Question about theory of mind

I’m just wondering if a person could have good theory of mind in the abstract but poor application of it. 

Neither my partner or my teenage daughter have an autism diagnosis, but I think they both have autistic traits.I am considering whether or not my daughter should be assessed for ASD but one sticking point in my mind is theory of mind. I think she has a natural, good and nuanced understanding of the perspectives, emotions, intents etc of other people. But she often doesn’t behave as if she does.

My partner likewise. There’s one example of something he did recently that illustrates what I’m asking. He likes to match his wine to what we’re eating and on this occasion, we were having red wine. My sister was visiting so I reminded him that we should have some white wine too as this is her preference. I told him 3 times over 24 hours to get used to the idea. He looked alarmed and said that it wouldn’t match and that we didn’t have any white in. He wasn’t comfortable with me going to get any white wine either. I explained that it wasn’t about it being a match: she’s a guest and we should get in what she would like. Also red wine gives her headaches. He couldn’t get his head round it and kept repeating what he’d previously said. But if he’d been asked about this situation, rather than actually being part of it, he would have given the perfect answer. He would have had a good and quick understanding of what would have been correct to do in this situation.

So could it be said that he has an impairment in theory of mind because he cannot demonstrate he has it in his behaviour, or could there be another explanation for his behaviour e.g. anxiety getting in the way of judgement?

I’d be very interested in any views or to be directed to some relevant reading. Thanks.

Top Replies

  • I think she has a natural, good and nuanced understanding of the perspectives, emotions, intents etc of other people

    Most autistic people do.

    I'm looking forward to the day when 'theory of…

  • I think she has a natural, good and nuanced understanding of the perspectives, emotions, intents etc of other people

    Most autistic people do.

    I'm looking forward to the day when 'theory of mind' is removed from the descriptors. As your questions illustrate, a lack of understanding and respect of other people's points of views and actions is a human trait, it is not an autistic 'deficit'.

    I'd like to know why your sister's feelings are more important to you than your husband and why you and your sister couldn't adapt your behaviour in order to avoid causing your husband frustration and upset?

  • I think you’re being a little unfair.  What would be the appropriate way to behave in your view?

  • If I knew my sister's behaviour caused my husband distress I'd have spoken to her in the first instance to see if she were happy to change her behaviour, so that we could have all had a good time. I'd prefer to avoid my husband being put upon if the situation could be avoided. 

  • Theory of mind is the biggest load of tosh ever - or the idea that something so complex can be put into a child like view of how people interact and validate each other. To me it is an indication that NT's have a very simple understanding of reality. Like chimpanzees wearing clothes. 

  • "I explained that it wasn’t about it being a match: she’s a guest and we should get in what she would like."

    This exlains that he has more 'theory of mind' than you do. Because he knows full well that if you mis match wine and food both wine and food will taste disgusting to the guest. But the guest will have the idea that she preffers that because someone she looks up to influenced her to drink white wine with food that does'nt match. So in her view - she has little understanding of her own mind because someone with more influence has 'programmed' her idea. 

    People say - yeah but everyone is different. Well we know thats not true. DNA is virtually identical in every human being. Differences occur because of others , ideas, reactions, words etc etc 

  • It doesn't sound to me as though he was being put upon but I take your point.  However, I don't suppose that her sister can any more help being given headaches by red wine than her husband can help feeling distressed by the fact that the wine doesn't match.  Neurotypical people have their own needs too that are not secondary to ours and the OP was struggling to balance these conflicting needs.  I can be very controlling as part, I feel, of my autism.  It is something I have worked on for the benefit of my NT partner, friends and family as they have worked simultaneously on developing a better understanding of autism and how it affects me. It's a give and take process of bridging the neurological chasm between us for the benefit of everyone. 

  • Hello!

    First of all, I apologise for the tone of some of these responses which are not terribly helpful!

    I am 34, autistic and female.  I don't feel that I have a particular issue with theory of mind honestly and agree with the points made above about how it is rather reductive.  I worked for 10 yrs in SEN teaching and would actually say I have better theory of mind than my NT colleagues when it came to working with autistic children - my NT colleagues struggled very much to view the world through the lens of autistic students when I, naturally, did not.  It's all a matter of context I suppose! That said, some of the children I worked with certainly had difficulty with 'theory of mind' and needed significant support around this.  Autistic people, just like NTs, will have strengths and difficulties in different areas. 

    One book I highly recommend is Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Adults by Dr Luke Beardon - it's a wonderful book and very sensitively written by someone who really sees the strengths of autistic people and articulates beautifully some of the difficulties autistic people face navigating a NT world. 

    I would suggest that your husband's behaviour in this instance is perhaps less to with theory of mind and more to do with rigidity around routines - something I very much struggle with. 

  • It doesn't sound to me as though he was being put upon but I take your point

    The OP clearly states that her behaviour made her husband feel uncomfortable. 

    Neurotypical people have their own needs too that are not secondary to ours

    That's true and works vice versa. In this situation, it comes across as though the wife was controlling and she had the expectation that the husband's needs came 2nd and 3rd to what she wanted, as well as her perceived expectations of what her sister wanted.This was without any discussion with the sister to find out if she'd be ok to not have white wine with her meal in order to ensure everyone felt ok. Not having white wine doesn't mean the sister has to drink red and feel unwell. If the issue is about drinking a certain wine with the meal the sister and husband may have been happy for her to have an alternative such as water.

    I believe that the husband and his needs should have an equal footing to others within the family.

    If the husband is autistic, he may have already bent considerably in order to accommodate his wife's desire to host a group gathering and the wine may have been the final straw.

  • rigidity around routines

    If you look at some of the later work by autism advocates it is being argued that the need for 'routine' is another myth. Its believed that it isn't the routine, or it being taken away, that is the issue for most autistics. Its what the routine represents, which is stability in a world where the built environment and social expectations haven't been designed with your needs in mind. Resultingly, if the tiny bit of stability a person has is taken away this can lead to a spike in anxiety. For example:

    "a simple analogy might be money: if you are a millionaire and you accidentally lose a pound you are likely not to be affected very much, if at all; if you are destitute and that one pound is all you possess, then the implications of losing it are extreme. From a ‘real’ perspective, a pound is simply a pound, but the different levels of (in this case financial) stability between the two examples mean that the loss of a pound leads to little or no change in the life of the financially stable millionaire versus ”

    In autistic terms, if group socialising is a dreadful experience, for example

    • There's adverse sensory stimuli and this slows down their ability to process and communicate 
    • Due to this, they struggle to take turns in conversations and feel left out or redundant
    • It's an unfriendly environment where their direct communication needs are seen as abrupt or rude, leading to feelings of shame
    • They're berated for the social rules they have and are told their behaviour is wrong

    Then rules around wine at mealtime may bring a great sense of calm. If that stability is taken away that may be the final straw that breaks the camels back and leads to the anxiety pouring out.

    As TBC points out, many individuals who are not autistic struggle to view the world through an autistic lens and as such demonstrate little empathy or understanding. This puts a great deal of pressure on the autistic community.