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Theory of Mind (and alleged lack of it) in autism

Updated: Oct 20, 2021

According to some researchers (e.g., Ramachandran 1995), it is mirror neurons that allow us to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds"; without these neurons, the child can no longer understand other people’s intentions, emotions and behaviours, and this is the case in autism.

It is true that autistic people find it hard to perceive the mental states of others and it has been suggested that the central feature of autism is an inability to infer another person’s views, that is, they lack understanding of what other people are thinking, feeling, intending to do, etc.; in extreme cases autistic children may have no concept of mind at all (Baron-Cohen et al. 1985; Frith 1989). This inability has been termed lack of Theory of Mind (ToM).

This theory seemed to explain a lot in ‘autistic behaviours’, and (like ‘broken mirror neurons’ hypothesis) it was enthusiastically welcomed by the researchers and developed further. Numerous experiments have been conducted in order to prove that, unlike typically developing children and children with other developmental disabilities, autistic individuals cannot understand and predict actions of others. New terms have been coined that have spread rapidly in the field: ‘mindblindness’ and ‘mind-reading’. ToM hypothesis has stimulated a great amount of research and a lot of criticism. Numerous studies have shown that lack of Theory of Mind cannot be a primary impairment in autism.

‘Lack of Theory of Mind’ explanation can be useful when applied to practical work with autistic people

Paradoxically, however, despite the growing evidence that ToM difficulties are secondary to some primary deficit(s) in autism, the lack of ToM has grown in popularity among professionals working with autistic individuals. Having failed to explain the development of autism, this theory has proven to be very useful when applied to practical work with people with ASDs because it gives professionals and parents explanations of what otherwise have been seen as idiosyncratic behaviours and provides ideas on how to address these problems.

So-called lack of ToM in autistic children implies a different interpretation of ‘rudeness’ and ‘deliberate stubbornness’, as well as suggests the necessity to explain explicitly our intentions and emotions.

The downside of ToM

The downside of this theory is one-sidedness – it implies that there must be only one ToM for all people, and either you develop it (and become ‘normal’), or you fail to develop ToM (that indicates autism). The proponents of the ToM theory state that the ability to understand one’s own and others’ minds appears to occur spontaneously in childhood. In autism, however, this lack of ability leads to many developmental abnormalities which are characteristic of the disorder (Howlin et al. 1999).

But is the development of ToM always spontaneous, independent from any other variables?

Let us consider several scenarios:

Mother hugs her baby and smiles to show happiness and affection. The baby responds to the hug feeling happy and loved. They share experience and the first seed of Theory of Mind is planted. If the same happens to the baby who feels pain when being touched, would the baby learn that the smile means affection?

Mother is angry with her toddler and punishes him by sending him to his room. The child learns that Mummy is cross because he has misbehaved. Another toddler (who has experienced sensory overload) suddenly finds himself in the safety of his own bedroom. The lesson has been learned: the ‘punishment’ (from the mother’s point of view) means ‘affection’ for the child.

Who is mind-blind?

It is true that autistic people lack ToM and are ‘mind-blind’ to the thoughts, feelings and intentions of those around them. Non-autistic people’s behaviours become unpredictable and confusing to an individual with autism. However, are non-autistic people ‘mind-sighted’ when they deal with autistic people? Do they easily recognise feelings and intentions of individuals with ASDs?

Considering that autistic and non-autistic people do not share perceptual experiences due to differences in perceptual and cognitive mechanisms, don’t nonautistic people find it difficult to take autistic individuals’ perspectives? If autistic people lack Theory of Mind, then non-autistic individuals are sure to have deficits in the ability to understand the Theory of Autistic Mind. If we could remove one-sidedness from our interpretation of ‘mind-blindness’, we would see how limited we all are in our ability to ‘mindread’.

"Thus both, the autistic and non-autistic alike, in relation to each other are ‘mindblind’. Independently, they are not, together they are: Each is mindblind to the other" (Peter Myer)

1 Comment

Tamsin Parker
Tamsin Parker
Jan 20

A child being sent to their room might not think of it as them being in the safety of their room, but as social exclusion and being made to feel unworthy of belonging in the family.

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