Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke have written an excellent book called Social Thinking At Work.
In this article on the North River Press website, they explain in summary form the essential elements of perspective taking. Although they never use the word “autism” it is well-known that autistic people have difficulty learning perspective-taking. For me, the hardest aspect of this is self-perspective-taking (seeing myself as others see me).
As the authors acknowledge, “… a concept in theory is not the same as a concept in practice.” Their book has many pragmatic suggestions that will help people who need practice.
Autism is often labeled a “developmental delay” and it is especially in the area of social communication that the delay can be noticed. But delayed development is not arrested development, and these skills can be learned.
The autistic brain develops more slowly and retains more plasticity than the neurotypical brain. The results of this markedly different development are varied, and include a tendency to experience sensory overload. In fact, it seems to me that the autistic brain is usually quite busy doing all the extra processing of inputs that is its hallmark, resulting in such things as slow processing time, impaired motor neuron functioning (because of everything else going on, not because the mirror neurons are malfunctioning or absent), and a fixation on routines already learned.
Those of us who are autistic find comfort in routine because it helps reduce the amount of brainpower we need to devote to figuring out something new, and helps reduce stress levels. Routines are soothing. The downside, of course, is that getting stuck in a routine can prevent one from learning essential new skills. The prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for such things as emotional regulation and executive function, is the last part of the brain to develop fully. In neurotypicals, this process is thought to be done at around age 30. For autistics, it undoubtedly takes longer. As a result, by the time we are expected to be fully-functioning social creatures, we may be stuck in behaviors that are less than optimal, and it takes conscious effort to relearn or learn what we need to know to be more successful socially. The good news is that the plasticity of our brains allows us to learn rapidly and also late in life; to acquire new skills takes a recognition that we need to change and the will to do so.
All of this analysis has been done by an amateur neurologist, by the way. I have no formal training in this area; I’m just fascinated by it and have done lots of reading and thinking. The speculations contained in this post are entirely my own, and if they are incorrect, I have no one to blame for leading me astray; I went there voluntarily.