We Need Theory of Mind for ASDs

by Patricia Harkin

Many people have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  To say this population has a “disorder” or a “disease” is misleading.  People on the autism spectrum have a different way of being.  It is like they are from a different culture, and they are poorly understood.

It is often said they do not have “Theory of Mind” – the ability to see things from other people’s perspectives and adapt to them.  We are just as guilty of lacking an “autistic Theory of Mind” because we, members of the supposedly “typical” population, do not (or cannot) see things from their perspective.  But this is what we have to do if we are to help make their life less difficult than necessary. I try to help people understand the Autistic perspective

If someone offered me a button to push that would make my son Brian a “typical” child, I would never push it.  If Brian were “typical,” he would not be Brian. He would not be my son.  I love him for who and what he is, and Asperger’s Syndrome merely describes him, how he thinks, and why he acts as he does. While I will do anything to help him do well in life, I will never try to change him. He has enriched my life in so many ways, and made me grow as a parent, a physician, and a person. He has brought me closer to God. He has made me stronger, less judgmental, and more compassionate.  He has made me a far better doctor.  I hope whoever is in your life with an autism spectrum disorder has done or will do the same for you.

When we talk about children with an ASD, we are using a shorthand for a particular pattern of strengths and weaknesses.  When I talk about the diagnosis with patients, I talk about having an “Asperger” type of brain. Carol Gray and Tony Attwood wrote a nice piece called “The Discovery of Aspie.”  You can find it at:


I tell them about how all the things they are good at are because of their “Asperger” brain. At the end, I talk about how people with this brain have a hard time understanding “why people do what they do, why people say what they say, and they can have a hard time making new friends.” When Brian and I had this conversation, he thought for a minute, and then said “That’s me all over.” He was 8 when we had this conversation, and it wasn’t’ the end of it, but he was young enough to incorporate it into his self-image. He now says “I have Asperger’s Syndrome” in the same tone he would say “I have blue eyes” and “I have brown hair.”

About the Author:  Patricia Harkin is a developmental pediatrician and a mother to a son with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog Delicate and is reprinted here by permission.



4 thoughts on “We Need Theory of Mind for ASDs

  1. Yes!

    Thanks for link-up to Tony Atwood and Carol Grey’s article. I have been looking to see him in a better light. This may help.

    It’s funny, regarding theory of mind, no one asks “why”, what advantage there may be regarding that assessment of the world, or what innate perspective it exemplifies. It seems to be a lack of curiousity among scientists that we, as parents, don’t have the luxury of. We’ve got to figure out our kids!

    They are so vulnerable, but with encouragement to be who they are, they can excel beyond any neurotypical. I really beleive the really smart ones start of different.

    WHY they are so similar in developmental trajectory to similarly wired, but much more disabled persons is anyone’s guess. It would make sense if it was not a disease, but a way of being. There are a million causes of Intellectual Disability…genetic, environmental, medical…but what makes a person autistic also makes them more fragile.

    Look at Nikola Tesla.

  2. […] It is common to read that people with autism have an impaired theory of mind.   Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg has an interesting take on this.  So does Patricia Harkins. […]

  3. Jakethepeg says:

    In a normally developing infant, seeing a smile produces a smile, feedback is achieved and theory of mind is born. Awareness is conflated with awareness of others, and objectivity is trampled in the mire.
    In an autistic infant, that fundamental organizing circuit doesn’t get completed and awareness becomes something different.

    It’s not empathy that’s important, it’s appearing to the interlocutor as though empathy is present

  4. ictus75 says:

    “People on the autism spectrum have a different way of being.”

    That’s all it is. Why do we have to be like NTs? Why should we express things the same way? Who is to say what is “normal”? I’m Autistic, I’m normal for me. Maybe it’s the NTs who need to be tested for “Theory of Heart,” because a lot of them seem to be born without one…

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