Theory of Mind is a person’s ability to attribute mental states such as feelings, thoughts, beliefs and intentions to oneself and others in order to understand, explain and predict social behaviour (Chevallier, 2013). This skill can often be undeveloped in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder but with support, theory of mind can be nurtured.
Let’s begin to understand theory of mind a little more with an example we can all relate to.
Imagine you get to work earlier than usual one day and notice that the board of directors have unexpectedly stopped by the office to talk to your boss. They tell you not to disturb them under any circumstances. Thirty minutes later your coworker, who has been on thin ice with your boss, arrives with an extra coffee in her hand. You predict that the extra coffee is for your boss. You intercept her and tell her not to disturb your boss because your boss is in an important meeting.
This set of tasks might seem easy in the moment, but it is actually a series of complex mental assumptions.
You are able to take your coworker’s perspective and understand that she feels her job is in jeopardy and she wants to demonstrate to the boss that she cares about the workplace. You are also predicting her behaviour. She is likely to walk into the boss’s office.
Even though your boss told just you not to disturb her, you are able to take your boss’ perspective and assume that she does not want to be interrupted by anyone. In fact, an interruption would probably make her mad and if your coworker, who is already on thin ice with your boss makes your boss mad in front of her bosses, your coworker might get fired (Senju, 2012).
These tasks require you to have an established theory of mind. This appreciation of another person’s thoughts, emotions and reactions enables you to change your point of view, feelings and actions. It also helps you to understand that other people differ from yourself in how they think, feel, act, and understand the world. Oftentimes, we inadvertently refer to Theory of Mind when we tell others to “put yourself in their shoes.”
While children and adolescents of all backgrounds can sometimes struggle with this skill, particularly early in life, children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may experience increased difficulty being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Parents, caregivers, and clinicians may be familiar with this. A lack of empathy is often a characteristic in an ASD diagnosis (Senju, 2012). Children and adolescents with ASD may need more intentional training on how to develop theory of mind to better empathize with others, process the world around them, and predict behaviour necessary to engage with and maintain social relationships. Theory of mind is a skill that, although many people naturally obtain as they age, can be taught for children and adolescents who are having difficulty with it.
One team of researchers suggests reading stories with kids and having them guess the ending is an effective way of developing theory of mind. The reader is encouraged to imagine what the characters choose to do as they play out the ending in their mind. The reader will need to ask themselves, how are the characters in the story feeling about the events that are happening to them? What might happen in the story next and why might that happen? To help children and teens build these skills, you can share your own guesses and reasoning (Holopainen et. al, 2019).
Another useful activity is to model different emotions people can display in their facial expressions and through their body language. Helping children and adolescents understand that people might be feeling an emotion different to them, and how someone might display that feeling (smiling, frowning, etc.) is an important first step in building theory of mind in children and adolescents with ASD. After they get a hang of emotions, you can challenge them to find examples of emotion in their daily lives such as observing emotions in the home. How are their parents or siblings feeling? How can they tell?
Another activity involves encouraging kids and teenagers to play a guessing game, do role-play, hide-and-seek, play pretend and drama. By taking on a character in a fictitious situation, they will have to create a person whose experience may differ from their actual reality. This might help them learn to think about how real people in different situations may be experiencing something different from what the child or teenager with Autism is experiencing.
In conclusion, to foster your child and adolescent’s Theory of Mind skills, your role is key. Even though your child or teenager with Autism might not be able to fully put themselves in your shoes, you can put yourself in theirs and have patience when they are processing differently than you. You can also work with them to build the skills they need to have better relationships with others and experience the world through another person’s lens.
If you would like to learn more about helping children and adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorder please visit the SEL Interactive Videos Curriculum. The SEL curriculum videos use a range of staged situations that simulate real life scenarios in a variety of settings such as home, school and community to develop the individual’s theory of mind.
- Chevallier C. (2013) Theory of Mind. In: Volkmar F.R. (eds) Encyclopedia of Autism Spectrum Disorders. Springer, New York, NY.
- Senju A. (2012). Spontaneous theory of mind and its absence in autism spectrum disorders. The Neuroscientist : a review journal bringing neurobiology, neurology and psychiatry,18(2), 108–113.
- Holopainen, A., de Veld, D. M. J., Hoddenbach, E., & Begeer, S. (2019). Does theory of mind training enhance empathy in autism? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,49(10), 3965–3972.
- Hoddenbach, E., Koot, H. M., Clifford, P., Gevers, C., Clauser, C., Boer, F., & Begeer, S. (2012). Individual differences in the efficacy of a short theory of mind intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder: a randomized controlled trial. Trials 13, 206.
- Fletcher-Watson, S., McConnell, F., Manola, E., & McConachie, H. (2014). Interventions based on the Theory of Mind cognitive model for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3.