Saturday, November 24, 2007

Magic Tricks and Theory of the Mind

On my otherwise rather tedious trip home from Serbia, the long leg from Holland to Minneapolis, I sat across the isle from a Dutch Magician. His name was Leonard, and he shuffled cards in a way that I have only seen in movies before. His cards flew from one of his long hands to the other in patterns and shapes that caught and held my attention and this was before he started wowing me with tricks.

A Magic Trick requires that the perspective of the audience be different than the perspective of the Magician. The trick won't work if the audience knows or sees what the Magician knows and sees. I was a perfect audience for Leonard because I don't have a clue how card tricks are done. But watching these tricks with the delight that one feels when seeing something surprising and seemingly impossible, I wondered if there might not be some learning possibilities in magic for youngsters with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Specifically, it made me wonder if teaching teenagers with ASD to do magic tricks might help these youngsters learn the concept of Theory of the Mind. The concept of Theory of the Mind is that we communicate with mindful awareness that different people will inevitably know, see, understand and even feel about things differently. We all accumulate knowledge through experience and our experience has been different--thus we each must try to guess what others know or don't know in order to communicate effectively. We develop a "Theory of Mind" regarding our communication partner and factor this into our communication with him or her. Many communication skills are based upon being able to predict accurately what others know, believe or feel. Many communication breakdowns are caused by not predicting accurately. We inform by building upon the knowledge that another already has and we deceive by exploiting knowledge that the other does not have. We tease, tell stories, negotiate--the list goes on and on, all based upon an ever changing perception that we have about what others know or don't know.

The cognitive ability to make good guesses about what others know is an important foundation for social communication and it is much harder for youngsters with ASD to learn. Deception is a particularly hard concept for many children and youngsters who have ASD. While this might seem like a good thing, it is not. Even phrases like "I fooled you" or "I tricked you" seem quite difficult for my young clients to understand--let alone understanding whether a trick was malicious or good natured. I use games like "Doggy, Doggy, whose got the bone?" and reenact chants like "Who Took the Cookie From the Cookie Jar?" to help young children get the idea of purposefully deceiving others. It turns out that knowing about deception from both the side of the deceiver and the side of the deceived is very important to social success. So, about now you should be seeing the connection between learning Theory of the Mind and learning Magic Tricks. Magic Tricks are socially endorsed deception.

Card Tricks strike me as particularly interesting for the purpose of teaching the concept of deception to youngsters with ASD. First, cards themselves have numbers, have visual patterns on their face that are interesting but predictable, and they all have the same size and look on the back. Materials with these qualities are what I look for in materials that will interest and motivate a youngster with ASD. These are youngsters who often love repeated visual patterns, numbers, and stacks of things that are all the same size. I recently watched a serious minded two year old stack cans from his kitchen cupboard for twenty minutes and his mom told me he would go on carefully studying each label and stacking by size for hours if she allowed him to do so. "Cool!" I thought, "We should have something to work with there!" Finding motivating materials and content is a core trick to good educational practice when working with ASD.

Card tricks offer a high probability for positive social interaction. I am always looking for activities that provide a clear and somewhat predictable role for both (all) participants in a social interaction. Potentially, the Magician can memorize what to say and what to do and the audience will probably say and do about the same thing in each encounter. I try to embed social learning into activities that are otherwise interesting, learnable, and self-esteem building and magic card tricks would fulfill that requirement for at least some youngsters with ASD.

The social learning potentially found in learning card tricks is 1) learning Theory of the Mind in both an explicit and an experiential manner--namely learning deception in a socially appropriate context. 2) learning an interesting way to initiate social interaction. When you start shuffling cards in an impressive manner, people will come to you to see what you are doing. The response is likely to be positive if you ask "Do you want to see a card trick?"3) learning to seek social admiration. Youngsters with ASD often experience way too much negative social interaction and may get in a pattern of seeking negative social interactions because these are the most predictable and familiar to these predictability seeking youngsters. Many need to learn ways to seek predictable positive reactions from others. I have noticed that youngsters who have musical or drawing or mathematical skills have a way to bid for social admiration. It stands to reason that those who have good fine motor and visual perception skills might find this same kind of positive social regard though learning card tricks.

So, somebody out there has probably got an intervention all written up about using Magic Tricks with youngsters who have ASD--but I have not read it yet. I invite you, my valued readers, to send me information about what you have read, have tried, or plan to try. Leonard, for example, if you don't find a meaningful life in the world Performing Magic, you could always open a school of magic tricks for youngsters with ASD. There is probably a Financial Grant just waiting for that idea.


March Day said...

I will have to keep this in mind when TJ gets a little older!

BTW, I thought perhaps that some of your readers who do not know you might be interested in learning a little more about you, so I tagged you with a meme to share 7 facts about yourself. But, this is optional - it is only if you want to participate.

JohnE said...

I found your posting about magic when I Googled magician +autism. I am a high school teacher of students with autism ranging from moderate/severe to HFA and Asperger's syndrome. (I am also a licensed audiologist, my wife is an SLP.) For Christmas my brother-in-law gave me information on beginning card tricks to use with my students after he learned about David Copperfield's Project Magic working with a wide range of individuals with disabilities. I can see great benefit in incorporating magic into my teaching, working with TM as you suggested as well as OT goals of manual dexterity. Learning socially acceptable "tricking" may even help the students eventually get the concept of true/false or multiple choice on tests! Looking forward to hearing more from others.

Sudipta Das said...

Ok, my question is about Easter. I wondered this for years but I never had the platform to ask until now. I don't want to sound slow or anything like that but how do people get the eggs to turn all those different colors around Easter time. I'm too old to believe in magic so please let me in on the secret without making me feel stupid. Have you known that figuring out where colorful eggs come from would be so complicated?

Sudipta das
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