• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Can Theory of Mind be Taught to Autistic Children? 5 Things That Can Help

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“Theory of Mind,” also known as mind-blindness, is the fundamental understanding that other people have feelings, emotions, and thoughts different than your own. It is the innate ability to recognize facial expressions, and body language, and then interpret, and predict other’s actions based on this knowledge. Children with autism are thought to lack this intuitive ability. Lacking Theory of Mind may explain some of the social and communication difficulties experienced by individuals with autism. The good news is there are some ways that autistic children and adults can learn “Theory of Mind.”

1. Play and Theory of Mind Games

Children can be taught a wide range of age-appropriate interactive play and social skills. Parents can practice and implement these strategies first at home with a caregiver, or adult, and then with other familiar children or siblings. Important play skills to teach include staying near one or more children, imitating their actions, sharing materials, taking turns, following rules, and following other’s leads. Practical Theory of Mind games like those produced by Linguisystems are also useful and can be played at home.

2. Social Scripts and Stories

Social scripts or stories include detailed, specific directions about what to say and how to behave in situations that can be troublesome for autistic children to navigate. The basic idea is to write and illustrate a story that tells the child what is supposed to happen in particular social situation. The story is then read repeatedly and the behaviors described in them practiced. The use of social stories is a common element in autism training programs through most school systems.Carol Gray has pioneered the use of social stories with children with autism spectrum disorders, and her website www.thegraycenter.com provides useful directions for writing these stories.

3. Social Skills Training

Participating in social skills training in a group setting can improve reciprocal communications and recognition of other’s facial expressions and body language. Social Skills training groups address introductions, maintaining conversations, turn taking, and provides opportunity for socialization with same-aged peers. Talk to your child’s doctor, or call the local Autism Society to find out where a social skills training class meets in your area.

4. Opportunities to Socialize

Children struggling with “Theory of Mind” may benefit from increased opportunities for socialization. Seeking out extra-circular activities that they can participate in will allow your child to practice the skills that they are learning. The important thing to remember about socializing for autistic children is that the socializing must be activity based. They will not be comfortable just getting together with peers to hang-out and chit-chat. Having an activity to participate in will give them focus, and place them together with others who have like interests. Activities focused around your child’s “special interests” will yield the best results.

5. Reading/Writing Fiction

Learning about “Theory of Mind” can take place in solitude at times. Reading fictional stories is a great source of learning about the minds of others. The writer sets the scene and tells you what the characters is feeling or thinking, which is often missed by the autistic person in a real-life, real-time setting. Writing stories can be a useful form of therapy. Writing fictional characters challenges your ability to understand people and predict their actions. It allows you to “practice” theory of mind skills in a safe environment free of social pressures. Making up stories and character interactions frees you to experiment with what you think they feel, and how they will respond. You can make social blunders in the privacy of your own pages, where misinterpreting other people’s intentions or actions does not have real-life consequences.

Although autistic children may lack or struggle with social interaction and theory of mind, there is hope. Much of theory of mind can be learned through play, education, stories, and plenty of practice. Most importantly, children should be praised for their efforts, and allowed to “practice” their newly learned skills in a safe and comfortable environment.


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.