by Julia Bascom
I’ve told this story before.
I didn’t have any theory of mind until I was 13.5. I have a very poor autobiographical memory, but I remember the acquisition vividly. I was in gym, attempting to serve a volleyball, and I turned to Sarah, monologuing in my head about something (a strategy I had developed last year to help me with thinking) and she was thinking. I had a mental stream of consciousness in my head. So did she. I looked around the gym. So did everyone.
I was thinking about them. They could think about me.
I would never feel safe again.
A lot of things changed with that realization. I’d never gained any information from eye contact, but now it terrified me. I’d been abused by my peers, but now I realized that there was a persistent mental component as well. That they wanted to hurt me. They thought about me being confused and scared, and they liked it. I’d been doing very well without any sort of therapy or medications for almost a year—I was back at the doctor’s within a month, got another new therapist, and soon started medication. My panic attacks began to last upwards of 36 hours. I started banging my head. I damaged my eyes. I started gouging out my skin. I got a staph infection, and I almost died, twice. I am covered in scars and discolorations.
I am told that I was not, before this discovery, an anxious child. I generally felt safe.
I owe a lot to my discovery of theory of mind. I just can’t think of one positive.
I can’t pass the Sally-Ann tests, even now. The language confuses me. But I do know, now, that other people have minds, and they can think with them. About whatever they want. About me.
Which means I will never, ever be safe. I never was.
After all, it’s not just that other people have minds. It’s that they can think things I don’t. They can be thinking about me without my knowledge. But it gets worse.
They can be wrong.
Maybe because I’m autistic, and people think (there we go again, theory of mind) that this means I am a robot. I would love to be a robot, personally. I am always very concerned with accuracy. The thing that upsets me most about “autism science,” isn’t actually the dehumanization and the consequences—it’s the bad science. The most terrifying and distressing thing in the world to me is something being incorrect.
Maybe it’s because I’m autistic, and thus a robot. Maybe it’s because I’m autistic, and therefore a simpler, lesser, smaller brain and in desperate need of order. Maybe it’s because I’m autistic, and therefore abused, and I know the consequences of acting on mistaken beliefs about someone, know them in my bones.
My ability to acknowledge other minds means that I can converse more effectively than I could before. It also means I am never, ever safe. It means that I can see people being wrong, and I can see other people accepting and believing and spreading the misinformation, and I have to keep quiet. But to me, danger and anxiety and this is wrong are all the same.
So I am never safe.
I have theory of mind, now. I’d like to call it something more accurate.
Maybe theory of war.
About the Author: Julia Bascom is an Autistic writer, and Just Stimming… is her internet home and the official depository of her collected writings about disability, disability justice, and growing up and living as an Autistic girl. Julia started writing when she was twelve and now makes speeches and presentations on Autistic identity and culture, as well as contributing to the blog LOVE-NOS.
Theory of War first appeared on her blog, Just Stimming…, and is reprinted here by permission