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…

Parents
  • 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. 

  • 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. 

  • 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.

Reply
  • 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.

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