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.