Can Your Child Mind Read?

By October 12, 2015Articles

Dr. Poirier discusses how social interactions teach both social skills and language.

When dealing with children with autism, you hear a lot about “Theory of Mind” (ToM). While this may sound like an abstract, philosophical concept, it has a specific meaning in the field of psychology. ToM is your ability to put yourself in another’s shoes: to understand that they have feelings, interests, and beliefs just like you. If you have ToM, you can empathize with their mental states and act according to this understanding.

Ultimately, ToM consists of:

  • What you think in terms of social knowledge.
  • How you think, or your way of communicating with yourself and others.
  • For most of us, ToM is an innate ability. But some people with autism develop almost no ToM.

A classic test for ToM involves two dolls playing with a marble. One of the dolls puts it in a box, and then the second doll leaves the room. Next, the first doll takes the marble out of the box and puts it in another box. When the second doll comes back and asks for the marble, the observing child is asked which box the second doll should look in.

If the child answers that she should look in the first box, because that’s where the marble was when the second doll left, then the child passes the test—because she realizes the doll has a perspective different from her own. If the child answers that the doll should look in the second box, this means the child thinks everyone shares her perspective, even when that would be impossible. She lacks ToM.

ToM, Social Development, and Language

ToM development depends mostly on the level and kinds of social interactions a child engages in. Some people mistakenly think that poor social knowledge or communication skills are caused by a lack of ToM, but the truth is completely the opposite: the lack of ToM is the result of these impairments. Strong language skills and a solid social understanding are both necessary for a ToM appropriate to one’s mental age. And with the right training, it’s possible to acquire ToM even if you don’t start with it.

The realization that ToM works this way goes hand-in-hand with the social cognition learning model. According to this model, culture makes the important contribution of teaching children knowledge and language: what and how to think. This was first studied by developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who observed that developing children are most heavily influenced by the cultures they live in.

Compelling research from comparative studies of deaf children, blind children, and autistic children emphasizes the social process of ToM development. Deaf and blind children from hearing and seeing households experience serious delays in ToM development. When a deaf child receives information in sign language from hearing parents, that language is unnatural and non-native. Similarly, although children who are blind from birth have the mental capacity to understand visual scenarios, they can’t because they lack the vision necessary for the comparison. Their parents have trouble providing imaginative communication using “pretend” scenarios.

Even normal children who have little social interaction with their siblings and parents show delayed development in their ToM. Children from large families have better ToM, because of more and more varied social interactions. Taken together, this research shows us that social interactions teach both social skills and language in children, and thus promote the development of ToM.

Taking it Further

The topic of theory of mind is expanded in detail, in my book, Unlocking Social Potential in Autism. In this book, I help you understand what autism is, where it comes from, how to treat it—and why it doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of loneliness for your child.