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
  • 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. 

  • 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.

Reply
  • 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.

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