Can Children with Autism "Mind Read?"

Brain Scan
Brain Scan. Don Farrall

"Theory of mind" describes the human ability to understand that it is impossible for one person to know what is going on in another person's mind. "Theory of mind" sounds like a complex concept, but in fact it's usually mastered by children before they're five years old.

A  child who has mastered theory of mind understands that, for example:

  • If they hide, other people don't know where they are.
  • If they think a thought or have an emotion, but don't express it, that thought or emotion is not communicated to others (and that others may not share all their thoughts).
  • Their likes and dislikes may or may not be shared by others -- and others may have completely different preferences and tastes.
  • They they have information that someone else does not have, they must communicate that information or risk being misunderstood.
  • If they witness something that others don't witness, they know something that other people don't know.

Theory of mind may be elusive for both children and adults on the spectrum. This does not mean that people with autism lack empathy, but rather that it is difficult for them to second-guess others' motivations, intentions, or hidden agendas. As a result, people on the spectrum often misunderstand other people's motivations or desires.  They may also fail to communicate information or advocate for their own needs. Difficulty with theory of mind can also make autistic people more vulnerable to being misled, bullied, or abused.

Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action.

In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and others' minds." Baron-Cohen developed a term for lack of theory of mind that he called "mind blindness."

Researchers including Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith believe that mind blindness at some level is present in all people on the autism spectrum.

They also feel that the lack of theory of mind is a result of neurological differences. For those individual on the autism spectrum with strong intellectual abilities, it is possible to build some "mind reading" abilities through practice, discussion, and social skills training. Even with practice and training, though, mind blindness is likely to be an issue for all people on the autism spectrum throughout their lives.

Sources:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. "Theory of Mind in Normal Development and Autism." Prisme, 2001, 34, 174-183.

Chevallier C, Noveck I, Happé F, Wilson D. "What's in a voice? Prosody as a test case for the Theory of Mind account of autism." Neuropsychologia. 2011 Feb;49(3):507-17.

Frith, Uta. "Mind Blindness and the Brain in Autism." Neuron, Vol. 32, 969–979, December 20, 2001.

Lerner MD, Hutchins TL, Prelock PA. "Brief Report: Preliminary Evaluation of the Theory of Mind Inventory and its Relationship to Measures of Social Skills." J Autism Dev Disord. 2010 Jul 14.

Tager-Flusberg, Helen. "Evaluating the Theory of Mind Hypothesis of Autism." Current Directions in Psychological Science, December 2007.  Vol 16 no. 6 311-315.

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