Mah Nishtanah

Mah Nishtanah – Four Questions by the Aspie Son
Written from the perspective of a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome

Published in: Spirit Magazine, and Inyan – Hamodia’s Weekly Magazine – Passover Edition, Spring 2011

“Mommy, everybody is looking. I don’t want to say this out loud, can I go in the kitchen?”

“Tatte Layben, I… Ma! If Zeidy is here by the seder, then I think I should say Zeide Layben”.

“Zeide Layben… Ma! Zeidy is alive, and everybody can see that. Why do I have to announce it?”

“Zeide, ich vil bei dir fregen di fir kashes…

Mah Nishatana Halayla Hazeh… Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can eat my rice cake that I eat every night, this time. But tonight, and on this night only… (Ma! We eat matzah the entire Pesach, why do I have to say on this night only?!)…more than any other night, why do we have to eat potato? You know it’s soft and mushy and I hate the way it feels in my mouth? And then when I do swallow it, I can’t drink again until after the next Kos, after saying mah nishtanah?

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can sit with my comfortable shabbos shirt, the one that is made to look like a shirt but is really a t-shirt, the one that has no seams or labels? Why on this night do I have to wear this itchy glittery shirt that I made with the O.T. by therapy? My fingers got all sticky from the glue and I had glitter on my eyelids for three days and three nights. And also, I think there are some rabbonim who hold that glue is chometz! And people might not know that glitter is made of very small, 1 mm pieces of paper, glass or plastic painted in metallic, neon and iridescent colors to reflect light in a sparkling spectrum. Glitter was invented by Henry Ruschmann. This is really very interesting! Which reminds me of the next question…

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I keep my salad dry without dressing because I hate dressing and nobody forces me anymore. But tonight, and on this night only, and also tomorrow night at the second seder because we are in galus and in chutz l’aretz, not like the people who in Eretz Yisroel have only one seder each year. In America, we have two, and also if an American goes to Israel for Yom Tov, they must have two sedarim. That’s why I don’t want to go to Israel on Yom Tov because it would make me feel all mixed up inside and my brain would feel all funny and I would see everything in jumping zig-zags and I would get very upset and I would have to make that noise with my mouth because it feels better afterwards. I would much rather have two seders over here, as long as I can stay in the kitchen. And, also, if I can have my romaine lettuce dry, without being forced to dip it in the charoses, which is very old apples and are already brown, and brown is my worst color.

Why is this night different from all other nights? On all the other nights I can sit on my special chair by the wall in the kitchen, where nobody can touch me or breathe near my plate, but tonight, and also tomorrow night, we have to eat reclined, and that means I would be touching Ari’s chair. If I touch Ari’s chair, I will touch Ari’s right leg and I know he will kick me. Last year in Bubby’s house he kicked me after the third kos, and when I was third grade, I was leaning on cousin Chaim from Lakewood who was 14 then, and he almost kicked me but I hated touching him because I was worried that I would get too close to his beard. His beard looked like it would be prickly and it would make me feel like I need to run to my room and bang my head for a long long long time. And then my therapist will get upset that I didn’t do the brushing exercise.

Ma! When is this over? Can I stop saying Mah Nishtana and drink some grape juice now?”

Please do not reprint or photocopy without permission. 

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Theory Of Mind

“I Cannot Tell a Lie,” Children with Autism, Missing Milestone

Written on 28 August 2010, for:
The International Center For Autism Research and Education

How many times do parents ask for small truths to be told from their child, or students (for the teachers out there). For a child without autism, it can be a very hard task to admit that they are the ones who took the cookie from the cookie jar.

Anecdotal evidence and observational studies suggest that children as young as 2 years begin to tell lies (1).   A new study was published June 17, 2010, titled “Lie-Telling, Theory of Mind, and Verbal Ability in Children with ASD” (2).

Parents of young, typically developing children, oftentimes may find it frustrating when their child begins to demonstrate deceptive behaviors and the ability to tell increasingly convincing and sophisticated lies. Nevertheless lie-telling is an important developmental milestone in a young child’s life. The goal of telling a lie is to try to make someone else believe something that the lie-teller does not believe is true.

This milestone consists of two developmental stages which are important for this study, described as Early Deception and Theory of Mind.  The researchers conclude that while 2- and 3-year-olds can be encouraged to engage in deceptive ploys, only 4-year-olds clearly demonstrate that they have a ToM (3).

Early Deception and Theory of Mind

Early deceptive acts are learned strategies used only to manipulate the behaviors of others, such as lying to avoid punishment. Theory of Mind (ToM) is the two-part ability to understand that other people have knowledge and beliefs, and their own knowledge and beliefs may differ from the lie recipient’s knowledge and beliefs. The second ability with ToM is an understanding that the person you lie to does not know what your knowlefge of beliefs are.  If you have ToM, you will instinctively understand that just because you know something, it doesn’t mean that I know it too. If you have ToM, you are not just manipulating the behaviors of others, but you are also manipulating the behaviors of others by virtue of changing others’ beliefs.

For example, when a child, who ate a cookie that he was forbidden to eat until after dinner, is asked whether he ate the missing cookie, he says, “No, I didn’t,” to avoid reprimand from his mother.  This is early deception, found in children as young as age 2.  However, if the child would say “the dog ate the cookie”, or hiding the cookie behind his back, that would reflect on the child’s ability to have presence of ToM, which is usually found in typically developing child as young as four years of age.

Without the presence of ToM, a child will not attempt to manipulate the beliefs of another person. Lie-telling can be seen as a real-world application of an understanding of others’ minds (4) and the emergence of lie-telling in young children can be taken as an indicator for the presence of at least a rudimentary ToM.

The Sally-Ann test is a famous test used to judge whether a person has ToM or not.  A child lacking in Theory of Mind will only see the situation from her own point of view. Most people of low intelligence will not be able to do the test, even though they may be otherwise very sociable, such as people with Down’s Syndrome. People with another disability,William’s Syndrome are exceptional in their ability to do this test, despite apparently low, functional intelligence.  However, most children with ASDs will not be able to complete the test, as is true for ASD adults.

Many researchers have demonstrated that children with ASD have a deficit in ToM and parents of children with ASD report that unlike their typically developing children, theirautistic children do not tell lies. However, there are no published empirical research studies on this population and their ability to produce or generate their own lies. This study aims to bridge this gap in the literature, and provide therapeutic recommendations to promote ToM for children and adults on the Autistic Spectrum.

Some findings of this study explains why children with ASD would not tell prosocial lies because children with ASD have impairments in recognizing and understanding other people’s affective states (5).

This interpretation suggests the possibility that the lies told by children with ASD may be learned strategies used to manipulate others’ behaviors and consequently avoid punishment. These strategies may be scripted and not involve manipulating the beliefs of another person. For example, a child with ASD may have learned that when he commits a transgression, the adult who had previously warned him against committing the transgression will be angry and may punish him. However, if he denies having committed the transgression, he is usually able to avoid punishment.  Such deceptive acts may simply demonstrate that children can manipulate others’ behaviors but do not necessarily reflect the presence of a ToM.

In summary, two possible interpretations of the results from the present study are: (A) the lie-telling abilities of children with ASD are merely learned behaviors and are not indicative of a ToM, and (B) lies told by children with ASD are only manifestations of a rudimentary ToM.

References:

(1) Bussey, 1992; Darwin, 1877; Leekam, 1992; Newton, Reddy, & Bull, 2000; Wilson, Smith, & Ross, 2003

(2) Lie-Telling, Theory of Mind, and Verbal Ability in Children with ASD by Annie S. Li1, Elizabeth A. Kelley, Angela D. Evans, Kang Lee, of the Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Canada and the Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto, Canada.

(3) Sodian, Taylor, Harris, & Perner, 1991

(4) Talwar & Lee, 2008b

(5) Brent, Rios, Happé, & Charman, 2004;Hobson, 1986; Tager-Flusberg, 1992