Theory of Mind is a well known psychological concept that has been developed since the late 1970s. The details of who did what when aren’t important here – that information is readily available elsewhere if you want it. It’s relevance to autistic people is that this theory has been tested on autistic children to demonstrate that autistic children do not have a well developed theory of mind. This means they are unable to interpret the thoughts and intentions of others – ‘ascribe mental states’ to others. Being able to interpret, anticipate and respond to others effectively is considered to be an essential tool in social interaction. This, Simon Baron-Cohen and others claimed, explains why autistic people have communication and socialisation difficulties. The key part here is that this is not fact, it’s simply a well trodden theory, one that has many critics.

This is a beefy old topic, so I shall leave it there for you to think on.

Here are a couple of short videos for you to watch. The first one is with a British/German psychologist, Uta Frith. She is a very well known psychologist who has been contributing to autism research for half a century. In this video she demonstrates how autistic children ‘failed’ a test to establish theory of mind. Here’s the video.

The second video is shorter and is from Loren Snow, a British autistic man and autism trainer. It gives quite a different perspective on autistic people and theory of mind, and helpfully points out that lacking certain theory of mind skills, does NOT mean autistic people lack empathy. Here’s his video.

If this interests you, Damian Milton’s double empathy problem, elsewhere in the glossary, is worth a read, as is the entry for empathy.