What is Theory of Mind?
Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states to the self and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and perspectives different than one’s own. For a person who has developed a theory of mind, they will be able to understand that people’s interests are different – you might like sports even though I don’t and I might like hiking even though you don’t. However, for individuals with autism, theory of mind is often not developed; they have a difficult time understanding that different people have different interests. A child with autism might assume that everyone likes talking about comic books and proceed accordingly, not realizing that the other person isn’t interested in the conversation at all.
An important developmental milestone in this area is the ability to pass the “Sally Anne Test”. Sally takes a marble and hides it in her basket. She then “leaves” the room and goes for a walk. While she is away, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally is then reintroduced and the child is asked the key question, the Belief Question: “Where will Sally look for her marble?
The test requires the tester to pass the Belief Question – to take a perspective different than one’s own. If the individual can recognize that Sally doesn’t know that the marble moved because she didn’t see it move, then they have shown some theory of mind. Only 20% of children with autism are able to answer this question correctly.
Individuals with ASD often have trouble understanding that someone else sees something differently than they do. So if Johnny saw the marble move but Timmy didn’t, Johnny might have trouble identifying that Timmy doesn’t know that the marble moved – Johnny is basing his answer on what HE sees and knows (and not on what Timmy’s differing perspective is).
Why is Theory of Mind Necessary?
Theory of mind is an important social skill. In order to develop theory of mind, children must engage in social interactions, be interested in others and be able to predict their behaviour. Most social interactions require some form of prediction or inference about the situation. Is that person sad? Does this person seem uninterested? Is what I’m saying hurting someone’s feelings? Successful social interactions require the individual to be able to infer (or guess) how their actions affect others. In order to get along with others and settle disputes, it’s helpful to be able to see things from another person’s perspective. Perspective taking is required in order to be able to do this.
Theory of mind is an important part of social skills and socially appropriate behaviour. Think about how you feel when you walk into a crowded room – you’re likely very conscious of the fact that people might have turned to look at you, you might be wondering if you’re dressed right, if you’re hair looks good, etc. Many of us automatically have thoughts about how other people perceive us. This leads us to engage in socially appropriate behaviours because we are aware that our actions give other people thoughts about us.
However, for an individual who may not have developed the concept of theory of mind, they might be unaware that their actions give other people different thoughts about them. They can only relate to their own thoughts. This might lead to some socially inappropriate behaviours and the inability to develop some social skills.
Can Theory of Mind be Taught and Improved?
Yes, it can. The first step in developing theory of mind and perspective taking is being able to answer ‘why’ questions and make inferences. A child should be able to answer why questions about themselves and about others. The best time to teach these concepts is in the moment. Catch the child feeling sad, tact the private event (emotion) and relate the private event to “How do you know?” For example, “You’re sad because your toy broke”
The behavioural definition of Theory of Mind is the ability to tact the variables that are controlling another person’s behaviour and discriminating between that person’s controlling variables and one’s own. We want children to learn that seeing and hearing leads to knowing. If you can see something, then you know it. If you can’t see something, then you don’t know it. This can then be extended to something like the Sally Anne Test. “Did Sally see the marble move?” “No.” “Does she know the marble moved?” “No.” Exposing students to different real-life scenarios is a great way to practice the concept that different people have different perspectives. Create the Sally Anne test in real-life and have the child experience it from all different perspectives.
Teaching theory of mind also brings the reinforcement internally. Instead of contriving external reinforcement for engaging in socially appropriate behaviours, we are teaching our students that there is inherent reinforcement available. When they become aware that their actions give other people thoughts and feelings, they are able to develop friendships and have more socially successful interactions with people.