Self-Direction vs. Self-Absorption

This post originally appeared on the Field Notes on Allistics Tumblr.

A very famous allism researcher once noted that the primary difference between normal people and allistics is that, while normal people are self-directed, allistics are self-absorbed.  I didn’t understand that today until I saw how Alia, our eight-year-old allistic daughter, behaved at her psychologist appointment.

The psychologist has been testing Alia recently to get some sense of the depths of her allism, so that we can create a more effective IEP.  (Her third-grade teacher has been pushing to have her moved into a special ed classroom, insisting that Alia’s persistent interest in what other children are doing is both distracting them and slowing Alia down.  I fail to see how my daughter is ever supposed to learn to function among normal people if she doesn’t spend as much time with them as possible.  But I digress.)

Today, the psychologist gave her something called the “Absorptive Assumptions” test, or the “Sal-Annie” test.  It works something like this:

Sal and Annie are two cartoon characters.  Sal has a box and Annie has a basket.  While both are in the same room, Sal takes a marble out of his pocket and puts it in the box.  Then, Sal leaves the room.  While Sal is out of the room, Annie takes the marble out of the box and puts it in the basket.  Then, Sal comes back into the room.  The question is, where will Sal look for the marble: in the box or in the basket?

The answer, of course, is that the question is unanswerable with the information given.  We simply don’t know where Sal will look, because we know nothing about the relationship between Sal and Annie or any agreements or arrangements they have with one another.  For instance, we don’t know whether the marble actually belongs to Annie (in which case Sal will probably look in the basket, guessing that Annie has retrieved her property) or whether Annie was not supposed to touch the marble (in which case Sal will probably look in the box, guessing that Annie has obeyed the rules – unless Sal also knows Annie is a consummate rule-breaker).  We don’t even know whether Sal was watching through the window or by another means by which he could see what Annie actually did.

As the psychologist explained it to me, however, this is not the answer allistic children typically give.  Allistic children typically answer “the box,” because that was the last place Sal knew the marble was.  They put themselves in Sal’s place to deduce that Sal won’t know what happened when he was outside the room.

The problem with this assumption – and the reason the test is considered so reliable for gauging allistic self-absorption – is that the allistic child puts himself or herself in Sal’s place, rather than recognizing that Sal is a separate individual with a separate, individually-developed relationship with Annie.  They assume that Sal has the same relationship with Annie, the marble, the box, and the basket that they have (essentially, they are all strangers to the allistic test-taker) and that therefore Sal will respond to the situation the same way they would.

Many commentators (I’ve read them) assume, hopefully, that this is actually a sign of normal self-direction.  But I think Alia’s psychologist is right in identifying it as the kind of pathological self-absorption that fits the allism diagnosis.  This is, after all, not a task that asked Alia to generate her own set of instructions and follow them to complete a self-assigned task (sorting blocks, completing a puzzle, lining up toy cars by self-specified categories, etc.)  It asked her to recognize that not everyone perceives the world the way she does – a task at which she, regrettably, failed.

I love my daughter.  It hurts to watch her fail at such a seemingly obvious mental task.  But the psychologist reassures me that allistic children can learn that other individuals are, in fact, motivated by their own experiences.  I can only hope.

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