In 1985, Simon Baron-Cohen published his now-famous study of emotional perspective-taking among children with Autism Spectrum Disorder1. In it, he and his coauthors found that children on the Autism Spectrum were unable to impute beliefs to puppets in pretend play. They saw this a failure of “Theory of Mind,” which can basically be described as the knowledge that other people have thoughts and feelings of their own. Subsequent research has supported their argument, elaborated upon it by proposing other emotional problems in ASD2, and provoked some people to disagree3 – and those links only constitute a very, very small percentage of the number of words spent discussing it.
Recently, I spoke to a seasoned clinician with 40 years of experience working in special education in public schools. She has been assessing and treating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder since before that term was even conceived. I asked her what her most powerful clinical tool was, and she told me the one question she asks every kid on her caseload: Tell me about the last time you were embarrassed.
We spend a lot of time talking about superheroes with kids on the Autism Spectrum. This is partially because of Michelle Garcia Winner’s SuperFlex curriculum4, which sees widespread use in the schools, but of course also because children like talking about superheroes. It’s only fitting that when we start talking about embarrassment, we should talk about superheroes too.
Superheroes, by definition, have superpowers. Some of them can even read minds. In comics, magic waves can shoot from the superhero’s brain to represent this power as the superhero stares intently at the his nemesis, the archvillain, to determine what nefarious plans have been set in motion. As readers, we look at this ability and see it as enviable, as fantastic. The funny thing is, we attempt to read each other minds with every single social interaction, every single day. Having read someone’s mind successfully can result in a positive social interaction – but it also can result in embarrassment, as you come to realize how some flaw or failure is perceived by others.
I’ve been using that question – Tell me about the last time you were embarrassed – with the kids I work with recently, and I’ve found out something very interesting: The kids who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder frequently don’t have an answer. If they do, it feels mechanical, as though they’ve been trained to identify and describe emotions – as, of course, they often have. Embarrassment, perhaps more than any other emotion, relies upon our ability to take the perspective of others, identify their feelings, and reflect upon ourselves. In the absence of this “Theory of Mind,” there’s no understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings – and no motivation to learn.
This, of course, is all a dramatic oversimplification. I have no research evidence to support whether this question, in this context, phrased that way, is in any way diagnostic of Autism Spectrum Disorder. However, when it comes to translating theoretical concepts into clinical practice, sometimes the best information can come from the simplest things. If you ask a child about the last time they were embarrassed, they might not have an answer because they don’t know the word, don’t want to answer, or genuinely don’t remember. No matter what, their response gives you a data point that can contribute to planning your therapy. All of the information coded into the potential answers above (lack of theory of mind, knowledge of vocabulary, social anxiety, etc.) is therapeutically relevant for Speech-Language Pathologists and other special educators. If you get a great answer about a specific time your student was embarrassed, that will also give you a ton of information about that kid’s social motivations that you can use when working toward goals. It’s a mutual gain no matter what.
Embarrassment is one of many feelings that lie across the vast spectrum of human emotions. We don’t talk about embarrassment much – probably because reliving those moments is uncomfortable. Embarrassment involves a complex analysis of our behavior and how it does not match the social expectation of a specific setting. Even the memory of embarrassment can trigger a powerful physical reaction that is the result of a very high-level metacognitive understanding of one’s social behavior. We feel embarrassed because we recognize that another person thinks our actions are inappropriate, or incompetent, or otherwise flawed. We know that we have made a social mistake. We have read the minds of the other people in the room and feel their disapproval. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, that concept may be foreign. Clinically, we can start to ask them that question – and we can also start to tell our own stories, to help the development of this higher-level emotion for children with any learning profile. Even Superheroes make mistakes.
One unifying fact about embarrassment is that it teaches us a lesson. When you talk about your own feelings, talk about what you learned. The most formative lessons on cultural norms come from our errors. Embrace your mistakes, embrace your embarrassment, and share your perspective with your kids. In doing so, you can do your part as a clinician to give your students superpowers.
Lucas Steuber, MA-T, MS SLP/CF wrote this article in collaboration with other contributors. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 – http://autismtruths.org/pdf/3.%20Does%20the%20autistic%20child%20have%20a%20theory%20of%20mind_SBC.pdf
2 – http://www.icn.ucl.ac.uk/dev_group/ufrith/documents/Frith,%20Happe%20and%20Siddons,%20Autism%20and%20theory%20of%20mind%20in%20everyday%20life%20copy.pdf
3 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ariane-zurcher/autism-theory_b_1594706.html
4 – http://www.socialthinking.com/books-products/products-by-age-range/grades-3-5/superflex-a-superhero-social-thinking-curriculum-package-detail