Children start to develop Theory of Mind, or an understanding of other people’s feelings and motivations, at around four years of age. That does not seem to happen for children with autism.
People on the autism spectrum seem to have less ability to empathise or predict how another person may behave which is why others comment that they have poor communication and social skills.
Here is a simple example of how Theory of Mind and autism interact.
A child with autism was instructed by his teacher, ‘Go and ask Mr Smith [another teacher] if he would like a cup of coffee’. The child went and found Mr Smith and delivered the question, but then came straight back without waiting for the reply: he did not realize that the intention of these communications was to find out whether Mr Smith wanted a drink.Children with autism struggle with day to day conversation because they don’t pick up on the cues implied in the sentences nor can they read body language or facial expressions. All they hear are the specific words you have used.
To gain a better understanding of theory of mind there is an excellent example from an article titled “Theory of Mind in Autism: Development, Implications, and Intervention”.
A woman is presenting the status of a project she has been working on at the end of a long staff meeting. Toward the middle of her presentation she notices a colleague looks at her watch and sighs. A man at the meeting starts to nod off while others become fidgety. Her boss asks her to “wrap it up” and even though she is not finished, she decides to end her presentation. As people begin to exit the room, her colleague who was on the verge of falling asleep while she was talking tells her that her project sounds very interesting.
Typical people often take for granted how much we use our understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings to guide our social interactions. In the example above, the speaker was able to read the nonverbal cues of others indicating that they were bored and tired; consequently, she decided to end her presentation. The presenter did not take the phrase “wrap it up” literally, and she knew that the boss intended “it” to mean the presentation, even though this had to be implied from the context. Finally, the speaker probably realized that her sleepy colleague’s comment about her project is probably a “white lie”, and that his comment did not match his belief or behavior, but instead reflected his desire to please her. Now imagine being a person with an autism spectrum disorder faced with a situation similar to the scenario presented above. An individual within the autism spectrum most likely would have behaved differently as a result of not being privy to the mental states of others.The challenge faced by parents, friends, professionals and carers of people with autism spectrum disorder is to help them to become better at understanding empathy and the views from another person’s perspective.
That’s where stories can be very useful. They lead children through the social situations they are likely to encounter and can help them learn to interpret what they see and hear.
I would love to hear your views and comments on this issue as well as what techniques you have used to help your children cope with social situations. Your comments, thoughts and experiences could make a valuable resource for others.