Sunday, November 17, 2013

Theory of Mind and Literary Fiction

Last month a report that appeared in Science magazine entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” caught my attention as an autism mom and as an English teacher. [To read the summary of this article, click here.] Some researchers believe that people with autism lack Theory of Mind, or the ability to understand that other people have different thoughts and feelings than they do. Some have simplified this concept to the belief that people with autism lack empathy, or the ability to understand and share others’ emotions. Of course, those who cannot understand other people’s feelings and predict how they may react in situations are likely to have impaired social skills, which are also common in people with autism.

To assess Theory of Mind, researchers use the Sally-Ann test to see if children can understand how other people think. This test uses a story format with two girls, Sally and Ann. Sally has a ball, which she puts in a basket, and then she leaves the room. While she is gone, her tricky friend Ann removes the ball from the basket and places it in a box instead. Children are then asked to guess where Sally will look for the ball when she returns. Those who understand Sally’s thinking will choose the basket, knowing that’s where Sally thinks she left the ball. Those who lack Theory of Mind will choose the box because that’s where they know the ball has been placed. Typically children with autism believe that Sally knows the ball is in the box because they know it’s there; they don’t stop to consider that Sally is unaware that the ball has been moved while she was gone.

Since Alex has never been tested for Theory of Mind as far as I know, I was curious to see how he would do with the Sally-Ann test. When I gave him the test this morning, he immediately gave me the right answer, confidently telling me that Sally would look for her ball in the basket. Was this a lucky guess, or does Alex truly possess Theory of Mind? From recent progress we have seen in Alex, I believe that he has developed some understanding of the way other people think.

As the article in Science magazine points out, little research has been done to determine what helps develop Theory of Mind. With Alex, I think that behavioral therapy has helped him to understand better how his actions impact others. Through social stories and scripts his behavioral therapist has developed, Alex recites the rules for interacting with other people. For example, in his script “I Need to Keep My Hands to Myself,” he reminds himself that he needs to stop when he wants to touch someone or their belongings. The last line of this script explains the outcome when he follows the guidelines: “EVERYONE is happy when I keep my hands to myself.” In addition, his behavioral therapist discusses with Alex the potential consequences of impulsive behaviors, asking him what can happen if he would throw some something or grab someone. He knows that those are bad behaviors and can verbalize that he doesn’t want to break things or hurt people. He will sometimes add, “That would be sad.”

One of the recent changes that we have noticed is that Alex is showing interest in stories that have a plot. An avid reader, he has always preferred to read nonfiction works, especially reference books such as almanacs, encyclopedias, and dictionaries, to fiction works. Not surprisingly, his viewing preferences followed his reading choices, and he generally only watched game shows and news programs on television. After he lost interest in watching Disney cartoon movies, he never showed much interest in watching other kinds of movies. We were never sure whether this was a personal taste of his, or whether he couldn’t focus for an extended period of time or follow a story with a plot. Nonetheless, he has recently begun watching television shows and movies, enjoying them thoroughly. He has become a fan of two of my old favorites, The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, following the struggles and triumphs of the Walton family in the 1930’s and 40’s and the Ingalls family of the late 1800’s. Even though their lives are quite different from his, Alex seems to show concern for the problems the characters face and acts pleased when they are able to overcome their struggles. Perhaps these shows have taught him how other people think and react in different situations.

According to the article in Science magazine, researchers discovered that those who read literary fiction did much better on Theory of Mind testing than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all. Perhaps literary fiction allows the reader to identify with characters and then apply their understanding to people in real life. As an English teacher, I often take a psychological approach to literature, teaching my students to identify characters’ motives and to assess why characters act as they do in their circumstances. Although I wasn’t thinking about Theory of Mind specifically, I have always wanted my students to apply literature to their own lives to give real meaning to what they have read. As Common Core Standards become the educational guidelines for nearly all of the United States, their emphasis upon nonfiction could be potentially damaging for the development of students’ social skills. While nonfiction has its place in the real world, those of us who know the value of literary fiction will need to make certain students have the opportunity to read works that make them think about how humans deal with problems and interact with others so that they may develop their own interpersonal skills. With this in mind, I hope to engage Alex in more literary fiction, introducing him to some of my favorite characters so that he can not only enjoy interesting plots, but also learn from characters who can further develop his Theory of Mind and his social skills. As always, we try to keep Alex moving forward so that he can reach his full potential.

“All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.” Acts 4:32


Phyllis said...

This was a very interesting article, Pam! Good point about the use of literary fiction---everyone can use a good example of how to act with other people and to have concern and empathy.

I'm so glad to hear about Alex and his understanding about other people's feelings!

*PS* I also love that you find a scripture to put at the end of your blogs. You always make me think, and to feel more positive. Thanks!

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks so much for your kind comments, Phyllis! I'm pleased you like the scriptures I include; they help remind me to never give up hope. :)
Take care,