Theory of mind

Hi....I was reading a book recently by a person with autism and they were describing the difficulties they have with lack of theory of mind and the implications for them.

I am autistic but I think I do have theory of mind. In fact I have 102 theories of minds. 1 for each of the people who I have repeated interactions with in work, social and family life. I appreciate that the way I develop these may be different. I understand people like multidimensional patternsapatterns a  sort of like a 3d map with paths that cross over, diverge lead to dead ends, some which are straight some which are wiggly etc. These are formed by observing and listening to their experiences and behaviour to give me an understanding of how they might think of feel about something. I don't generalise or make assumptions about a way a person might feel unless it is clear from the patterns I hold about them which have been repeatedly true.

I can't generalise about people nor do I think we should everyone is different. Also if I think how I would feel in a situation it would normally be very different to the way the majority of people may think or feel in a situation so it wouldn't work.

I can sometimes understand another person's thoughts and feelings accurately by my intuitive understanding but this is only if they are of a similar neurotype....

I am interested in what other people think about this.

I think to simply say people who are autistic lack theory of mind is potentially damaging to the perception of our neurotype.

  • I think to simply say people who are autistic lack theory of mind is potentially damaging to the perception of our neurotype.

    You are spot on. The Theory of Mind theory of autism is being challenged by a lot of autism researchers. The famous Sally Ann test that is often used to demonstrate theory of mind deficit is usually passed by 20 to 40% of autistic people. It is because autistic people grow and develop in their skills and develop the theory of mind skills. So in my opinion indeed the blanket statement is damaging and it is unclear whether it is at all true.

  • you also need to consider whether the autistic person has any other conditions that would affect their results. eg if the person has learning disabilities they may not even understand the 'Sally Ann' test even at an adult age, they may have other personality or mental health problems that might affect their own emotions. Even something like severe depression can make you feel numb most of the time so you don't feel anything, so if they (the autistic person) feels nothing for that reason how can they know what someone else is feeling?  apathy (a big problem in depression) would also affect their interest or motivation to consider how any other person may feel about a given situation.

    So unless they know for sure everyone they tested had only autism and nothing else that could affect the results, then it's not very accurate to say that all autistic people lack theory of mind purely because they are autistic.

  • I think you're probably right. Thinking differently about people, maybe not making generalisations or having expectations, doesn't mean a lack of understanding.

    There's evidence autistic people are better at understanding other autistic people than neurotypical people are. Researchers such as Damian Milton and Catherine Crompton say what underlies people judging as a deficit of understanding is actually a 'double empathy' problem or a 'mismatch of salience'. Good article by Damian Milton here and from the perspective of an NT parent of autistic son here. Neither autistic nor NT are 'wrong', although one is in the majority.

    Expectations about people's motives are inherent in 'theory of mind'/'intuition of mind' tests. You can find one test at the end of this document. Personally I can guess on all 'levels' of expectation, but I've read te test out to another autistic person who got the 'wrong' answers.

    This has an animation about misunderstandings that may be best seen full-screen: