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Know What You Don’t Know


don't know

This post is for those of you who are on the autism spectrum. I will try to explain something in a way that makes sense to you. My intention is to inform. I am going to take a roundabout way to get to my point. Some people like it when I tell stories, other people get impatient with me. I hope you like the story. At least, I hope you are patient with me. I want to explain a concept: The difference between “don’t know,” and “don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s like the difference between (X) and ( X squared).


For example, I don’t know the mass of the earth. But I know that I don’t know. And I also know how to get the information if I ever want to: I can look it up on-line.


The other kind of situation – not knowing what you don’t know – is much different. Here’s where the story comes in. My step-father grew up in England during the 1930s. His family was affluent, and they gave him flying lessons. When World War II broke out, my stepfather volunteered to become a fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. Since he already knew how to fly a plane, the RAF whisked him through the enlistment process. Things were going smoothly until the very end of the physical exam, when the medical officer pulled out a bunch of flashcards, and asked my step-father “What number do you see in this pattern of colored dots, Mister Friedman?”


“Number? What number?,” my stepfather replied. “I don’t see anything but dots.” Unbeknownst to my stepfather, he was color blind. Until he took the color vision test, he didn’t know what he didn’t know. After he took the test, he knew what he didn’t know. Get the difference? Years later, when my stepfather married my mother, she made sure to keep the clothes in his closet in separate groups, by color. He still couldn’t see the colors, but he knew that if he took a suit, shirt, necktie, and socks all from the same part of his closet, his clothes would match.

Ishihara Color vision Test

The Ishihara Color vision Test. If you have normal color vision, you will see a large “74” in this picture. People with partial color blindness may see “21” instead of “74.” People with complete lack of color vision just see a pattern of gray dots.


Now let’s make a jump, from color vision to “Theory of Mind.” Theory of Mind is composed of two parts: (A) Your ability to realize that other people have thoughts and feelings different from your own, and (B) Your ability to form an impression of how another person is feeling and what they are thinking, based on various components of that person’s behavior, such as tone of voice, posture, eye gaze, etc. If you are on the autism spectrum, tasks requiring Theory of Mind are difficult for you. If you are talking to someone, how do you know if they are interested or disinterested in what you have to say? How do you know if they understand the point you are trying to make? How do you know if you are annoying them? Your ability to answer these questions depends on your Theory of Mind skills.


I was giving a presentation one time, and a teenager on the spectrum asked me “Why am I always getting yelled at for things I don’t understand?” “Do you know what color-blindness is?,” I asked him. “Yes, he replied. My father is color blind, so when we build computers together, I have to show him where the wires go, because they’re color coded, but he can’t see the difference.” It’s the same thing with Theory of Mind: Theory of Mind is to social interaction as color vision is to looking at paintings or photographs (or a color-coded electrical harness).


Temple Grandin wrote that she eventually discovered that her classmates in school were capable of passing invisible messages back and forth that she couldn’t read. Up until that moment, she didn’t know what she didn’t know. After that moment, she knew what she didn’t know. Get it? If you don’t know what you don’t know, you are completely vulnerable. At least if you know what you don’t know, you can protect yourself from harm. (I think this is what Judy Endo means by the “hidden curriculum” – hidden from her in the same way that colors were “hidden” from my step-father.)


As for my step-father: The RAF never let him fly a fighter plane. Instead, they put him into aerial reconnaissance, interpreting photographs of enemy military installations. He excelled at his job, because photographs in those days were in black & white.

Read Part II: Know What You Don’t Know Part II

Until next time.



James Coplan, MD is an Internationally recognized clinician, author, and public speaker in the fields of early child development, early language development and autistic spectrum disorders. Stay connected, join Dr. Coplan on Facebook and Twitter.



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