Autistic Spectrum Digest (Autism) Issue 22, September 2015 - Page 55

Historical accuracy aside, one of my favorite moments in the movie is when a young Alan is talking to his friend Christopher about coded messages. Christopher explains cryptography as "messages that anyone can see, but no one knows what they mean, unless you have the key." A very puzzled Alan replies: How is that different from talking? [...] When people talk to each other, they never say what they mean, they say something else. And you're expected to just know what they mean. Only I never do. Autistic people are characterized by many different traits, but one of the most prevalent is social blindness: We have trouble reading the emotions of others. We lack the "Theory of mind" used by neurotypical people to attribute mental states (like beliefs and intents) to others. We often take things literally because we're missing the subtext: it's difficult for us to read between the lines. Liane Holliday Willey, an autistic author and speaker, once summarized it this way: You wouldn’t need a Theory of Mind if everyone spoke their mind. How are you? Many languages have a common phrase to ask someone how they're doing, whether it's the French Comment ça va ?, the English How are you? or the German Wie geht's? When I first moved to the US, every time someone asked me "How are you?", I would pause to consider the question. Now, I've learned that it's a greeting, not an actual question, and I've mostly automated the response to the expected "Great, how are you?". It only takes a few milliseconds to switch to that path and short-circuit the questionanswering process. But if people deviate from that usual greeting, then that mental shortcut doesn't work any more. A few weeks ago, someone in the Wikimedia Foundation office asked me "How is your world?", and I froze for a few seconds. In order to answer that question, my brain was reviewing everything that was happening in "my world" (and "my world" is big!), before I realized that I just needed to say "Great! Thanks!". 55