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Theory of Mind (ToM) or Mind-Blindness in Autism

theory of mind

People with autism spectrum disorders struggle to understand and relate to other people. They are thought to lack a “Theory of Mind,” and are said to be “Mind-blind.” Understand what “Theory of Mind” is, how it came about, and how it affects autistic people.

What is Theory of Mind?

Theory of Mind (also known as Mind-blindness) 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. Understanding is gleaned from thoughtful introspection, and social clues such as body language, facial expressions, and vocal intonations. Theory of Mind is important because “the ability to make inferences about what other people believe to be the case in a given situation allows one to predict what they will do.” (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985, p. 39).

Simon Baron-Cohen and the Sally-Ann Test

Simon Baron-Cohen, a Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cambridge University in the UK, was the first to study theory of mind in autistic children. He was the lead author of a 1985 study based on the Sally-Anne test. The test was administered to three groups of children: children with autism, children with Down Syndrome, and neuro-typical (NT) or normally developing children. During the test the children are shown two dolls—Sally and Anne. Sally has a basket in front of her, while Anne has a box. The Sally doll is made to put a marble in her basket and leave the room. While she is gone, the Anne doll takes the marble from Sally’s basket and places it in the box. When Sally returns to the room, the child is asked “Where will Sally look for the marble?” The correct answer: Sally will look in her basket (because that is the last place Sally left the marble). During Baron-Cohen’s study, only 20% of the autistic children answered the question correctly, while the remaining responded that Sally would look in the box (because they knew that was where the marble was located.) 80% of autistic children got this “Theory of Mind” question incorrect, opposed to 14% of children with Down syndrome, and 15% of neuro-typical children who gave the incorrect answer. From the test results Simon Baron-Cohen concluded “that the core problem in autism is the inability to think about other people or one’s own thoughts.”The “Sally-Anne” test is now widely used in the psychological research of “Theory of Mind,” and variations of the test are used in clinical settings to evaluate children with autism.

Theory of Mind and Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome

Autistic people often lack or have great difficulty with theory of mind. They have a reduced ability to read other peoples’ social cues (such as facial expressions or body language). This is also sometimes referred to as mind-blindness. When a person is mind-blind they have difficulty realizing intuitively that other people could think or feel differently than themselves. If they would not do something, they automatically assume that another person would not either. If a thought does cross their minds, they will never think it will cross someone else’s. It makes it difficult for the autistic person to perceive how a person will act in a given circumstance, or if those actions would differ from their own. As a result of this mind-blindness, people with autism may not realize if another person’s behaviors are intentional or unintentional, and can make them extremely susceptible to deception. Stephen Edelson Ph.D., asserts that”…many autistic individuals do not understand that other people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view.” However, this may be an over-simplified statement. Many autistic people absolutely do understand that others have their own plans, thoughts and points of view, but fail to be able to puzzle out what those plans may be, or understand the reasoning behind such actions.

Missing Social Clues

The difficulty with theory of mind may be related to the autistic person’s inability to pick up on social clues, or read facial expressions and body language. The mind-blind, autistic person may not see the signs that are obvious to everyone else around them. They do not pick up on social cues, vocal intonations, or facial expression. Or, if they noticed they often will misinterpret their meanings. Picking up on social cues comes naturally to the neuro-typical (NT) individual, a person who is not autistic, but for those with autism this innate ability is missing.Missing social cues can be awkward in social situations leaving you doing or saying the wrong thing at the wrong times. It may cause the autistic person to run over other people when they are talking, not waiting for them to finish. They do not pick up readily when it is their turn to speak, or realize when the other speaker is uninterested in the conversation or trying to exit it. The do not understand the concept of “white lies,” as a social nicety, and therefore, may speak the complete truth appearing hurtful or rude.

Understanding of others’ intentions is another critical precursor to understanding other minds. The consequences of this lack of understanding can have a wide reach—from difficulty socializing and connecting with people, to misunderstandings at school or work. Theory of Mind can, however, be taught and/or practiced. Read more about what can help children learn to “mind-read.”Can Theory of Mind be Taught to Autistic Children? 5 Things That Can Help


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.