.

Notice the order that happens in? The alarm isn't going to force the driver to check for children left in the bus. The driver will turn off the alarm, and THEN get the children off, because the alarm is annoying. There will be no enforced checking of seats, just an extra step to distract the driver from the passengers.

Does it really take a human factors degree to understand this? People behave in predictable ways. We're trained to respond to alarms, and this alarm would train the driver to respond by turning it off as soon as possible. Even if the driver insists on leaving the alarm blaring until the bus is empty, that's just going to torture any auditory-sensitive children on the bus which, since this is a special-needs bus, is going to be quite a few of them.

Don't get me wrong; I'm firmly against par-boiling autistics in school buses. I just don't think this is a good way to prevent it. There have to be better ways.

Anything that required the driver to physically touch every seat after the children left would be adequate. Require the driver to re-buckle seat belts, put up hand rests, anything that's easier to do after the children leave the bus. Doesn't matter what it is, though it can probably also function as leaving the bus in an orderly state. Alarms, though... I don't see how they would even help.

For the record...

I'm autistic and support vaccines. The risks are so low, the benefits so great, and large-scale participation is so crucial, that I believe vaccination should be enforced by law.

The risks are not zero, but many people seem to think that by avoiding vaccines, one can avoid the risks. In reality, one is choosing between two sets of risks: The risk of vaccinating nearly everyone, and the risk of disease that spreads when vaccination rates drop too low. The risks of not vaccinating are greater. If we let the vaccinated population go below the threshold where the disease can spread, we already know what will happen, because it happened before we had vaccines.

With the return of vaccine-preventable diseases would come an increase in childhood mortality. The youngest infants would be most vulnerable. Those with disabilities or chronic illnesses would die at high rates; children with asthma would die from diseases that attacked their lungs, cancer survivors with compromised immune systems would die because they could not fight the illnesses. And completely healthy children would die just because they caught a particularly bad strain of the illness. Poor children would die at higher rates than rich children because of higher rates of malnutrition and lower access to medical care.

Some people would die, but many more would sustain permanent injury from vaccine-preventable illness. Brain damage from measles encephalitis can range from mild to profound. Mumps can cause sterility. Polio can paralyze the muscles, and even years later those who were thought recovered can weaken again due to post-polio syndrome. Ironically, congenital rubella syndrome can cause autism along with other, deadlier, health problems. Even influenza can permanently damage the respiratory system.

Oh, and the economic effects--not as important, but still present. Children would miss school and fall behind; work hours would be lost when adults were sick or stayed home with sick children. People with disease-related disabilities would work less or not at all. Modern medicine would raise survival rates from vaccine-preventable illnesses higher than they were before vaccines, but medical care isn't free; when a child is hospitalized for whooping cough, their parents would have to pay the hospital bills, and if the parents couldn't pay, taxes would have to be raised to cover the cost. Even if you think to yourself, "Well, it's just money; money isn't as important as people," think of the things we'd have to skimp on to afford these essentially unnecessary medical costs: Schools. Libraries. Roads. Salaries for police, firefighters, teachers. Those are important things.

Those are the risks of not vaccinating, and they need to be balanced against the risks of vaccination. Healthy people should be vaccinated; those few percent who can remain unvaccinated without risking epidemics should be reserved for those who cannot be vaccinated or for whom vaccines would be ineffective. For me, the decision is easy because the risks of not enforcing vaccinations are so extreme compared to the risks of large-scale public vaccination programs.

Yet many people still fall for the lure of being perfectly safe from vaccine side effects. They are like people sitting in a rowboat who are so afraid of getting splinters that they jump out and into piranha-infested waters.

"Because he's crazy!"

Look, folks, when you write your villains, stop using "They're crazy!" as a motivation. Crazy is not a character trait. Crazy is not a reason to be a villain. Crazy is a thing that happens to villains, heroes, and bystanders, and it doesn't turn the one into the other. I'm looking at you, Batman writers.

Using "crazy" as a reason for your character to do what they're doing is not good enough. Yeah, your villain can be crazy. So can your hero, if you like. Cool. I'm all about inclusion. But if your villain is out there terrorizing Gotham "because he's crazy!", then you're being a lazy, lazy writer.

Oh, I know it's tempting. You're sitting there going, "So what's my villain's motivation?" and you have to think about their backstory and their goals and all of that; but hey, it's lunchtime and you really want that burrito. So instead of, y'know, thinking, you go, "I know how I'm gonna solve all this! I'm just gonna make my villain crazy! Crazy people don't need motivations!"

Yes. They. Do.

Don't use crazy as a cop-out. It's bad writing.

I have a headache...

I have a headache....
  Well, go take a tylenol.
I go to the kitchen, forget why I'm there, and make coffee. I like coffee.
I still have a headache.
  Did you really forget to get that painkiller?
I go to the kitchen, wander away halfway there, and end up petting the cat. She purrs.
I still have a headache.
  Really? This time, get up and actually go take some painkiller.
I'm really having trouble with executive function today. I should blog about this.
I blog about it. I still have a headache.
  Maybe now that you're done, you'll finally be able to successfully take some frickin' tylenol?!


And this, ladies and gentlefolks, is how a simple task can take half an hour.

Theory of Mind

I remember the first time I explicitly used theory of mind.

I was maybe... eight years old, or so. I was sitting at my window, looking outside. It was a sunny summer day. A block or two down the road, a boy was dribbling a basketball. I watched him and I noticed that I could hear the ball hitting the pavement just a little later than I could see it. I knew this was because sound travels more slowly than light; I had read about it in one of my books about weather, which explained how you could tell how far away a thunderstorm was by counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder.

Then I thought to myself: "If I were him, I would hear and see the ball hitting the pavement at the same time." And I remember making the mental switch to another perspective, standing on a driveway, bouncing a basketball, perhaps looking up at a house down the way where a little girl was looking out her window. I remember thinking that people's worlds must all be slightly different from each other, depending on who they were and where they were. I remember thinking that each person had their own separate world, and it almost made me dizzy.

That was around the time that I realized it was possible to flip one's perspective, mentally, and figure out what someone else might be thinking. Most kids learn theory of mind around four years old or so, and I'm sure I'd been figuring it out myself for some time before that (I remember thining "My mother is wrong" around age six, so I must have known it was possible for two people to think two different things at that age), but I do think I might have been a little late in figuring out the mental switch involved in theory of mind. Mental switching in general is hard for me.

Autistic people often have a hard time with thinking about two or more people's perspectives at once. It's mental multi-tasking that's hard to juggle for people who have a hard time multi-tasking; multi-tasking requires switching from one task to another very rapidly, and many autistics have trouble switching at all. So it's a difficult puzzle for us to learn. It takes us longer, like it takes a dyslexic person longer to learn to read.

Not every autistic person is delayed in learning theory of mind--in fact, some are so extremely sensitive to others' minds that they lose themselves in others' emotions--but I'm one of the ones who tended to ignore other people and focus on information. That's probably why I needed to use the idea of sound and light speeds as a bridge to think about the differences between human minds; it was easier to think about science than about multiple perspectives.

If you, or a younger autistic friend, have trouble with theory of mind, maybe it's easier to think about it as a logic puzzle than to think about it as a social skill. Maybe we could teach autistic children how to figure out what somebody else is thinking, by presenting it as a logic puzzle.

Start with visual perspectives; those are easiest. Sit on opposite sides of a table with a partner; put up a divider between you, and hide something on one side of the divider so that only one of you can see it. Observe how you can see the object only if it is on your side of the divider; then demonstrate that if you were on the other side of the divider, you could not see it. You could talk about what you know versus what your partner knows. That is the simplest type of theory of mind--two perspectives on the same situation, with a setup you can visualize. Practice the mental switching; place yourself mentally in the other person's position, and compare where you are to that mental image.

In most interpersonal ToM puzzles, the divider isn't physical. The "divider" is the fact that two people's minds operate independently of each other. So, in order to solve the puzzle, one has to put oneself mentally on the other side of the divider, and then compare that other person's perspective to one's own.

Forming the mental image of the other person's perspective is the first step of theory of mind. While you are doing that, just forget your own perspective for the time being; remembering it will distract you. Form a good picture of the other person's perspective, and remember it. Then, take your own perspective and compare. There will probably be differences. For example, take the situation of giving someone a present. You want to give them something that will make them happy. The instinctive solution is to find something you associate with happiness and give that to them, but that doesn't use theory of mind, and could result in mistakes. Instead, you have to put yourself in their place--make the mental switch--and think about what THEY might associate with happiness. So, perhaps they like drawing, and you do not. You don't associate a set of colored pencils with happiness, but they do. If you want to cheer them up, giving them colored pencils would be a good choice even though colored pencils would not make you happy if you got them.

This is still pretty simple, and I'm sure most autistic adults figured out simple ToM puzzles long ago, just like I did. But the beauty of it is this: The same principles can be applied to really complicated ToM puzzles, too, with multiple people's perspectives in them. Once you know the trick of mentally switching your perspectives to another person's mind-set, you can figure out the way they might see your actions and the actions of those around them; and you can coordinate your perspective with other people's. In the end, if you are good, you should be able to figure out second-order ("What she thinks I am thinking"), third-order ("What he believes I think she must want"), and multiple perspective ("He and she disagree about my beliefs") problems.

But it is really just a logic puzzle. Don't be intimidated by it; it's just a matter of practice. Too many professionals think of "theory of mind" as some magical thing that NTs can do and we can't; in fact, NTs just have sort of a rough, intuitive grasp of it, whereas autistic people, who study it explicitly, often get to be better at theory of mind when NT intuition starts to fail. For example, we tend to understand that people think differently, because we learn pretty early on that we think differently from other people. When an NT switches perspectives with another NT, they can usually just pretend that the other person is more or less just like themselves. But we can't do that--we have to take into account mental differences. When we learn to switch perspectives, late as we may be at learning it, we by definition have to learn to switch into the frame of mind of another person who is different from ourselves.

I think that's why many of us are good at communicating with animals--it's not some kind of psychic link; it's just the way that we tend to understand that animals are who they are, instead of assuming they are just like humans. We might also be pretty good at understanding people who are unusual to us in some way, perhaps those from different cultures, or those with disabilities other than autism, or those who are much older or younger than ourselves. It's not natural talent; it's practice.

NTs might never have to learn how to switch perspectives in any way but the superficial, intuitive style they learn at about four years old, because they don't meet too many people who think in ways very unlike the way they think. But autistic people spend every day interacting with people who don't think the way we do. We study theory of mind like we study math. When professionals say we have "defective theory of mind", I think they had better check their own theory of mind, because while we might be slower at learning it and slower to apply it "in the field", we're perfectly capable of figuring out what the view might be like through somebody else's eyes.


I'm on the last day of finals week, finishing up a term paper for a fetal behavior class. My paper is on the neurological development of the premature infant, but along the way, I came up with some interesting ideas that can't go in the paper... so they are going here.

What I noticed, studying fetal development, is this: The brain-stem is responsible for a surprisingly large part of the late-term fetus and newborn infant's behavior. The brain stem is where your cranial nerves connect; these are the nerves that go to your head and face, and they help you move your face, see things, hear things, and taste and smell things. They carry information to the rest of your brain, where it can be processed--but some of the processing is done in the brain stem. And the brain stem sends out signals, too, prompting behavior.

We call it "reflexive behavior" because the signals to move the muscles involved in it come from the brain stem instead of the cerebral cortex. But the cerebral cortex, in a newborn infant, isn't very well-developed yet, and it doesn't have a lot of say in what the infant does, because it takes a while to connect and myelinate all those neurons. So most of the infant's behavior comes from that wonderful, complex brain stem.

What kind of behavior am I talking about here? Lots of things. Sucking; crying; sleeping and waking. Turning toward a noise or a light. Even learning. That's right: The human brainstem is capable of learning. Present the same sound over and over to a late-term fetus or a newborn baby, and the child will habituate and stop reacting to the sound. But when you change the sound to a different pitch, the child begins to react again. That's learning.

Life at this age is simple, and so is behavior. But that's the way it's supposed to be. A person has to build up the basics before those complicated, cortical, conscious behaviors can be initiated. Even in adulthood, most of your thinking is done subconsciously--even if you're autistic and you process more sensory information consciously than most people do, you probably breathe subconsciously.

So... the title of this post is "Anencephaly", and I haven't mentioned that until now. Anencephaly is a birth defect that happens when the neural tube doesn't close--the neural tube is the structure of the embryo, very early on in development, and the top end forms the brain. If the head end of the neural tube doesn't close, then the top of the nervous system doesn't form, and a child is born without a cerebral cortex; there's a head and a face, but the top of the skull, and the part of the brain that ought to be inside the top of the skulll, is missing. Babies with anencephaly, if they survive birth, have a life expectancy of hours to days. Exceptional cases have survived for weeks. Children with hydranencephaly (a milder version of anencephaly involving a closed skull, the cerebral cortex replaced with cerebrospinal fluid, and often some small portions of the brain remaining and functional) have survived for years.

I've read a few stories from mothers of anencephalic babies who carried to term and spent that short time with their babies, whether minutes or weeks, and they're not what you'd expect. The tragedy of losing a child is there, and that's not surprising--but these anencephalic infants don't behave at all like what you would expect. Their mothers describe them waking, sleeping, sucking on a bottle, grimacing, responding to sound, lifting their heads. They kick their legs and wave their arms, quiet when they hear their mothers' voices, and respond to human touch.

All that with just a brain stem.

I used to think that it was mother's love that made these grieving families describe their anencephalic babies' behavior as being so complex, but now, after I've studied embryology, I believe their accounts. "Just a brain stem" is a pretty odd way to put it, once you know what a brain stem is. It's a very complex structure, and lots of our thinking takes place there. When we're very, very young--fetuses, newborns--most of our thinking takes place there. The brain stem forms first, matures first, and serves us well while our cerebral cortex develops. Babies with just brain stems can't live to grow up--without the cortex, their breathing eventually becomes disorganized; and were they to be maintained on a ventilator, their health would eventually fail--but they can behave very much like any other baby.

Knowing that, it seems very sad to me that doctors, when giving a diagnosis of "anencephaly", often imply to their patients that their baby is not really a baby because most of the brain has not developed. They recommend termination, shortening an already tragically short life, as though the simple existence of a newborn with only a brain stem were not worth experiencing. Except... at that age, a typical newborn's cerebral cortex isn't actually doing that much work yet. The cerebral cortex is the difference between life and death, and the seat of consciousness and what will be, about eighteen months later, a sense of self--but a lot of the typical newborn's behavior is still reflexive. All of that, the anencephalic newborn will also have.

Anencephaly is used as an extreme example of disability, and when it's used, the speaker seems to assume that anybody would agree that a life with only a brain stem is not worth living. It's used to introduce the idea that the complexity of one's cognitive experiences can be used to determine the value of one's life. Extended to slightly less severe disability, what if a person's brain is impaired to the point that they will never reach that 18-month-old's concept of "That's me in the mirror"; are their lives worth living? What about those who will never use complex language, will never learn to read, will never graduate from high school... will never... will never... ...

The fallacy here is that you can ever judge a person's life by how good they are at thinking. A brain stem isn't as complex as a cerebral cortex, but it's still something, and most disabled people have much more than that. Maybe doctors look down on those with intellectual disabilities because doctors themselves have to be so intelligent and have been taught, for decades, to value intelligence. They've got their heads in clouds of calculus and anatomy, and they don't know enough theory of mind to turn themselves around and think about what it might be like to look out of the eyes of someone who values things that don't have much to do with being smart.

I think there are a lot of parents out there who've been cheated out of those few, short, precious minutes or hours with an anencephalic baby they were told wasn't worth getting to know. And that generalizes to disability, as a whole. There are a lot of parents who have cheated themselves out of loving their real child, because they were too focused on the will-nevers and the child they thought they would have. There are even parents who have killed their disabled child as though the child were a usurper or fairy changeling, not a child at all.

We've got to stop doing this. We've got to stop judging people by what they can't do. If it's possible to marvel at the complexity of the human brain stem and see beauty and humanity in the short life of an an anencephalic infant, shouldn't it be just as possible to celebrate the lives of other disabled children, no matter how severe their impairments might be? To dwell on the "will-nevers" and "can'ts" is to ignore the things that are possible and the child who is real, and really there.