What is 'Theory of Mind' and how does it affect our kids?

What is 'Theory of Mind' and how does it affect our kids?

The first thing that springs to mind when we think of mind reading might be psychic fairs, palm readers and telepathy, but if we think about it, we engage in our own sort of mind reading every day. Though we aren't able to see exactly what others think, we can gauge people's inner thoughts and feelings through various means such as empathy, reading body language or thinking as objectively as we can about the inner lives of others. This is called Theory of Mind. 

The neurotypical among us can understand and predict others' behavior to some degree by working out their desires, beliefs, emotions, intentions and perceptions. By doing this, we can acknowledge that the way we see the world is not the only way the world can be seen. We come to realize as we grow up that our experience of reality is only one part of the wider reality that includes us all.

People on the autism spectrum tend to find this more difficult. They can find it tough to recognize that others have their points of view, thoughts, plans and emotions. Understanding our kids' deficits in this area will enable us to help and support them in making social progress.

Theory of Mind and the Autism spectrum

People on the spectrum can have difficulty comprehending that others don't know something or that others different views or opinions. They can find it tough when someone doesn't have a response to their question or if a matter is subjective.

Understanding that their peers, classmates or workmates even have thoughts and emotions can be a problematic concept to grasp for someone on the spectrum, meaning they can unintentionally come across as uncaring or selfish. 

If our child's actions are cruel or hurtful at times, it's helpful to remain mindful of the fact that it may not be their intention to hurt others. Their actions can come from a lack of comprehension about the effect they have on the people around them.

The limits of the Theory of Mind of those on the spectrum can be seen from a very young age.

As infants, children on the autism spectrum have less interest in faces and shared attention than their neurotypical peers.

By 2 years old they can usually understand the desires of others, but not quite as easily as neurotypical children. Another notable difference is their preference to play with objects as they are, rather than pretending the toy is something else. A neurotypical child may pretend a block is a car, but a child on the spectrum generally won't.

3 years old is when Theory of Mind increases rapidly in NT kids. The test psychologists use is called the Maxi test. The child tested is told a story about a little boy called Maxi who hides some chocolate in a cupboard then leaves the room. Maxi's mother then comes in and moves the chocolate to a drawer, leaving the room before Maxi comes in again. The child is then asked where Maxi will look to find the chocolate. Kids with a developed theory of mind know that Maxi will still look in the cupboard, unaware that his mother has moved it, whereas kids without a theory of mind will assume Maxi will look in the drawer.

NT kids will get better at this over time, about 20% of those tested at 30 months being successful, increasing to 50% at 44 months. The success rate for ASD kids tends to stick at 20%, regardless of intelligence level or age.

As kids get older this inability to know when others don't know things can cause problems. If your child gets delayed on their way to school or work because of a traffic jam, for example, they might not realize that they'll have to explain this to their teacher or boss. Rather, they'll assume that their boss or teacher already knows the reason for their tardiness. This could lead to strained interactions and misunderstandings.

A limited theory of mind means that those on the spectrum will also find it difficult to understand sarcasm, irony, white lies and metaphors, which is likely to limit their social success.

4 ways parents can help

1. Invest in some learning materials

The University of Cambridge, UK, has developed a comprehensive DVD and CD-Rom resource for teaching those on the spectrum about emotion. Learning about 412 human emotions through games, videos, voice clips and voice stories, your child can get a much needed boost for their Theory of Mind skills in a fun way.

2. Role playing and acting

Role playing can be a great way to develop empathy and understanding in our kids. Putting themselves in someone else's shoes allows them to get outside themselves and their own minds, something that would normally be very difficult for them. 

If you're not sure where to start, don't worry - there are plenty of resources available to guide you. You might want to try Foundation Role Plays for Autism by Andrew Nelson or acting out one of your child's favorite story books.

3. Become their Theory of Mind coach

Psychologists have suggested that parents, teachers, family members or friends can become a Theory of Mind coach for a child on the autism spectrum. By going through your child's day with them, you can explain and describe the behaviors and emotions of others. Helping them to pick up on the nuances of facial expressions, tone of voice and body language will allow your child to gain a greater understanding of how they can interact with others successfully.

4. Find a social skills group

A group specially geared towards those on the spectrum can be a great help in boosting your child's social interactions. The facilitators are likely to use a range of different activities and exercises to increase your child's awareness of the thoughts and feelings of those around them, helping them to develop the Theory of Mind skills that will pave their way to success. 

10 steps to successful summer transitions

Artist: Jason Jones

Artist: Jason Jones

Whatever age your child is, they can struggle with the disruption that summer brings. As the predictable routines of school come to an abrupt halt and our kids are thrown into a whole new state of affairs with totally different rules, expectations and activities, it is no wonder that they struggle in keeping it together.

Though teachers, therapists or other professionals involved in your child's care and education can go some way to easing the transition into the summer, as parents of those on the autism spectrum you are best placed to to be proactive in making sure their summer is a success. 

Here are ten tips guaranteed to make the summer easier:

Talk to this year's teacher

Your child's teacher is likely to have spent plenty of time and effort in implementing techniques to help your child learn in a way that suits them. Through work systems, pictorial communication strategies, visual timetables or other methods, your child will have learned the expectations of them that exist in the classroom, both educationally and behaviorally.

Moving from a structured environment into the free-for-all that summer can sometimes be is tough for a child on the autism spectrum. Liaising with your kid's teacher to learn about any strategies and materials used will enable you to carry these techniques into the summer, which will ease the transition for your child.

Meet next year's teacher

Though the beginning of the summer brings the largest upheaval in schedule, the end of summer can be just as tough, for different reasons. If your child is uncertain what the fall will bring when they return to school, they can become anxious and fearful about the beginning of term.

Meeting next year's teacher and preferably visiting the classroom they will sit in the next academic year before school ends can do wonders for a child's feelings of security during the summer. It will be particularly comforting to many children on the autism spectrum to have an image of the teacher and classroom to keep those memories alive during the long break.

Help your kid maintain their friendships

For most kids on the autism spectrum, friendships are not easily won and just as tricky to maintain. Keeping your child in touch with their schoolmates over the summer might not be the easiest task, but it will ease the transition back into school in the fall, as well as keeping familiar faces around during the summer.

Seeing their friends out of the usual context of the classroom and playground can be jarring, though. Inviting friends round to your home can work well once your child knows what is expected of them and what activities they can do together. Setting up clear rules and guidelines will help your child deal more effectively with any anxiety they may be feeling and enjoy their friend's company.

4. Set out a plan for the summer

A visual overview of all the summer's activities, including vacations, day trips and other planned activities can be a great help for those on the autism spectrum. Listed chronologically, preferably on a calendar, a run-down of the summer and an idea of when they will return to school will decrease anxiety and help them get a better sense of time. 

Photos of your vacation destinations are ideal as they help to ease the transition into unfamiliar environments.

5. Rearrange the wardrobe

We all know that many on the autism spectrum can attach to specific items of clothing and refuse to consider alternatives. Removing tempting favorite jumpers and woolen clothing from wardrobes and drawers and moving them into storage can prevent overheating and the health problems it causes.

6. Consider sensory sensitivities

Summer is a time that comes with a whole load of different sensory experiences. Putting on sunblock, jumping in the pool, wearing less clothes or the heat on the skin can be problematic for some on the autism spectrum.

A great time to apply sunblock without a fight can be during a favorite TV show that engrosses them. Children who find it uncomfortable wearing lighter clothes may enjoy a weighted vest. Some kids may prefer to sit in the shade or go inside for some periods of the day to avoid sensory overload.

Try to be mindful of how planned or impromptu activities can affect your child's senses. Refusal to engage in activities can sometimes be a means of protecting themselves from overstimulation.

7. Focus on bedtime routines

Lack of sleep can cause anyone to get grouchy. Try to maintain the same bedtime routines that were in effect during the school year, if you can. It might help to establish a set pattern of activities before bed e.g. bath, read, sleep, which can ease transitions into different bedtimes or unfamiliar places such as hotels.

Blacked-out curtains might be necessary in the summer months to ensure your child gets a good night's sleep, particularly if they are sensitive to light.

8. Map out the day

Particularly if your child's activities for the day are mapped out at school, consider doing the same at home. Even if your plans for the day are flexible, mapping out mealtimes between activities can be a great way to provide structure, much needed for those on the autism spectrum.

For extended periods at home, you might consider providing structured activities, workbooks or educational tasks to keep them occupied and up to speed with their academics.

9. Use social stories

Summer can be full of unfamiliar social activities. Pre-empting these by providing social stories can help your child achieve a greater degree of social success.

Home made books or comic strips that detail different social situations and the expected behaviors that apply can give your child that extra bit of understanding they need to navigate new scenarios.

10. Give your child a private space

Sometimes all the excitement and disruption in routine can just be too much. Wherever you might be, try to provide an area where your child can just chill out for a while. Whether they need to regather their composure or rebalance after overstimulation, having a private place for them to express and gather themselves can be invaluable.

Whatever the age of your child, remember that the disruption of summer can be a time of growth and development when we recognize our child’s differences and empower ourselves and our families by learning how we can embrace them

Guiding Your Child with High Functioning Autism Through the Teenage Years


Bill Murray Walking on Water, Artist Jason Jones

Bill Murray Walking on Water, Artist Jason Jones

As a parent or carer of a child on the autism spectrum, these typical approaches to social life will be familiar to you:

No interest

Some with ASD will show no interest in socializing with others. When friends or family are around, they may ignore them, preferring to play or work by themselves. They may even appear irritated or frustrated when others interact with them. It's good to know, however, that interest in others usually increases over time. 


Many with ASD do have an interest in others and have a desire to connect and interact with them. Unfortunately, this can prove such a difficult task to navigate that the anxiety it triggers causes them to avoid others. Rather than risk humiliation and rejection, these kids simply avoid others.

Clumsy interaction

For those without anxiety, their desire to interact with others can lead to clumsy interactions. Although they want to fit in and have friends, they can't quite understand the intricacies of social interaction that are required. They may come across as boring, standoffish or even insulting. In turn, they'll be unable to read the reactions of others, such as sarcasm or criticism, which might otherwise give them clues to the behaviors of theirs that others find objectionable.


When kids with ASD get to teenage stage, they start to realize they are not quite like others. This can be a big surprise and quite a deep shock. Kids need to deal with and process this loss psychologically and may go through a stage of what is almost like grieving. 

Similar to when someone is grieving, teens on the autism spectrum tend to go through a series of stages while trying to process their loss. These stages might happen in order or your teen might dip in and out of different stages at different times.


During this stage, the teen might fight her diagnosis, insisting they are just the same as everyone else. They won't want to talk about anything ASD related and just wish that it would all go away.


Your teen may become very angry, blaming themselves, you, God or anyone else that they are not neurotypical. Their frustration might cause destructive behavior.


Sometimes, teens on the autism spectrum might think that they will make themselves like the other teens around them by finding a medication or miracle cure. They believe that ASD might just disappear overnight if they could only find out how.


Adolescents are already known to suffer from depression, but those on the autism spectrum dealing with the realization of their differences are dealt an extra blow. They may feel down about themselves, their situation and their ability to make friends. They might give up on social activity, unable to face their differences.


Eventually, teens will be able to accept themselves, even though their strengths and challenges may be different from others'. Once they've reached this stage, they will then be much more successful in working towards gaining social skills.

7 ways you can help

Making sure that we do our best to deal with difficult issues calmly, without trying to minimize or avoid painful experiences or expressions, can work wonders for our teen's development. 

If we try to jolly them along or suppress difficult feelings, we slow down ther path to acceptance and growth. Trying to understand and empathize and encourage honest talk will improve your relationship with your child in the long term and help him to accept himself as he is.

Try these tips for opening up communication and helping your teen:

Find a local support group for parents

It can be very difficult to go through parenting an ASD teen alone. Joining a group will not only give you a community that can help you through the difficult times, it may help you to improve your knowledge about what your child is going through and thus become better equipped to help them.


Though it can be tempting to change the subject and skirt round difficult issues, listening to our teen without judging, criticizing or offering our own opinion can be very powerful. When we respect our child's choice to confide in us by listening respectfully and not taking it personally, we are rewarded with more communication and a strengthened relationship. Our teen will feel more relaxed in the house as they will feel more understood and supported.

Remind them of reality

Teens have the tendency to exaggerate, due to the strength of the emotions that overwhelm them. Though we don't want to dismiss our child's feelings, we can remind them of reality if they make over-dramatic statements. For example, 'I always fail at everything,' might prompt, 'I know you feel things are difficult now, but there are lots of times you have succeeded, such as ....'

This will give your teen the confidence that you can offer them a sense of stability.

Offer counseling

Some teens would prefer to speak to someone outside their family to express their feelings. This is perfectly normal. Offer to arrange counseling for them if they feel they want someone independent to talk to.

Use their special interest

Though, in all honesty, you are probably bored to tears by now by their collections or interests that have kept them going for years, you can use these interests to help them. Finding new ways to engage her in the subject, stretch her and challenge her 

will give her a necessary confidence boost at this difficult time.

If your teen begins to spend more time working on their interest at this time, be aware that this might be their response to the difficult feelings that they are dealing with. Retreating into their collections helps them feel safe and may help them process their loss more effectively.

Talk about sex

Teens on the autism spectrum can find sexuality very difficult territory to navigate. Failure to help them in this area can meet with consequences such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, social exclusion or even imprisonment.

Setting out clear boundaries of what normal sexual behavior is will help your teen to steer clear of inappropriate sexual behaviors. Talking freely about sex and sexual feelings will let your teen know that these feelings are normal and acceptable - it is just the expression of them that they have to control. Encourage them to ask you questions regarding anything they are unsure about.

Embrace autism

Some adolescents on the autism spectrum decide to educate themselves about the particular strengths and challenges ASD brings into their lives. They may even choose to educate others through the use of leaflets, websites or conversation. Taking a pro-active approach can be extremely helpful to combat depression in teens going through the realization of their differences.

Finding networks of ASD teens, making new friends on the spectrum or getting involved in other autism-related activities can help teens to become more aware of who they are and how they can empower themselves.


Weathering the Storm

No group tomorrow, Tuesday the 27th because the rec center is closed in anticipation of the blizzard. Here are some great tips for helping your child to cope with the storm from one of our Kids Cooperate parents.

1. glow sticks  - Awesome for those who have rising anxiety with darkness.  It's their personal light.  They are fun. They can pick their own color.  Heck, everyone in the house could have their own color.  They actually produce more light than you would think.   Hang one around your neck and you have light everywhere you go.  They have a long life time so that helps save on batteries that parents would rather not waste in case needed for more important items.  It also cuts down on kids accidentally shining flashlights in other peoples eyes which then leads to arguing.  Over night, they make great night lights!


2. During power outages, it's a great time to play "camping" or what I like to call "Little House on the Prairie".  Basically, we play roughing it.  We may assign "jobs" and talk a lot about how things were done years ago.


3. Information without overload.  With Ben we need to walk a fine line with anxiety and weather.  The unknown really drives up that anxiety however following the news on tv or radio can drive everyone's anxiety through the roof with all the "doom and gloom" talk.  So that leaves us in a pickle.  What works with Ben is monitor how he gets his information.  Being a computer kid, he will look up the weather on radar.  It actually works fairly well.   By watching the radar he gets information that helps with the unknown but does so in a way that avoids all of the sensationalism.   He can see what is happening in the moment and when he needs to prepare himself for the scariest part but it also allows him to see that the worst parts won't last forever.  He can say ok this is going to be bad but it's only going to be bad during this set block of time.


I read an article this weekend that suggested that repeated frustration, rather than exposure to violent images could be responsible for the violent behavior associated with video game playing. What is interesting about this is that it points to the importance of resiliency, and developing strong emotional self regulation techniques throughout all areas of life. Here is a link to the article: http://goo.gl/KVUWSR

For example, in sports, players may lose a game as a result of a bad call. "When people feel they have no control over the outcome of a game that leads to aggression" he said.P

"We saw that in our experiments. If you press someone's competencies, they'll become more aggressive, and our effects held up whether the games were violent or not."

In order to foster resiliency and emotional intelligence we learn many different techniques, which are all the same at the core. Increase awareness of your emotional landscape, find a cognitive heuristic that helps you to slow down and take a breath before reacting, practice practice practice.

Here is an example of the S.T.O.P technique (from http://zenpsychiatry.com/stop/):

(S)top when you realize you're about to get hijacked by your reaction, (T)ake a breath, (O)bserve what is going on in your body and not just your head and finally (P)roceed once you've done all this. 

The Duchenne Smile

This week we discussed "Mind Hacks", the idea that we can make our lives happier, smarter, and awesome-er by understanding a little about neuroscience. The middle schoolers learned how to consistently win the game of Rock Paper Scissors by understanding the psychology behind the patterns people throw. We learned another mind hack, how facial expression sends powerful signals to the brain. A frown uses a muscle called the corrugator, which some studies show activates the amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for coping with stress and danger. When scientists temporarily paralyzed the frowning muscle using botox injections, depressed people recovered faster. Conversely, a genuine smile which crinkles the eyes as well as mouth called the "Duchenne Smile" after the neurologist who studied it can increase feelings of joy, affect the immune system, and improve performance on cognitive tasks. An interesting fact is that the brain can spot a fake smile using only the mouth (the Pan Am smile) and it does not have the same positive effects.

Keep Smiling!


Continuing on our curriculum of self-care for happiness, this week we will be focusing on one item in particular from the happiness challenge, gratitude

Making a new habit of taking a shared or private moment to recognize and name the things we are grateful for will have a ripple effect of happiness throughout your life and your child's life. Here are some of the ways to use that moment.

1. Reframe: take a second look at the challenges in your day and find the silver lining, even if it was only being presented with the chance to learn and grow.

2. Be Thankful: people do things for us all day long. From the barrista who brought you your morning drink to the people who give you unconditional love and support throughout your life, there is always an army of people who deserve our thanks but never ask for it. 

3. Positive Focus: The human mind has a powerful bias toward seeing what it's looking for. This is called the Reticular Activating System. Use this to your advantage by focusing on the positive in your life in order to highlight the hidden pockets of happiness that have gone unnoticed. 


Here is a reminder of the 10 items on the happiness challenge.

1. Smile
2. Write down three positive things that happened today
3. Get 7-8 hours of sleep tonight
4. Do a good deed for someone
5. Spend time with family or friends
6. Write down something you're grateful for
7. Eat healthy foods: skip processed foods and sweets today
8. Exercise: walk, go to the gym, dance. Just move!
9. Spend 10 minutes outside to get vitamin D
10. Make time for a hobby or activity you love

The Happiness Challenge

Continuing our February Challenges (see the Better Communication Challenge from a few weeks ago), this week is the Happiness Challenge! Try out a few of the items below. We will be discussing them formally in groups. 

1. Smile
2. Write down three positive things that happened today
3. Get 7-8 hours of sleep tonight
4. Do a good deed for someone
5. Spend time with family or friends
6. Write down something you're grateful for
7. Eat healthy foods: skip processed foods and sweets today
8. Exercise: walk, go to the gym, dance. Just move!
9. Spend 10 minutes outside to get vitamin D
10. Make time for a hobby or activity you love

The Happiness Challenge is from http://Lift.do


In the Kids Cooperate social groups there has been a lot of interest in magic tricks lately. We have a cheap magic trick set that requires actual magic powers to pull off any believable tricks with, but that hasn't stifled interest or enthusiasm for learning and performing tricks. 

For kids who are challenged by the pragmatics of peer social interaction because of Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, or something else, magic tricks represent a social currency whose value rarely fluctuates. While typical social interactions can be unpredictable, the performance of a magic trick follows a clear and agreed upon social script that is followed explicitly.

I also have a theory that children on the Autism Spectrum enjoy magic for an opposite reason than of their neurotypical peers. While many people are thrilled by the mystery of the magic trick, kids who find every day social interaction mystifying are thrilled instead by the part of the magic trick social script in which the curtain is pulled back and the mechanics of the illusion is revealed. "A magician does not reveal their tricks" is not a response that is gracefully accepted to questions about how a trick was done in the Kids Cooperate social skills groups.

Here is a fun and simple card trick that is impressive and easy to master: http://youtu.be/tlQiuCeezUA 

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