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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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A Lesson in Theory of Mind

Copyright 2000 Roger N. Meyer



     [This post was written to an AS-only Email list to address a reaction at work experienced by a list member .  He works in an enlightened "supported work environment."  He wrote saying he had knocked on the door of an occupied bathroom where cleaning supplies were also kept.  The result was a swift, harsh rebuke from the worker's boss.  The worker was sent home for the rest of the day.  He does not understand what the fuss was about.  Other AS posters to the list seemed to have trouble understanding the core issues discussed below.]


     Work bathrooms tend to be more formally "ruled" than bathrooms in private residences, and there is a good reason for this.  Disturbing someone in a work bathroom by knocking because you have a priority indicates that you don't understand the function of (1) the closed door; (2) the institutional expectations of privacy and freedom from disturbance of the person in the bathroom--an "absolute"; and (3) the issue of timing and appropriateness of behavior around these privacy matters.  The door itself, closed or open, also has additional "conceptual gate keeping" symbolic significance.  (See below.)


     Bathrooms at work aren't like residential bathrooms, because people at home rarely "retire" to the bathroom when they are under stress.  It is a well understood workplace social convention that work bathrooms serve as a place of sanctuary and recovery for persons who are temporarily stressed out and need a quiet place to unwind.  This is an added feature to workplace bathrooms that form a part of the social culture of work.  At times when it was possible to "take a smoke break," bathrooms were commonly used for just that purpose...a place to retire to reduce one's personal stress by inhaling nicotine.  Now, most public work places have rules about using the bathroom for such purposes.  Hence you see the hopeless nicoholics hanging around the outside stair exits of office buildings or up on the roof in the open air.  They are taking a "smoke break," but in addition to satisfying an addictive craving, they are, literally, "breathing deeply" and engaging in an activity that has nothing to do with work and everything to do with stress relief.


     Even if the person in the bathroom isn't under stress, knocking on the door for ANY other reason than to determine whether it is occupied (if it's locked, that's a no-brainer) is considered an unacceptable behavior.


     On airlines and in some very public places, bathroom toilet stalls are marked with an "occupied" signal either near the doorknob or somewhere near eye level.  It is extremely rare to see such signal locks at places of employment because people there aren't strangers nor is the bathroom itself considered a "public space" warranting some additional occupancy signaling.


     While we may be literal thinkers and while we may have social skills deficits, another issue was in play here.  It had to do not with the fact of the knocking (which, without the asking of any question at all is sometimes considered ok) but with the knocker's needs and state of mind.  In a service center I used to work in, it wasn't uncommon for members of the public to occasionally forget to lock the public bathroom door by swinging the little lever up on the inside door handle, and it was and is considered common courtesy by everyone to do a very light rap a couple of times on the door if it was closed.  The rapping occurs BEFORE the handle is tried from the outside.  In the event the place IS occupied by someone who forgot to lock the door, the knocking itself serves as a physical equivalent of a voice asking "Is anyone in there?  OR "Please say something if you accidentally forgot to lock the door."  If someone is in the bathroom and has forgotten to lock the door, they will usually say "Just a minute, please," or something to that effect.  That lets the person outside know that the place is both occupied and also, possibly, that the door has been accidentally left unlocked and that intrusion is NOT welcome under this circumstance.


     Here John was looking for cleaning supplies.  That was something foremost on his mind.  For the person occupying the bathroom, he was using it as a bathroom, not a storeroom.  Although the user knew it to be a storage location for cleaning supplies, closing and locking the door changed the definition of the room.  To put it minimally, this is an etiquette thing.  If the bathroom had been open, there would have been no need to knock, and no need to say anything.  John could have gone straight to the closet or other storage area and found the Windex.  When the bathroom door is open, that is a "signal" that the dual use of the room as a storage space AND a bathroom can be considered of equal consequence to the person entering the room.  When door is closed, the fact of the door's being closed also shuts off the appropriateness of considering the space as a storage room.  That is what I mean by the "symbolic gate keeping" function of the open vis a vis the closed door.


     It's kind of like the game of peek a boo to the baby.  To very young infants, if one hides one's face or a familiar object behind a screen, or one's hand, the object "simply isn't there."  Hence the delight seen in the infant's face when the object (usually of delight) is "uncovered."  For the baby, who has a very undeveloped "working memory," it isn't being "uncovered."  It is being "discovered."  That's because temporary spatial relationships form early in the brain, but the more complex processing used to determine whether an object not seen is "there or not" IS an advanced developmental function.  We won't go into the Theory of Mind, the Sally Ann experiment, or Tower of Hanoi stuff right now.  That isn't necessary, but the principles of cognition and concept formation involved with Theory of Mind do come into play in this bathroom thing.  As autistic folks, some of us have much graver challenges in this area than others.  Resolving some of the issues is a function of repeated experience and the formal rules' being explicitly described to us.  We have "mind reading" problems.  We often expect others to know what is on our minds without saying much more; we often expect our priorities to be intuited by others without formally checking whether that is the case.  We often think we know what is on the other person's mind, but we don't have the skills to check that out without getting burned.


     Even "mild persistence" in John's case in the face of all of the "warning signals" generated a consequence he didn't expect.  The warning signals were there.  The door was closed.  It was also locked from the inside:  John's behavior was inappropriate because he was aware of both signals, yet didn't connect them with the need of a person using the bathroom for privacy and not being disturbed during that time.  Another warning signal was John's intention.  He was on a mission that didn't include considering the needs of another person or even his own probable past experiences in using the room as a bathroom.  Although the door was closed and locked, he visualized "store room."  Remember, that when the door is closed, the option of whether the room serves a dual function as a storage room for cleaning supplies is "not there."  The closed door "means" that for the time it is closed, the room is "not to be considered as a storage room" for anyone knocking.  That's the "unwritten rule."


     Of course, there may be an additional explanation for the unpleasantness following the event:  The boss may have been having a bad day and what happened just "put him over the edge."  Sometimes when a supervisor does something "out of scale," it is very difficult for the supervisor to offer an apology or back down from a publicly taken action or position.  Then, in order to justify the "borderline behavior, " the supervisor can either refuse to talk about the incident, or be terse in his explanations regarding the disciplinary action to an employee.  It's useful to remember that persons in positions of authority can act "unfairly" on occasion, even if most of the time they are a mode of equinanimous civility.


     It's called " a bad hair day," or "got out on the wrong side of the bed" day, or "the dog barfed on the carpet JUST as I was leaving for work" day.


     These things happen.


     What might be useful to "tidy this event up" and provide some closure to everyone, would be for John to approach someone he is comfortable talking to, and "ask" for a formal explanation of bathroom door etiquette.  Once John gets a good understanding of some of the rules, it may be possible for him to then approach the boss and offer not the excuse of his autism, but an explanation of his behavior with the additional information that he went the extra step to learn about bathroom door etiquette, and that he has learned more than just a lesson in manners.  He has learned the function of the behavior we call "manners."


     At the same time, this incident brings one thing out rather clearly.  Our agendas are often not the same as those of other people, and in this case, the "looking for the Windex" was, as we say, "off the boss's radar scope."  To the boss, the request may have seemed to come from out of the blue, and even if the question was asked once, any number of things alluded to above may have triggered the boss's response.


     Here's how some of this "knowing another person's mind" stuff works.  This is a true "tale."


     A couple of weeks ago I was counseling someone who had just been placed in a new worksite at his present employer.  The people were different.  The break times were different.  He hadn't been instructed about how he was to do the tasks of his job.  It could have been the recipe for disaster.  Instead, we took things one at a time.  Performance concerns came first.  He was transferred to the new job because he had done well in his previous position.  One of the reasons he had done well is because his cousin worked at the old work area and acted as a job coach and trainer.  I had arranged this set-up when he was first placed there, knowing that he liked his cousin, they "spoke the same language" and that while he was learning his job, his cousin could be an advocate for him.  It worked out very well.  In his new work site, there was one person who he knew from his old location, across the building.  That one person happened to be the team leader in his old area who had just gotten promoted and was being trained as a production supervisor for the whole floor.  I had worked with his team leader before when he first started, and together we came up with a system of natural supports in the workplace that didn't interfere with production and that allowed the guy to perform well almost from the moment he arrived there off the street.


     So, the first thing we talked about was communicating his need for training and guidance.  Fortunately, the supervisor in training knew that having natural supports for this guy had made his previous work a smashing success.  All three of us met the following day for just a half hour, and by the time the meeting ended, he was assigned a "buddy" who was very much like him.... soft spoken and rather shy.  The buddy was later to agree to a quarter an hour "training incentive" increase in pay while he was teaching my guy the ropes.  The money wasn't much, but being paid to help often makes a difference.  We explained to the buddy that once my guy was trained, his "buddy pay" would go back down, but that he would be rewarded with an "honored worker" parking spot for a month.  That's all it took.  For three days, the "buddy" stuck to him like glue.  By then end of the first week, the guy was at a sixty percent performance rate, something non-disabled "new workers" are expected to reach on their own after four weeks!  Already it was a "money maker" for the buddy, for the employee, and for the boss.


     Oh, the rest of the reason for the story:  My guy got a "friend" for breaks and lunch.  The last time I talked with him, he was telling me about some of the social secrets of the place.  He even shared a corny joke with me.  He is AS.  Now someone was clueing him in, and he felt great about not only doing a good job, but that he was "getting it" and being recognized as a good trainee and a good worker.


     Everybody wins in this one.


     The point to all of this:


     Remember.  We "aren't our AS."  We are just plain "us."  Different yes, but by emphasizing our Aspieness we are spending a lot of time thinking of what we can't do and what we don't know   We are more than our deficits.


     I sympathize with John and I know how hard it is to get a lot of the unwritten, informal social rules.  What makes the difference with us as Aspies is that we are bright, and if we set our minds to it, we can show a willingness to learn from even our bad experiences and move on.  Showing others that we have learned from them is equally important.  It offers an opportunity for well-deserved recognition that in turn boosts our own feelings of competence.


     On the job and off.


Copyright Issues


This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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