Some, in this vast and divisive community of autistic individuals and parents of autistic individuals, might have their own way to explain Theory of Mind, but since I have but just one of my own children and the many I have taught over the years to study, I can only share what I have observed.
First of all, a super-easy definition because I like things to be super-easy:
Theory of Mind can be describes as....wait a boring, wordy definition isn't easy. How about an example, instead?
You know when you are talking to a small child on the phone and when you ask them what they are doing they answer: "I'm playing this!" while gesturing to the toy in their hand as if you have full knowledge of what they are playing with. Obviously, you don't but they don't understand yet that people have different ways of thinking and different beliefs. Children who haven't yet developed Theory of Mind will often default to the belief that whatever they think, feel, know or believe, is exactly what all others think, feel, know or believe.
It's kind of like that...and kind of like this too (I borrowed what is below directly from one of my favourite websites for actually helpful information on raising a child with autism. The brilliant Hanen Centre:
How’s your theory of mind?
Imagine you are handed a box of your favourite candy. When you open the box, you see that it is filled with pencils instead of candy. If your friend suddenly came into the room and saw the closed box with pictures of candy on it, what would he or she think was inside?
If you answered “candy”, then you understand “false beliefs”, which means you know that someone can believe something that is not true because they don’t share the same knowledge that you do.
*When 3 year olds are asked this question, they answer “pencils”, because they have not reached this stage of understanding in their theory of mind development .
I don't want to lead you to too many of the so-called scholarly articles on Theory of Mind because they will likely talk to you about things like Mindblindness and lack of empathy. Which is kind of ironic because the only people suffering from these conditions are the people conducting flawed studies to further alienate an entire population.
Anyway, enough of that. Now, I'd like to explain to you how Theory of Mind presents itself in our house.
Kate has a great deal of difficulty understand that the rest of the world does not share her every thought and desire. For example, if Kate wanted to play wrestling, she would have a very hard time believing that you didn't, in any way, want to wrestle just as much as her. Therefore, you might receive a sneak attack body slam when you're least expecting it. Like while you're drinking a hot beverage or painting your nails.
Furthermore, Kate believes, for the most part, that most things are about her. A recent example would be the fact that her teacher is expecting a baby and not only has Kate demanded her own copy of the ultrasound but she tells me she will also be naming the baby. "Sunny" FYI. Her excellent teacher will likely comply (with the ultrasound picture, not the baby-naming thing).
While some of this faulty thinking is funny and sweet some can be extremely frustrating for Kate and her friends & family.
A few less than pleasant examples:
Kate struggles to make friends because she cannot comprehend the idea that others may wish to play a different game than her. She is quickly marginalized in a group of children for her demanding ways. It can be difficult to explain to a group of six year olds that she is truly unable to conceive of someone not wanting to play her game, her way for as long as she wants to. Some of you are nodding your heads so hard right now I can feel it through the computer.
Furthermore, Kate struggles with conversation. This can be heartbreaking to witness. Conversations can be full of white lies, sarcasm and figurative language; all of which leave Kate confused. An undeveloped Theory of mind can lead to very literal thinking and a difficulty to make predictions about what another person might be feeling.
As with most things I write, I've probably neglected an important aspect of this conversation that should have been covered and I've probably made some serious spelling and grammar errors but my email will soon be full with kindly individuals pointing those things out.
Until next time,
Grace and Kate's mom. (Shanell)