A Little Perspective on Perspective Taking

Over and over again I’ve read that people on the spectrum struggle with perspective taking. I’ve even written that my own perspective taking skills suck.

I’m about to take that back.

This morning I was reading an article about teaching Autistic children. It emphasized that teachers are more effective if they take the perspective of the children they teach.

My first thought was can an allistic (non-autistic) teacher truly take the perspective of an Autistic child? They can try. They can educate themselves about autism and autistic traits. They can observe Autistic people and create situation-based rules. They can make assumptions about what an Autistic child is thinking or why they are behaving in a certain way. They can ask Autistic individuals for input and apply that input to their interactions with their Autistic students.

But they can never, ever truly take the perspective an Autistic child. Why? Because they aren’t Autistic. They can’t know what it feels like to be Autistic.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

When you think about it that way, Autistic people aren’t any more impaired than allistic people in perspective taking. We can take the perspective of other Autistic people quite easily.

It’s taking the perspective of the other 99% of the population that’s challenging. Why? Because allistic thinking doesn’t come naturally to us, no more than Autistic thinking comes naturally to an allistic person.

Experts say that Autistic people don’t realize that others have thoughts that are different from their own. If we’re talking about Autistic adults, this is just silly. Of course we know that other people have thoughts that are different from our own. We don’t always have a good idea what those thoughts (or feelings or motivations) are; for better or worse, we make assumptions based on our own thoughts, feelings and experience.

Allistic people do the exact same thing. Luckily for them, the majority of people around them are also allistic. By default, the odds are quite high that they’ll make a correct assumption about another person’s perspective based on their own perspective. And when a non-autistic person makes an error in perspective taking, we don’t say they’re impaired, we call it a misunderstanding.

If an allistic person tries to take the perspective of an Autistic person based on their own thoughts, motivations and experience, the results can be wildly off the mark. A good example is when teachers and caregivers treat meltdowns as an intentional behavior designed to elicit a specific response. Equating a meltdown with a typical temper tantrum is a massive failure in perspective taking. So much so, that from an Autistic perspective it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad and harmful.

If 99% of the population were Autistic, it would be easy to label the allistic minority “impaired” when they failed to instinctively grasp why their family members all regularly had meltdowns or why everyone on the bus except them was stimming or why their new landlord communicated by typing instead of speaking.

Does that sound like a scary world to live in? I suspect for some it might. It’s hard being surrounded by people whose behavior you don’t understand.

Welcome to the Autistic experience.

We are not born instinctively understanding the allistic world, any more than allistic people are born instinctively understanding the Autistic experience.

43 thoughts on “A Little Perspective on Perspective Taking”

  1. Thank you for pointing out that autistic adults are aware that others have different perspectives! But knowing someone has a different perspective — and understanding/behaving in a way that shows empathy — are two different things. I find myself consciously thinking, “This person thinks/feels differently from me.” But that doesn’t make it any less bewildering to try to react to them in a socially-appropriate way.

    1. I know – I have the same problem! 🙂 But I’m increasingly being exposed to “autistic space” and find that I have much less difficulty responding to other autistic people in socially appropriate ways because the expectations are completely different from general social expectations. I’m leaning toward thinking that we just have a big cultural difference due to our different wiring. We not so much impaired as incredibly different.

      1. That’s a great point. I work at a digital marketing agency (I know, the strangest–and possibly the most stressful–job for an Aspie: attempting to understand and alter NT behavior!). The general joke around the office is that “if Lisa likes the ad, it should be trashed immediately.” While it’s not meant maliciously, and I don’t feel maligned in any way, I HAVE started pointing out that I am just “different,” and represent a whole population of people whose reactions are different. We are our own culture.

        1. Oh no! I think I’d be hesitant to say I liked anything it was just going to get tossed! I’m glad you’ve started pointing out that you think differently, even that does mean differently from the vast majority of other people. 🙂

  2. I often feel like I need a translator to go between me and almost everyone else. It drive me nuts trying to make myself understood and trying to understand everyone else most of the time. I agree about being able to take others’ perspectives vs taking another Autistic’s perspective. I often have people tell them that they don’t have a connection with their kids like I do mine. I tell them it’s because I’m as inside their heads as I am mine most of the time. I understand why they stim, why they echo, why they refuse eye contact, and why they answer questions the way they do MOST of the time. They still stump even me on a regular basis though. Thus the spectrum, we are all a little different no matter how similar we may appear. 🙂 This should be shared with anyone who works in the field with autistic individuals no matter how young or old. 🙂

    1. I completely agree that there is much variation in autistic people and I think our odds of “getting” the perspective of other autistics are a lot better because we share a lot in common. You summed it up perfectly with what you said about your relationship with your children. You don’t get them all the time, but you understand a lot more than an allistic parent would, much of it without having to be “educated” about autism.

  3. Yes! *Fist-pumping-the-air agreement from me!*
    Great post.
    I find that I am starting to get a bit cross about the way autism and Asperger’s is ‘discussed’ by non-autistics. In reading ‘textbooks’ on the subject I am often left seething at the inaccurate and quite frankly, alarmingly simplistic overview of autistic behaviour from non-autistic experts. So thank the gods for autistic people like you who can write so intelligently and honestly about autism.

    1. Thank you! I’m a bit cross lately too, especially when I read books by experts aimed at parents that put forth assumptions (and often misguided assumptions) as truth. Twice I’ve actually wanted to go into my local library and be like “please remove this horrible piece of misinformation from the shelves.” Sigh.

  4. I’ve never even thought of that! It’s amazing how once you get in the mindset that many, if not most of the issues you have are because of who you are and how you think, you forget to go outside that view.

  5. I have had these same feelings for a while now as I start to understand my son better and realize it will always be just sort of an intellectualized understanding of the whys behind his actions. I am never really going to “get it”, I’ll just have to memorize what it means to him and respond accordingly. When I hear autistic adults discuss what it’s like to make sense of allistic ways it often sounds quite similar.

    1. What you describe isn’t just quite similar, it’s exactly similar! 🙂 A good part of my social interaction is based on “memorizing and responding accordingly”. The thing that makes me so happy about your comment is that you’re making the effort to figure this out and respond in ways that are meaningful to your son. That last part especially makes me all bouncy. 🙂

  6. Hi,

    I recently found your blog and am eagerly reading and following. I teach a group of second graders with autism and we work a lot these days on perspective-taking. I find what works, given that I can’t get inside their heads, is to work mutually on recognizing that people have different perspectives. My goal is to not only to help them remember first and foremost that others may have a different perspective without any judgement as to which one is “correct”, but then to guide them in self-advocating for their perspective when non-autistic people don’t understand them or begin to judge. I teach my interns to always delve further and ask questions to help the children to express themselves and their perspective, because what may seem like answers or their interpretation of social events that are totally incorrect are actually very insightful and complex.

    The more we work on perspective-taking as necessary for everyone to practice, rather than something that non-autistic people need to teach autistic people, the more we understand each other and develop respect for our experiences.

    Thank you!

    1. You sound like an awesome teacher. Second graders learning to self-advocate makes me so happy. I love how you presume competence and see the learning process as so interactive and bidirectional. Just, everything about what you said here is terrific and what I would have said in my post if I wasn’t old and cranky. 🙂

      Your students are a lucky bunch of youngsters.

  7. I have been following your blog for about 2 months now. I enjoy your perspective as it males me feel more confortable with my own. I couldn’t agree more. I often think of my differences as being similar to a vastly different yet poorly understood foriegn culture, of course without being grantef the grace of that understanding as I come from this culture. When speaking to others I think of trying to interact well with them as trying to speak a second language and not attaining native proficiency. I often engage a social interlocutor to explain the sometimes puzzling responses I am given. This persons function is to translate-not because I am wrong or different but because a speak and think in a language apart from the majority.

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that you can relate. The cultural analogy is a great one – especially what you say about so many people not even recognizing that there’s a cultural divide in the first place. Having a translator is a blessing. My husband is pretty good at this and my daughter does it instinctively for me at times.

  8. And please remember, it is hard for allistic people to understand the allistic world as well. I mean understanding 99% of the population, good grief, it has taken me almost 25 years of marriage to understand my husband! 🙂

  9. OMG I cannot tell you how freaking awesome this is!!!!!!
    Like I love it so big time I want to call everyone I know and tell them to read it!!!
    You have just articulated things I’ve felt but failed to understand completely and I love, love, love it!!!!
    I have long observed how comfortable my autistic friends are in my home and laughed that as a family we have a gift for calming autistic boys, ummmm, true but also everyone I live with is an autistic male!!!
    The criteria for diagnosis has always shit me too, because so much of it is based on observation in a social context and not biological basis, you’ve just given me a whole new way to explain my displeasure!
    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

    1. Your exclamation points got me all excited!!! Thank you!!!

      It sounds like you have a bit of an autistic space going on at your house. 🙂 I’m so glad you found this helpful.I love coming across a piece of writing that helps me express something in a new way, so I’m sharing in your joy. <—-perspective taking for the win!

      1. Woohooo! That was a lot of exclamation marks wasn’t it? But I was that excited!
        You nailed that perspective taking.
        I explained to my partner what I had just read and he said “well yeah.. I always knew that” lololol! .

  10. Yes. This. Brilliant post. The fact that the blame for the problems in communication between allistics and autistics always falls unquestionably on autistics is shitty and ableist, and it SHOULD be questioned.

    “We don’t always have a good idea what those thoughts (or feelings or motivations) are; for better or worse, we make assumptions based on our own thoughts, feelings and experience.”

    I know I have problems instinctively knowing what’s going through most people’s heads, so I tend not to make too many assumptions. All that means is, instead of being wrong a lot of the time, I am uncertain a lot of the time. I think this is one if the reasons socialising can be so draining. Uncertainty stresses me out. And I have definitely had problems with allistics assuming they know what’s going through my head and getting things wrong.

    (same comment as the one I added when I reblogged this btw, in case either looks strangely familiar)

    1. I know what you mean about the uncertainty. I tend to pendulum back and forth between confidently making incorrect assumptions and then feeling dented by the results and getting overly uncertain. Neither option works out very well. At least the people I most interact with are good at being specific in the ways I need them to and don’t (usually) take offense at my communication style.

      Thank you for the reblog!! 🙂

  11. Excellent post, you have written so much here that I have been pondering on the last few days. I have tried so hard to explain to so many teachers what my daughter goes through. It seems impossible with some, they just can’t understand the sensory overload of a mainstream school. One teacher from her last school even suggested that my awareness of my own traits is putting ideas in my daughter’s head and that to treate her as a NT child would be more beneficial in the long run. She is a high achiever academically, a rule follower, quiet and hard working so why would they “need” my advice? They don’t have to sit and hold her while she rocks with anxiety, they don’t even see it because she internalises her meltdowns and attacks herself.
    If only more teachers would read our blogs and understand the damage they are doing.
    Thanks for sharing and helping me to process.
    Love and hugs. xx 🙂

    1. Thank you for the wonderful comment. I was much like your daughter–the good girl who stuffed everything down inside to avoid getting in trouble. I can’t believe a teacher actually accused you of putting “autistic” ideas in her head. Over and over again I’ve read about professionals rejecting the advice of autistic parents regarding their autistic kids. It makes no sense!

  12. Speaking only for myself, I must admit to not always knowing what/how autistic people are feeling……in the world of social media at least. In that sense autistic people are often as much of a puzzle for me as non-autistic people.

    Autism is a spectrum condition/disorder and given the variability in autism severity, intellect and any number of other co-morbid conditions, few people are likely to think and feel like me or any other autistic person.

    I agree that concrete thinking is fundamentally different to how non-autistic people generally seem to think (outside of science labs and engineering departments) but ultimately, I am really quite clueless as to how other people think, regardless of their neurology.

    A wise man once told me that the responsibility for communicating the intended message is always that of the sender, not the recipient – if for no other obvious reason that (barring mind readers) only the sender is aware of the intended message.

    I think autistic people may have a better theoretical understanding of how neurology impacts on styles of thinking and communication.
    – I meet few people who even know what autism is, let alone how it impacts on thinking processes and feelings!

    With some effort I am able to be less direct/blunt with people and sometimes participate briefly in neurotypical tap dancing and costume parties, but these are just coping skills to avoid offending people. It’s what I do to try and keep the peace and does little to enhance my very limited understanding of what others might be thinking/feeling.

    I’m not entirely convinced that neurotypicals are as competent at putting themselves in other peoples shoes either.

    I think they are probably hardwired to conform and very good at adapting when they realize they are not conforming. They also seem to be quite good at disguising their mistakes, with one of their many costume dances. There seems to be an unwritten agreement among neurotypicals that these misunderstandings can and MUST be overlooked……..provided it properly scripted and there is no power play involved :-/

    Effective communication take thought, effort and care and in my case at least, is very hard work, regardless of who or what the other person might be.

    1. Your post gave me reason for pause this morning. I am curious as to your point of view. While I agree with the ideas regarding the obligations of the sender of the message, there should be a negotiation for meaning in unclear utterances between both parties. If you are offended or dislike what I have said then you must inform me thus. I may not understand your rationale, I may not agree but I am always happy to clarify my intended meaning. I cannot do so if I remain uninformed and misunderstood.

      I can try tindividual use simple sentences instead of complex ones, common language instead technical terms or archaic vocabulary, I can put on my costume and have a go at the dance (brilliant metaphore by the way); but the fact is I DO try. I am often frustrated by what I see as a lack of reciprocal effort. Where complex sentence structure and vocabulary are concerned I will happily give you a definition. I will reword my ideas to be better understood; however, I need to be told there is a problem first. I am usually not told until sometime later when my job is on the line or the are some other forboding consequences.

      I have little to no expectation that what I said and what I am understood to meant are in any way the same thing. I am not able to guess with any accuracy the thoughts and feelings of others are, so I don’t. Like Socrates my wisdom, should I possess any, lies in a precise awareness and articulation of that which I do not know. Ergo I do not attempt to guess given my profound lack of knowledge. I am pretty convinced most people have no idea what goes on in the minds of others either regardless of their neurology and they should not guess either, barring telepaths who obviously should know.

      I just want some honesty and reciprocity. Why is the burden of such work placed on me? I am often asked to “dumb it down” as though I am solely at fault. Well how about halfway. I will dumb it down when they smarten up. The whole concept of some intellctual hierarchy implied in these conversations is maddening. Better still can we not agree to disagree, negotiate for meanings understood by both parties? Can we accept people as individuals with their own idiosyncratic socio-cultural communication systems? Or should all those who are different than the norm be compelled to a similar if not homogeneous state?

    2. I think I get what you mean about the burden lying with the sender, in terms of the sender needing to communicate in a clear and complete way. I totally agree with that. But as someone who’s been married to an NT for a long time, I also know that what one person thinks is a message well sent, might not be if the receiver has a different thinking or perceiving style. I don’t mind asking for clarification as long as the other person is willing to gracefully give it.

      Also, your point about neurotypical people being good at “repairing” a social situation quickly and then everyone disregarding is right on. I’m terrible at repairing conversations or smoothing over awkwardness. It’s like the more I try, the worse things get because I’m obviously missing some key skill in this area. There must be some sort of social code that makes this work but it’s beyond me.

      Whatever the case, lots of hard work, yes.

  13. Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully ladies.

    I agree that it is very frustrating when the other party won’t make the effort to engage when communication is unclear, even when I am offering to explain in more detail, in their language.

    This resistance to honest dialogue has always confused me.

    IRL I will always ask for clarification where there is lack of clarity, probably more enthusiastically than most people prefer.

    But I find that others are usually not so faithful to the truth.

    I will usually try to explain myself more clearly, unless or until the other person makes it clear that they are not interested in further clarity, which sadly is more often than not.

    As the saying goes:

    ‘There are none so deaf as those who will not hear’

  14. I’ll never forget, when my first son was around four months of age, my mother telling me that babies are manipulative and that you can’t allow them to “run the show”; so I should let him just cry in his crib, if i knew he wasnt hungry or wet, rather than jump very time he cried for me 😦
    Luckily one of my “topics of interest” from childhood has been early childcare and development, so I knew better.
    This made/makes me so sad to think of me having all the problems I did as a baby and child and how her responses must always have been colored by the false undstanding that I was doing it to her on purpose to manipulate her.

    1. Ah, that was a popular folk belief among the older generation when my daughter was a baby, too. It’s hard to imagine how such a small helpless creature can be manipulative.

    I just want to take a different “perspective”, haha, and say something that will most likely be controversial. Because I have been involved in so many therapeutic groups, psych circles, couple’s counseling and selfhelp workshops from the age of six to twenty-five, all designed for NT’s, contrary what you’ve been told, they all struggle with empathy and mind sight, and they know it, though not by those names.
    That’s right, all those psychologists who write these scholarly articles and books about how we “lack understanding” and miscommunicate intentions etc, though not necessarily wrong, are somehow failing to include that everybody does, to a more or less degree. I think that is the unspoken reason the DSM 5 has separated Social Communication Disorder from Autism as a stand alone disorder. (Thus, no more Aspergers. All other symptoms in addition to SCD now equals Autism)
    All of those marriage workshops, career counseling, self-help books- they almost all deal with the miscommunications that arise from not understanding the perspective of others and for learning skills on how to bridge the gap. Ever read Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus? It is quite literally about how men and women cannot relate to each other without help because they speak different languages and think differently, using the idea that they are from two different planets to explain the differences…sound familiar?
    Part of me has been getting a little pissed off lately that the “experts” are shoving polarizing language and attitudes at us to put more distance between “us” and “them”. Maybe it’s just to validate or legitimize the problems of people who genuinely struggle and need understanding.
    I’ve always known that I was different, even when I didn’t know why. It’s just that when they say there is a spectrum, well, there is. And my personal, non-medical belief is that we are ALL on it. It’s just that people like me are far more along on it than, say my sixth grade teacher.
    I believe that is what Dr. Baron-Cohen was getting at when he misguidedly talked about extreme male-brain thinking to describe autism. Based on my research of the way males and females present with Aspergrs, it seems to me at there is a human spectrum and if one falls too far along EITHER end of the analytical or empathic end of said spectrum (often illustrated far too simplisticly as male and female) then one runs into problems- Aspergers. If one is found even further along that spectrum, one meets in the middle again at classic Autism.
    Has anyone besides me remembered that rainbows are circles, not arches?
    Just sayin’.

    1. It’s true, neurotypicals have difficulty with this too. I think the biggest roadblock we run into is what I’m come to think of as the cross-cultural communication divide. I think it’s a bit easier for two people who think similarly to come around to seeing the other’s point of view than it is for people who experience the world in vastly different ways.

  16. A world made up almost entirely of aspies is an interesting concept! I’m planning to write a short story on that from the view of an allistic. I really like this site!

  17. Thank you for your blog post and sharing your thoughts. I have a question and I’m hoping you will share your thoughts with me. My son is 16 and is diagnosed with high functioning Aspergers. His school is fairly enlightened but continues to make one of his IEP goals “perspective taking.” I get frustrated because they mean the perspective of a non-Aspie. I am trying to change their language to be something like “more consistently looks for nonverbal signals” or something similar that is more focused on a behavior that could help him in social situations. What are your thoughts, as someone with Asperger’s? Would my way be more appropriate and helpful to my son or is there another way you would recommend?

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