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Talking to Aspie Teen about Theory of Mind

Today I am writing articles relating to Therory of Mind (ToM), and ways to help teach ASD children. I am reviewing Aspie Teen’s diagnosis and the recommendations section that deal with ToM exercises.

When the Teen asked me what I was writing about today, I told him. Of course, then I had to explain what Theory of Mind was.  The typical definition did not work.

Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that other people’s feelings, intentions and desires are different than your own, and then interpret, infer, or predict their actions. It is a fundamental understanding that their actions are based on their inner feelings.

The key words here are in bold.  INNER FEELINGS. When I tried to explain to the Teen that ToM was the ability to understand others feelings, and intentions and predict their actions, he said, “oh, I can do that.”

Then he went on to explain that he constantly runs different scenarios through his head, and preceded to explain to me that he can watch the traffic and its patterns, and predict what the cars are going to do (not what the people driving the cars would do, but what the cars would do), which way they will turn, or when an accident is going to occur.   He explained that when we drive around town he constantly watches the cars in order to run these“scenarios” in his head, and predict their outcomes.

I tried to explain to him this what not what Theory of Mind means, but he just kept on talking and then proceeded to draw me a diagram of a busy intersection here in town and describe the traffic pattern at that intersection. What I was trying to convey really did not penetrate. He was already focused on traffic pattern predictions and insisting that he can indeed understand other people’s intentions and predict their behavior—and his diagram was his evidence.

Do you notice something about this interchange? Besides the fact that once the Teen got something in his head and began down that road there was absolutely no way for me to stop him—everything he describe was on the outside. He described patterns, cars driving, turns, signals, traffic lights.  His predictions were based on people’s outward actions but not on any kind of internal emotion factor. Reflex time was factor in, but never a through to a person’s thoughts or feelings. They were never considered—there was no connection.

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Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.
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