So, what is Theory of Mind? Theory of Mind is one of the main deficits in individuals on the Autistic Spectrum yet it is rarely known or understood by professionals who work with children with Autism. I know this because I ask them before they come to work with me. In order to work with a child with Autism you must understand what it means to not have Theory of Mind.
Most often parents of children with Autism do not know what Theory of Mind is either.
Why Is It Important?
It is important for them to know what this term means as it will give them a better understanding of why their children are having such difficulties. It also allows parents to predict situations that may be difficult for their children due to their absence of Theory of Mind.
Even the highest functioning children with Autism most often do not have Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind is the ability to not only understand that people have different beliefs, motivations, knowledge and moods but also understand how that affects their actions and behavior.
What Studies Tell Us
Many experiments have been done over the years to demonstrate Theory of Mind. My favorite being the “Smarties test”. In this experiment typically developing children, and children with Autism were shown a closed container with a Smarties label on it. They were then asked “What do you think is in here?”
The children in both groups answered “Smarties”. They were then shown that the container contained pencils, not Smarties.
Then they were asked a couple of other questions. The first question being “When I first showed you this container, what did you think was in here?” The typically developing child answered “Smarties”.
The children were then asked “When the next child comes in what will he think is inside here?”
Again they responded with “Smarties”.
When these two questions were asked to children with Autism the majority answered pencils to both questions.
The findings of this experiment revealed that most children with Autism do not have the ability to understand other people’s different beliefs. Typically developing children will have this understanding at 3-4 years of age.
Another Core Deficit
Perspective taking while sometimes used interchangeably with Theory of Mind is also very important to understand when involved in the lives of children with Autism.
While Theory of Mind is a necessary component of perspective taking I do like to differentiate between the two.
Perspective taking refers to our ability to relate to others. It is our ability to perceive someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations. In other words it refers to our ability to empathize with someone else and see things from their perspective.
Most people can intuitively tell how someone else feels in a conversation. When they speak to someone who’s looking around and not paying attention, they perceive the person is not interested in the conversation or is distracted for some reason. They know if they see tears in the person’s eyes that the person is upset.
Experience From A Social Skills Class
In my social skills classes I often do an activity in which the children decide what gifts would be appropriate or inappropriate for their peers, family members and other people in general. This activity shows clearly who has difficulty with Theory of Mind and Perspective Taking.
In a recent class of 5 children with one being on the Autistic Spectrum the deficit was clearly evident. I went around the table and asked each child what they would buy their parents, grandparents and even a baby for the holidays. The one little girl who was on the Autistic Spectrum answered a Barbie Doll for everyone.
It was clear that this was what she wanted for a holiday gift however she was unable to get inside anyone else’s thoughts and decide what might be a good gift for them. You can see how these deficits will significantly impact social functioning of these children.
It is very important to note that lack of Theory of Mind and Perspective Taking is not a sign of intelligence. One can be of gifted intelligence and not have Theory of Mind or Perspective Taking skills.
So What Can Be Done?
I am often asked if these deficits can be overcome and/or taught. The answer is both yes and no. With intervention some people with Autism will develop a basic level of Theory of Mind which helps them function better in the situation they are currently in. In other words we can teach skills that are situation dependent. If you read any of the writings of Temple Grandin she explains this in more detail.
Also when pretend play and joint attention* is addressed early on the deficits may be less severe later in life.
It is in the best interest of both parents and professionals who work and live with individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorders to learn as much as you can on this topic. It will be very eye opening for you as it was for me when I first learned about it. Learning leads to understanding. Understanding leads to progress.
* Joint Attention refers to sharing the experience of observing an object or event via non-verbal communication such as pointing or following a gaze. For example if I look at something and you then look to see what I’m looking at without being verbally told to. This skill should be present in babies by the age of 12 months.
Note: If you are concerned about your child’s social development you should call 914.488.5282 to set up a confidential consultation.