Theory of Mind with Maude Le Roux
It has become a game where our son will walk up and smack Dada yelling “Aow!” in order to see this reaction from his father. He follows that up with a very playful, “Dada, are you ok? Are you happy, Dada?”
Maude had told us that our son is asking those questions because he wants Dad to participate in the game again, not because he understands that he hurt Dada and understands how Dad might feel. He is not being malicious or hurtful. He just likes to see the reaction, and he is noticing that it has an effect.
Maude had suggested that Dad say “Aow!” with a lot of affect and keep our son in that moment as long as possible, in order to foster our son’s recognition of the effect he’s having on his Dad, but Dad’s not comfortable doing that.
What Dad was comfortable doing was lay on the bed with a sad state on his face for an extended period of time, saying “You hurt me” in a calm, sad voice. This made our son quite uncomfortable and so he continued to hit to try to get a reaction out of Dad. It frustrated him that Dad didn’t get worked up.
What I Did
Well, we weren’t fast enough and our son ran and knocked down the kids’ castle. The girl building it was so upset and started crying. Dada immediately firmly stated, “That’s it! We’re going!” grabbing his hand and pulling him away, but I said, “Wait! Wait! Wait!” I picked our son up like a baby and carried him over to where the girl was crying next to the collapsed castle and said calmly with great concern, “Oh no! Look what happened! The girl is so sad! She’s crying. She’s soooo upset. She worked so hard to build that tower!”
As I spoke slowly with a comforting tone, I continued, “You didn’t mean to make her sad but she’s so sad!” He was listening to everything I was saying. I think that part of it was going in and some of him was still unaware. He responded, “I knocked it down. I want to build it again!” I squeezed him and asked, “Is there anything you want to say to her?” (rather than directing him about what to say). He said, “Sorry, girl.”
In his experience, centralized on himself, that’s the most important thing. We’re taking that sense of self that he has accumulated and trying to turn it to what another person is thinking to invite empathy out. He has cognitive empathy. The girl is sad. But he may not feel it. It’s when you really understand it without talking that the true empathy happens. If I come back from this great vacation then I come in and you don’t look good, I can switch and change that emotion and say “Hey, what’s up?” to reach out, while suppressing my own need to share my excitement of my vacation.
Parents have the most power to create that intersubjective response–getting each other without having to talk. You’re sitting at a dinner party and someone says something and you can look at your partner with that knowing glance and know what each other is thinking. You feel and “get” each other. If anyone can put that message into the child’s mind, it’s the parent. We have this power as parents.
Until next time, here’s to affecting autism through play!