Autism And Theory Of Mind – Questions.

A fundamental claim of current research into autism is that people with autism lack a theory of mind. This means that they are unable to understand the links between the beliefs of other people and their behaviour and to predict what others will do.

This in turn raises a number of questions.

How does an understanding of the development of a child’s sense of self and theory of mind help us to understand autism?

Are people born without the ability to develop a theory of mind?

Can a theory of mind be taught?

What does the theory of mind tell us about how we learn?

The following sources deal with these questions.

TED Talk by Simon Baron-Cohen – The Erosion Of Empathy

Simon Baron-Cohen Wired Lecture

ABC AITM Autism Programme

You can find these sources in my PSYA3 Dropbox folder and iTunesU course. You can use other sources if you like. You can post your answers to these questions on the blog, email them to me or simply bring them as notes to the lesson.


  1. 1) An understanding of the development of a child’s sense of self and theory of mind helps us understand autism by enabling us to recognise that children suffering from Autism have problems understanding a different person’s point of view and physical perspective.

    Children, and some adults, that are suffering from Autism may be able to acknowledge and understand “physical cause and effect” in a given situation, but usually struggle with “social cause and effect” situations. This is because people with Autism often have difficulty grasping the idea that “thoughts cause actions” and therefore have trouble seeing the world in more than one way. People that don’t have Autism usually understand when an individual is lying, pretending or being ironic, however, evidence for Autism from the ABC AITM programme suggests that young people with Autism; teenagers in particular, don’t understand when an individual is lying or pretending, as the person with Autism does not see any reason why someone would choose not to tell the truth. Moreover, children with Autism frequently have problems with “make believe” games, as they don’t really see the differentiation between real-life and what is “only in the game”. As well as this, a child’s “Sense of Self” helps us appreciate why a young person with Autism does not understand the use of irony, as they usually take everything literally and therefore don’t understand the use of satire/irony.

    Additionally, we can use “Theory of Mind” to help us understand autism as we can discern that people with Autism don’t usually pick up on an individual’s facial expressions and therefore find it difficult to sympathise or acknowledge how someone is feeling (as they can’t distinguish between facial expressions for different emotions).

    As well as this, people with Autism find it difficult to acknowledge another person’s physical perspective. More specifically, children with Autism often only see their own physical view, consequently, when asked what a different person may be able to see, those with Autism only respond with what they can see, as they have trouble distinguishing between their physical perspective and someone else’s physical perspective.

    2+3) There are various theories around whether people are born with or without the ability to develop a theory of mind and whether this does/does not cause a child to develop Autism. However, arguably the most commonly accepted theory is that due to Autism being on a spectrum; those with a lower level of Autism, although born with problems forming a theory of mind, are able to learn how to empathise and recognise how someone else is feeling, e.g. are able to understand feelings based on someone’s facial expressions.

    People with Autism lack “cognitive empathy” and therefore are usually unable to put themselves “in other people’s shoes” and have difficulty appreciating somebody else’s viewpoint or perspective and so have trouble imagining someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

    To help someone with Autism understand a different person’s viewpoint, some teachers in schools use various techniques such as role plays, games and fairy tale story, to help children with Autism develop at a social level and then at a personal level too. Moreover, there are programmes available for families and schools to teach children about emotions and facial expressions, and these programmes can be highly acclaimed by parents, teachers and scientists, suggesting it is possible to teach a child to develop a theory of mind and so it is not important whether the child was or was not born with this theory of mind.

    On the other hand, some people feel that even if an individual is on the lower level of the Autism spectrum, they will have real difficulty with theory of mind as they do not have the innate ability to develop theory of mind, and so can’t be taught it. Scientists have suggested that high levels of foetal testosterone make it more difficult for an individual to develop cognitive empathy. Research suggests a causal link, suggesting that an individual cannot be taught how to develop a theory of mind and is in fact, born without this ability. Nevertheless, the research does not show how the testosterone affects the lack of cognitive empathy and therefore it could be argued that it is something else that is inhibiting a child’s ability to develop theory of mind, and therefore it may not be innate.

    4) The “Theory of Mind” theory tells us that learning is fundamental and starts at an early age. Moreover, “Theory of Mind” tells us that how we learn is based around both practical and social situations. Typically, young people with Autism struggle with humanities and learn best with Science based subjects, e.g. mechanical engineering. Moreover, they also learn well when a task involves organised systems ie. where there are rules or something to organise and arrange.

    Another thing “Theory of Mind” tells us is that the ZPD is irrelevant for people without Theory of Mind, as children will be unable to reach their potential unless they are taught or guided in the right way.

    1. This is great – thanks for such a full and accurate summary. I’m less sure now about the last point about ZPD being irrelevant for people without a theory of mind than I was in the lesson. The point I was trying to make in the lesson is that Piaget and Vygotsky show us two ways of learning: one through discovery, one through interaction. Theory of mind is therefore important because it tells us something powerful not just about social interaction but about so many other aspects of learning, some of which are denied people who live with autism. I guess the point about educational programmes is that they try to break these barriers down so that people can learn with support and scaffolding from more knowledgeable others. I guess also that there is then a further debate about whether people lacking a well developed theory of mind should be somehow coerced into developing one or simply left to learn and develop in a way which suits them. You can see that debate being played out in workplaces and educational settings which are adapted for people living with autism. A deliberate attempt is made to focus on what they can do, which is often startlingly good, rather than on what they can’t.

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