South Brisbane Psychology - Children, Teen & Adults. Tel: 3133 0610
The Autism Spectrum... is a broad one! 

What is Theory of Mind?  
Dr. Jenni Silva
Clinical Psychologist 

Relationships involve caring for others, an important factor in good relationships is the ability to be able to see things from another person’s perspective.  To be able to infer the thoughts and feelings of another and to be able to respond appropriately; this ability is referred to as Theory of Mind (ToM).   It is an important skill that underlies our ability to have compassion for another.  We must be able to put ourselves in another person's shoes, and see things from their perspective.  It is a complex process and neurotypicals (i.e., individuals without autism) often do this without effort. Individuals on the autism spectrum may struggle with ToM which often is related to their social and communication difficulties, including difficulty with making and maintaining friendships, to-and-fro of conversation, appropriate display of affect and ability to read emotions in self and others; and cognitive rigidity (i.e., the insistence on sameness)

What is the Theory of Mind hypothesis (ToM)?. It is argued that the social and communication impairments of the individual with autism are a result of an impaired understanding of mental states.  Theory of Mind (ToM) is defined as an individual’s ability to impute mental states such as thoughts, intentions of others, beliefs and desires.  Imputing others and one’s own mental state is crucial for understanding other peoples’ social behaviour and interpersonal communication.  Impairment or delayed maturity in this area in the individual with autism may account for their difficulty to interact effectively in conversations, to talk at length about their topic of interest and for poor adherence to social rules.

How you can help develop your child’s theory of mind or mind reading skills….

Well, when it comes to Theory of Mind, we can do a number of things to help improve your child’s difficulty within this area.  Simon Baron-Cohen’s work has had and continues to have a large influence on my clinical practice in working with children on the autism spectrum.    Baron-Cohen has produced a number of very useful materials to help develop further a child’s ability to mind read or their theory of mind skills. One of my favourite tools includes Mind Reading: An Interactive Guide to Human Emotions. 

Other ways to help develop Theory of Mind skills are listed below.

  • Pretend Play 
We are never too old to play and when it comes to children, play is important!  I love to play with the little kids that see me at Brilliant Minds, we use kinetic sand, puppets, plasticine, arts and crafts, pretend play, balls and all sorts of things to make sessions fun!  Children love play too and it is a great way to work on development of theory of mind skills.  Pretend play with dolls, figurines, puppets provide a chance to create the scene. Floor play, pretend play can be anything, and be imaginative as many children with autism have difficulty with imaginative play.  Play spontaneously with your child, follow their lead, and gently add communication that infers another’s mental state (or perspective). Make it Fun!  Avoid correcting your child in these play-based activities. Children learn best when it is fun!

  • Books 
Children’s books are a great way to teach Theory of Mind Skills.  Simply, just add in reflective questions such as ‘how do you think Miss Stubborn felt when she had to do something that she did not want to do?; How do you think her Mum felt? etc..  Mr Men & Little Miss Books work well here.   

  • Emotions

Teach your child to learn to read a number of emotions including happy, sad, angry, disappointment, scared etc.  Many children with autism, struggle to find the words to express their own feelings. I often see children confusing angry and scared as ‘sad’ or other children may interpret sad and scared as ‘angry’.  Helping your child learn about emotions helps them make sense of their experience. Explicitly teach your child how to read a face.  Baron Cohen’s Mind Reading DVD and book is great for this purpose.  You can also do this by helping label your child’s experience.

These are just a few ideas to get you started, the main point is that we can interweave mind reading practise into our child’s every day life. This does not have to be complicated, it is just becoming more mindful of our language to provide the opportunity. e.g., how do you think Mummy / Daddy will feel if we make his favourite dinner tonight? The key is to make this a part of your language with your child. 

Dr. Jenni Silva
Clinical Psychologist