Warning: Objects In Your Mirror May Involve Other People

Mirror neurons.  Seems like they’re an essential component of the brain that allows us to share empathy with one another.  It is a close relative to theory of mind, the concept that accounts for how we are able to tell what other people are likely to be thinking.  Simon Baron-Cohen has asserted that this is a fundamental deficit in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are essentially mind-blind to what others are thinking.  If this is the case, and higher functioning individuals such as those with Asperger’s are more likely to be candidates to drive, how well equipped are they for this rite of passage?  We’ve raised the issue before regarding teens with ADHD.  But those on the spectrum face a more fundamental challenge if they lack or have difficulty adjusting their mirror neurons.  A fundamental rule of the road, particularly for new drivers, is to drive defensively.  This requires the driver to adopt the mindset, viewpoint, and visual judgement of other drivers on the road.  Driving is as much a social act as it is a mechanical act, and difficulty in reading social cues of others is bound to make learning to drive more challenging for those with ASD.

Not everyone is enamored with Baron-Cohen’s ideas (if the name is familiar, it may be because he is the first cousin of Sascha Baron-Cohen, otherwise known as Borat), and it has created a backlash in some segments of the ASD community.  It would therefore not be surprising if there were resistance to the suggestion that individuals with Asperger’s need to exert extra caution before going out on the road.  Here is a website with some excellent advice and guidelines to consider about driving and Asperger’s.  Among the twelve suggestions, number 7 is: Have a driving instructor assess your Aspergers teen’s visual/motor skills.  Other sites have emphasized perceptual abilities, processing speed, mental flexibility, and capacity for judgement – skills that often mature later for individuals with ASD.

It may seem unusual, therefore, to find someone with Asperger’s who not only doesn’t fear driving, but who’s a race car driver!  Enter Aaron Likens, who grew up in Indianapolis, home to the Indy 500, whose father instilled in him a passion for racing.  He has an excellent blog with lots of useful information, and recently authored a book of autobiographical essays, Finding Kansas.  I raise this issue to emphasize that rules of the road can be taught to any individual, but those with ASD will have to memorize and rehearse a greater repertoire rather than being able to anticipate the actions of others on  the road based on general principles.  In our practice, many of the “Aspie” boys (as the teens increasingly refer to themselves) have a fascination if not obsession with cars, and we currently have a patient whose goal it is to become a race driver.  Aaron will be a particular inspiration to him, and involvement with some aspect of the sport is likely in his future, even if it is not behind the wheel.  Inspiration comes from around the globe.

Bonus: How We Learn to Read Another’s Mind by Looking Into Their Eyes


10 thoughts on “Warning: Objects In Your Mirror May Involve Other People

  1. Len, This is not only interesting theoretically but it is especially timely for me. My Aspy son just completed a highly successful freshman year in college and his first two professional exams. His next project is driving lessons. I took him out for the first time last week at the high school parking lot and he did reasonably well. He should start with a driving instructor next week and I expect your link will be very helpful.
    Ed Melman

  2. “It may seem unusual, therefore, to find someone with Asperger’s who not only doesn’t fear driving, but who’s a race car driver!” Not sure if I agree with this logic. Asperger’s is a different entity to autism, regardless of what DSM might offer as nosology. The fear and love of driving are not related to the ability to drive – it’s only the rudimentary demands of licensing authorities that matter. Many people have difficulty driving cooperatively (I prefer term this to ‘defensive’ driving) because they are oblivious to others’ intentions and/or they cannot anticipate and plan their actions based on ‘theory of mind’, but they do not have to be on the spectrum to have this deficit.

    As for the Theory of Mind (ToMM), the Huffington Post post leaves much to be desired. The author distills Baron-Cohen’s work on Theory of Mind to one simple statement “that the core problem in autism is the inability to think about other people or one’s own thoughts”. This oversimplification does a grave injustice to Baron-Cohen’s insightful work, and even though it is an incomplete paradigm, ToMM proposes meaningful reasons for why autistic children struggle as they do and should not be so easily discarded as the nonsense spouted by his namesake cousin (the mention of whom, by the way, is not germane to this topic and only serves to ascribe some sort of doubt in his work by association with a buffoon). If you take what Baron-Cohen has proposed along side neuropsychological observations about children with autism, there is a great complementarity that was neither considered nor exposed in the Huffington piece. Writing about something does not make one an expert.

    Oh, and yes, visual functional tests are an important part of driving that should be assessed more regularly – regardless of what nosology the driver might have ascribed to himself.

    • If you agreed with all of my logic, Charles, this would be a boring blog. 😉 I’m comfortable with considering Asperger’s as a the high functioning end of the autistic spectrum. It’s pointless to debate if Aspeger’s is “different” than autism, if we agree that it’s a high funcitioning state within the spectrum. Your point is well taken that many people have difficulty driving cooperatively, though defensive driving has a connotation of anticipation that is deeper than cooperation.

      I cited the HuffPost piece only to acknowledge that not all are enamored with ToM. Personally I like the Theory. The writer didn’t present herself as an expert. What she brough was personal insight as an indvidual on the spectrum. Such perspectives help us round out our theories. In the final analsys I’d like to delve more into the visuality of driving, which like most aspects of vision are almost taken for granted.

  3. Pingback: Mirror Neurons | The VisionHelp Blog

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