I suppose many typically-developing teenagers question why they need to learn certain things in school, or why they need to take a certain class. And you can usually reason with them along the lines of “You need to graduate from high school so that you can go to college. Or if you don’t go to college, you still need to graduate from high school so you can at least get an entry-level job somewhere. And in order to graduate from high school, you need to take some classes that you don’t like.” And they won’t like this reasoning, but they will eventually see the logic.

The autistic teen? Not so much. “You don’t think like I do.” This is what Nigel tells me after I have tried the above-mentioned reasoning tactic. He really does not see the merit in graduating from high school. “I want to live how I want to live. Why can’t we live like our cavemen ancestors? That was when survival was more needed than mathematics.” And he is serious.

This is what I deal with when I try to teach him algebra and essay writing. And I point out to him that at least now he can learn these mandatory things at home where it’s quiet and he is not distracted and harassed by other students. I also gently mention that I’ve made some major adjustments to be able to do this for him. But that’s a concept he can’t grasp. Even though once in a while he’ll take out the trash without complaining and then (!) he actually puts a new bag in the trashcan without being reminded (!) or he scoops some ice cream in a bowl for himself and then – on his own – scoops some in a bowl for me (!), even though he does these things once in a great while, he is still pervasively influenced by the aut, the self. Selfism. It’s not that he only thinks about himself or only cares about himself. It’s not egocentric or narcissistic. It’s that he cannot understand someone else’s viewpoint. He can’t possibly realize that, as a single parent, I go through a lot to be able to homeschool him. He can’t understand why education is necessary, beyond what he already knows. He is governed by the self. “You don’t think like I do” also means “I’m only able to think how I think.”

Mind you, this is just a mom still trying to figure it out. I think I know enough, and then months later I have another epiphany and I realize that I have so much more to learn. I know now that I will spend the rest of my days trying to understand my son’s autism. Trying to think like he does. Many parents say that having an autistic child will make you see the world differently. My son is fourteen and every day I am still realizing just how true – how profoundly true – that is.

8 thoughts on “Selfism

  1. Kate

    I think you’re right.
    As a 24 year old with Asperger’s Syndrome, I often think about how hard it is for me to think about how other people think.

    lol I know that may be an oxymoron.
    After all, if you can think about how you’re not thinking about how others think, why can’t you, well, think about them?

    But I do. I try. And the only thing I can come up with is what a therapist told me once.

    I actually don’t remember the words he used. But he told me most people understand other people by intuiting their feelings, more or less, and I understand people by using logic. That is, what previous situations or context tell me they might be feeling, or what *I* would be feeling if I were them; obviously, there are a lot of faults in that system.

    Based on the fact that I have watched a lot of movies and tv and read a lot of books in my life and have some grasp of how “normal” people are supposed to think, I can most of the time draw upon this knowledge to realize how people are thinking and act accordingly.

    But it is anything but intuitive, and that can be VERY frustrating. I tend to feel people are mad at me a lot. That is because I don’t know enough about reading people to tell otherwise unless definitively proven otherwise; and this seems to be my default understanding of others. Not a particularly healthy one, but so be it.

    In some ways Aspies and HFAs can be more empathic/sympathetic/supportive, if they want to, simply because since they have to *think* about it, they are more likely to put more effort into it and really try to figure out how you feel and support you in an appropriate way. I have found my Aspie friends to be far more supportive than my NT ones.

    Because they show it in a verbal, obvious way; whereas NTs don’t; you have to read their minds ie pick up on nonverbal signals. Which is a weakness obviously.

    But it all comes down to – no, we don’t mean to consciously not think of you or your situation; it’s just that, unless we remember to consciously try to (and motivation to do this sometimes only comes with age), we just don’t think about it.

    When I got old enough to a) realize that I wasn’t thinking about how others felt as much as I should and b) realize that doing so on a regular basis would improve my relationships, and strengthen my friendships, I made a point to do so. But it took a while.

    I really like your blog, by the way. I’ve read most of the old entries and all of the new ones.


    24 year old with Asperger’s

    blog is at

    Asperger’s website is

  2. M

    i’ve always wondered how to go about teaching something like this.

    when somone struggles to think from another perspective: there has to be some way of communicating that other viewpoints exist, eliciting thought experiments that allow a person to begin to grasp this fact. Maybe not understand it…but at least respect that this is the case. i don’t know. i’m sure the are teaching methods, i just haven’t come across them yet; perspective is such a personal, subtle thing, it’s always interesting to read descriptions of it.

    it’s so nice…heartwarming…to read about the way you approach this. it’s so difficult…and has to be so frustrating…yet you continue to approach the situation like a puzzle, wanting to solve it, understand, be there for him.

    everytime i click onto your site, i can just feel the love glowing from the computer screen. so nice.

    by the way…i did my covert word searches. three of them i think.

  3. Em

    How does he think? The million dollar question. Our son is 18…and I’ve never figured it out. There are moments when I think I “get it”…and I soon learn just how wrong I was.

    I agree, he is not selfish. He is simply about “self”. His sees the world through his eyes and that is what frames his response to everything. It is nearly impossible for him to understand how someone else might be feeling unless he has already had that exact same feeling and I can say “remember when you…”

  4. jess

    i can’t even imagine what it has taken for you to have been able to homeschool. i am in awe.

    there is always so much more to learn, so many truths to uncover .. so often it seems that we find something that works, latch onto its success and eventually slough it off like an old skin as we feel like we don’t need it anymore.

    9 times out of 10, my ‘discoveries’ are simply re-fittings of those old strategies and truths i left behind. reminders that they’re not really out of date, they just need a new applicaiton.

    i find it comforting to think that most of what i need i already have, but incredbly frustrating that i don’t generally see it without some struggle.

  5. Will Flavell

    Great Post Tanya,

    You must be an extremely tough and patient woman to be a single mother and to home school an autistic teen. My hat is off to you.

    I wanted to drop you a comment because I am trying to raise money for the Autism Action Partnership this Christmas. We are selling a Velvet Suit Santa Figurine and a sterling silver Four-Heart Pendant. They really are beautiful pieces and each sale benefits the Autism Action Partnership. I was thinking that you might know some moms who would be interested in these gifts/contributions. You can buy the gifts online at

    Merry Christmas and keep up the good posts,

  6. mama mara

    It’s theory-of-mind week all over blogland! We’re facing the same difficulty with Rocky of late, and his case manager has called in the big guns — the district autism specialist — to observe him and offer ideas. I’ll keep you posted.

    BTW Rocky recently asked me why I can’t just teach him at home. I told him it’s illegal. Shhh.

  7. Fearless Females

    Yes, we are working with the same frame of mind… then again it could be that we are raising a 14 year old son on the spectrum.. I found what Kate had said very interesting, and true. I know that Nick is trying to understand more by asking me these kinds of questions…and other times they are so into their “self” and young enough to have these freedoms too.

    BTW, Nick also doesn’t like school and asks me why he has to go (or do work) even though he knows the answer. He also think that he can retire when he graduates!! Hahahahaha!!!!! I say, get in line!

    Oh, it is an interesting life…

Comments are closed.