In Room by Emma Donoghue, the main character, a five-year-old boy named Jack, emulates many behaviors that may be explained by an Autism Spectrum Disorder, but with equal validity could be the due to the of absence of the social construction we know as Theory of Mind. Lisa Zunshine’s book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, defines Theory of Mind as “our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires” (6).
Analyzing Jack’s Theory of Mind is different from the average person’s because for the first five years of his life he lived in solitude with his mother in a soundproof, 11ft by 11ft square room constructed by the man who kidnapped Jack’s mother seven years ago. A person’s ToM develops during childhood by making connections between what people say, do, and how they react to new information. Jack, having only his mother to learn from, develops a ToM so different from the norm that Zunshine’s idea of ToM as always contextualized, can be applied here with validity.
In contrast, the evidence of Jack’s ASD is tricky to pick out and as we can’t know if Jack has an ASD through analyzing just Jack’s behavior, we must take into account his circumstances as well. Even though Jack believes he knows how the world works, he is often mistaken. Whether or not there is a convincing amount of evidence for an ASD, Jack’s ToM is constructed by his surroundings, socially and physically. ?The concept of Theory of Mind, as Zunshine says, is completely contextualized within someone’s personal experience.
This being said, Jack’s ToM has to be viewed as a product of very particular circumstances that are normal to him. Jack has never had a complex system of people around him to foster his ability to understand other people’s thoughts. His story is told from his point of view, urging the reader to take on his identity. We are trying to figure out what has happened at the same time as it is unraveling before us, but due to Jack’s distorted point of view and contorted ToM we don’t have the luxury of supposing the narrator is being truthful. I suggest that fiction engages, teases, and pushes to its tentative limits our mind-reading capacity” (4).
As Zunshine says, “Our ability to interpret the behavior of people in terms of their underlying states of mind seems to be such an integral part of what we are as human beings that we could be understandably reluctant to dignify it with fancy terms and elevate it into a separate object of study” (9). Meaning, there hasn’t been a developed vocabulary to describe a typical presentation of ToM. This normalization of able people distances disabled people from the privileges of having a more easily navigable life.
ToM structures “our everyday communication and cultural representations” (7), but when you’re a five year old child raised by an abused, severely depressed, and probably very angry mother-–your ToM is going to be warped in such a way that communication with the outside world is sure to be met with obstacles. For example, when talking about their captor, Ma has difficulty explaining to Jack how they get their limited supplies: “‘He’s only the bringer. He doesn’t actually make the wheat grow in the field. ’ ‘Which field? ’ He can’t make the sun shine on it, or the rain fall, or anything. ’ ‘But Ma, bread doesn’t come out of fields… Why you said-–? ’ ‘It must be time for TV,’ she says fast. ” Jack has never seen a field, has never had the opportunity to understand how food grows, in fact, Jack believes that many things exist only in “TV. ” Quite clearly, he has no understanding of the outside world or how any of it works.
“How can TV be pictures of real things? ” Jack questions later on in a similar situation as Ma tries to explain that there are other boys and girls in Outside. Now that I’ve pointed out a few ways Jack’s theory of mind works differently, I’ll illustrate how it can be inferred as an ASD. Firstly, Jack refers to most things in Room as proper nouns, such that the bed, table, chair, rug and even the standing wardrobe in which he sleeps are referred to as Bed, Rug, Wardrobe, etc. The limitation of Jack’s circumstances may make it easier to refer to the furniture as proper nouns, but it is troubling in that he has no imagination to contemplate a reality where there are more things and places than just a Room.
Through a diagnostic lens this could be because he cannot imagine what he cannot see, a characteristic of autism. There is evidence to suggest the inclusion of an ASD, but because he is a young child, the degree to which we account for his autistic behavior is difficult to pin point. Another symptom of an ASD would be that Jack cannot understand that others can hold false beliefs. Zunshine explains that “… in autism, the mental state of belief is poorly understood” (9). There is a test that doctors can use when checking for ASDs. It’s called the Sally-Anne test.
The way it works is that you show a child two dolls, one Sally and one Anne. Sally plays with a marble and sets it in a basket, then leaves the room. Anne arrives, puts the marble in a box. When Sally gets back, where does she look for the marble? A child with the ability to understand how others may think will guess, correctly, that Sally believes the marble is in the basket. A child with an ASD would typically point out that Sally would look in the box because the child cannot determine that Sally would have a false belief. If the marble is in the box, then that’s where one would look for it.
Jack emulates behaviors that if faced with this test, he would “fail” or state that Sally would look in the place that the marble is, rather than the place that Sally left it. The first time Ma tells Jack that the things in the TV are real, he rejects the fact and wonders why Ma would trick him. He doesn’t believe there’s enough space for all the other humans because Room is too small and in the Outside, there’s Space (outer space). The thought of being tricked by his mother is more believable to Jack than the actual conceptualization of what is Outside.
Another example would be when Ma attempts to tell Jack the story of where she came from. Trying to explain that she used to live in Outside proves difficult when Jack asks so many questions before Ma can even explain. “Why she’s pretending like this, is it a game I don’t know? ” The reader can infer from Jack’s thoughts that he does not have the ability to imagine something that he has not or cannot see. These are pieces of evidence towards the argument of Jack having an ASD. ?In Marco Roth’s piece, “The Rise of the Neuro-Novel,” he states that disability is used within novels just for the interest-factor they bring.
Emily Donoghue doesn’t use this as a way to catch the reader, she is describing true events and taking on the challenge of creating Jack’s world so that the reader has a better understanding of the tragedy in the story. She also, whether she knows it or not, questions the idea of ToM in some ways: Zunshine argues that ToM is contextualized, not inherent. Similar to a social construction, the contextualization of this ability to read minds could mean that Jack is totally normal in most ways. Like being raised to speak Taiwanese rather than English, mind-reading is a learned ability that, once acquired, feels completely natural.
Jack simply does not have the opportunity to learn this ability. Within Roth’s article on the neuronovel, he argues that the reader will place their own thought patterns on the character displaying a cognitive disability, in attempts to identify with them and better understand their situation. This arbitrary process takes away from the integrity of the person/character and disability itself. It is impossible for one person to fully understand the experience of a disabled person. Likewise, it is impossible for the reader to fully understand or take on the identity of Jack.
In this respect, Jack may have an ASD. James Berger writes in his book, The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and Narrative in Modernity, “My analyses, then, have, in the terms of disability studies, served to reveal ideologies and social mechanisms that have consistently stigmatized disabled people and furthered the construction of norms of physical and mental ability” (141). Berger’s argument is in line with the idea of the social construction of ToM making some thinking patterns and abilities appear typical, leading to the labeling of atypical thought patterns as a disability. Here we can see how Jack straddles the line between the two theories.
Possibly he has an ASD, possibly he is atypical only due to his environment. Furthermore, in direct contrast with Roth, Berger argues that Roth is wrong in thinking that fiction “shares and reinforces the ideology of neuroscience at the expense of the expansive, epistemologically and ethically rich understandings of narrative. ” The inclusion of neuroscience in literary fiction is not solely for the purpose of creating a captivating narrative, it functions as representational and brings to our attention the problems of a society that refuses to cater equally to people with disabilities as it does to those without them.
Autism can be characterized with a lack of interest in storytelling, an activity that Jack takes great pleasure in. Because we know that autism can range widely, this is not necessarily proof that Jack does not have an ASD although it does stray from severe cases of autism. Jack continues to display characteristics of a lacking ToM as he cannot discern whether or not some people are real, “Women aren’t real like Ma is, and girls and boys not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not actually sure if he’s real for real.
Maybe half? He brings groceries and Sundaytreat and disappears the trash, but he’s not human like us. He only happens in the night, like bats. Maybe Door makes him up with a beep beep and the air changes. I think Ma doesn’t like to talk about him in case he gets realer. ” The in between space where reality meets TV world is Old Nick who is their only lifeline outside of Room. Both Ma and Jack, being solely dependent on him, have to cope with whatever Nick feels like giving them.
Jack knows that Ma is real, but girls and boys are not because he does not see them in person. But Nick is a man and he’s real to Jack sometimes. Even when he’s not in Room, he exists Outside when he gets the things they need from the stores. Because Jack knows not to talk about Old Nick (it makes Ma upset), he doesn’t have the opportunity to openly question Nick’s realness. This difficulty that Jack faces confuses his perception of what is real and what is made-up, Ma copes with this by either ignoring Jack’s ? what an appropriate response would be because he had