Mindblindness: Autism and Theory of Mind

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Theory of mind is an individual’s ability to understand the contents of another individual’s mind, particularly concerning what other individuals know and believe, but also intentions of others. An intact theory of mind will lead to accurate social inferences, while a non-intact theory of mind will lead to inaccurate social inferences. Accurate social inferences will require an individual to be able to separate themselves from others. There has to be an understanding of independence of the self from other people; an understanding that every individual has their own set of beliefs, desires, wishes, motives and intentions. This distinction will allow space in the mind for clear and more importantly accurate social judgements to be made.

Jean Piaget found that children typically develop this theory of mind around the age of nine. I would assume that many factors, including but not limited to, environment (nature), the nurture of family/friends, an innate learning ability and the child’s own desires, all play a role in the development of theory of mind and at what age this occurs.

There are ways to test theory of mind at an early age. One of these tests is called the Sally-Anne test. Sally has a book. Sally leaves the book on a table and exits the room. Anne enters the room. Anne hides the book. Sally returns to find the book gone. The test is to answer the question of where Sally will search for the book initially. A child with an intact theory of mind will provide the answer of on the table, as that is where Sally left the book and Sally is unaware that Anne was in the room and hid the book. On the other hand, a child with a non-intact theory of mind will provide the answer of the location where Anne hid the book. This is so because this child is failing to make the connection that Sally does not know that Anne entered the room and hid the book. The first child described is able to differentiate perspectives, while the second child described is not.

Another important characteristic of theory of mind is an individual's capacity to be empathetic regarding another's emotional state. For example, you may have recently learned of a colleague’s diagnosis of severe illness that will require harsh pharmaceutical treatment over a lengthy period. An individual with an intact theory of mind will provide empathy to their colleague. This may include some form of comforting or positive affirmations that all will be okay. An individual with a non-intact theory of mind will be nonreactive to the news and continue to go about their day as if nothing happened. Said individual could be described as ‘cold’ or heartless. I think that the degree to which theory of mind is non-intact correlates to the level at which the individual reacts. That being said, I think that there is some variance in the amount of theory of mind a person can embody.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication problems in addition to rigid/repetitive behaviour/interests; these complications must have a severe impact on everyday life. An ASD diagnosis typically occurs around the age of three.

There are a few theories attempting to explain social and communication impairments in ASD, however I will only discuss the ‘theory of mind’ account. This describes an individual with ASD as being ‘mind-blind’, meaning they tend to fail tests of theory of mind, like the Sally-Anne test. This ‘theory of mind’ account can explain many key characteristics of autism including communication issues and over-literal understanding. But there are some aspects that do not coincide.

One of those aspects is empathy. ASD individuals often have a desire and human need to want connection with other people around them; they just find it difficult to understand and connect with the minds around them because they are often unable to track another individual’s mental state and the contents of their mind. They are able to feel what another person is feeling, but unable to make inferences on their beliefs, desires and intentions.

Another criticism of the ‘theory of mind’ account is that it is not the core origin of autism. Theory of mind tests have been developed to test ages three to four and up, while ASD symptoms may appear much earlier. The next criticism is that theory of mind tests are not specific to ASD. The final criticism is that this account is not universal to autism.

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Mindblindness: Autism And Theory of Mind. (2022, Mar 29). Retrieved June 14, 2024 , from

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