Theory of Mind

by Jillsmo

Awesome, irrelevant drawing by Allie Brosh, as usual

This is my favorite topic to rant about, because it comes up for me so often.

Theory of Mind – The ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own…. In 1985 (a bunch of dudes) published research which suggested that children with autism do not employ a theory of mind, and suggested that children with autism have particular difficulties with tasks requiring the child to understand another person’s beliefs.

My child with autism has more empathy than your average adult. He may be stuck in his own head most of the time, but it’s not because he’s incapable of understanding that other people have beliefs and intentions that are different from his own, it’s because he’s stuck in his own head. But, when tested, which he was last year by our beloved Speech Therapist, who specifically assessed him on just this subject, he passed with flying colors. So, I call bullshit on the “kids with autism don’t have Theory of Mind” conclusion. In fact, my child with autism who isn’t supposed to possess any Theory of Mind is a lot more aware and concerned about other people’s feelings than a lot of non autistic adults that I know.

And what about your average adult? How much Theory of Mind do they possess? It seems like everywhere I go, people drive and park and act as though other people just don’t exist around them; that they’re the only ones in the world and they don’t even share space with other people. They walk right in front of you as if you’re not there, they don’t say excuse me when they bump into you, they don’t hear or see you when they’re blocking your path and you’re trying to get by. They steal parking spaces you’ve been waiting for, they cut in front of you in line without even looking back.

I am always very aware of things like that, where other people are in relation to where I’m standing, how my behavior might affect them, how my kids’ behavior might affect them. I often feel like I’m the only person left who even notices stuff like this, and I think “why do I bother?” Why should I take care not to ram somebody with my cart if I’m the only one in the store who does? Why do I do nice things for people for not even a “thank you” in return? It’s exhausting and sometimes I’m so tired that I just think fuck it, I can’t care about other people right now, I need to change lanes so I can get off the damn freeway! But then I wonder, is that what all these other people are thinking? I don’t want to be like them, and I don’t want my kids to be like them.

So, these things I will make sure to teach my kids, regardless of whatever neurological conditions they may have. Be aware that you share space in the world with other people. When somebody does something nice for you, you say thank you. I know way too many “grown ups” who apparently never learned these rules, and it’s my intention to make sure my kids don’t turn out like them.

About the Author: Jillsmo is the mother of two sons, one of whom has a diagnosis of autistic disorder. This piece first appeared on her blog, Yeah. Good Times., and is reprinted here by permission.


12 thoughts on “Theory of Mind

  1. Yay! That ToM bugs the crap out of me, as my four year old (then) did not understand verbs, prepositions, etc., or any other part of spceech except nouns, which could be visualized, which is how he processed language. How the heck could he infer thoughts in a hypothetical situation, which was explained ad naseum to him in meaningless words? Exactly whose “ToM” was being tested; the children’s, or the researchers? And why in the hell couldn’t they figure out the children’s understanding?

    My son, now 17 is a gifted geek (industrial electronics). He has a genius IQ (probably…he-he) He would have been one of the more able 4 year olds. I ain’t even hitting the empathy circuit BS here.

    Guess I’m one of those uppity autists…refuse to mind the statistical numbers in the science studies.

    Autists are the kindest people I know.

  2. Sybil says:

    Well written and I agree completely.

    Just today a Psychology Today article showed up on my facebook page suggesting that people with autism have no theory of mind (which they call ” a skill for figuring out one’s social reputation” ) because in a study, people with autism did not donate more money when others were watching!!! Is it any wonder these myths survive?

    • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg says:

      Wow. Not too much bias going on in that study, eh?

      I’ve been in situations when people are being publicly asked to donate money — to stand up and make a pledge, no less — and I never participate. In fact, I find those situations abhorrent. I hate the idea that one’s social reputation could be based on whether one makes a public show of giving money. Autist though I am, I’m well aware that I would increase my social reputation in that situation by standing up and making my pledge, but that would just leave all the people without the money to donate looking and feeling less worthy, so I refuse to do it. That shows quite a well-developed theory of mind and a very good empathic response, I think.

      I’ve always been very aware of making sure that people not feel embarrassed or marginalized in group situations, from the time I was small. It’s not an awareness I’ve developed over time. It’s always been there. But according to the experts, I’m not supposed to have been able to do that.

  3. Dawn says:


    I told my husband last weekend while we were at Target, getting frustrated with all the people standing blindly in everyone’s way that we must just be doing it wrong. THat we needed to assume a mouth-breathing oblivious stance and just push our cart about willy nilly and we wouldn’t be so frustrated.

    Some people didn’t find us amusing when we tried this out…

    My kid is super empathetic–and will hug me in a heartbeat if i put on a sad face (unless he has one too). I can’t wait for him to get older so that he can express his feelings better (and his genius) and tell these eejits who measure everything the wrong way to suck it.

    politely, of course.

  4. Brenda says:

    Wow, that’s really something, isn’t it?

    At a company I worked at a long time ago, I was sort of the blacksheep of the office because I refused to do a payroll deduction for The United Way (I was told I was the only holdout from the company being 100%, which I don’t even think was true, because I’d talked to a floor worker who didn’t do it either, but was told the same thing in an attempt to shame them into donating). But the fact that they were actually trying to force me to donate made me really angry, especially since I was already donating a set amount every month to two other personally chosen non-profits.

    It sounds like what that study was testing was more along the lines of the suceptibility to peer pressure.

  5. Mr. Dawn says:

    Loved this one. I’m neuro-defensive, and executing courtesy in crowded places or on roads can be terrifically challenging merely due to others’ inconsideration.

  6. Cartoon cracks me up, too!

    You’ve raised a really important point. What about manners?

  7. jillsmo says:

    Rachel, thank you so much for posting this!! 🙂

  8. Aspieside says:

    Jillsmo- funny & well written post as usual 🙂
    The more I read about what the theories are based on the more aggravated I get. I read the one about donating money and I know what my son would say. “I should donate money because I want to, not because it makes me look good.” I think that makes him a more genuine person!
    And I have noticed if he bumps into someone he will immediately say that he is sorry. Which is more than I can say for the other adults. They just go around like they own the place. They really need to change the tests that they are using. It seems they are testing whether or not someone is superficial and they are correct people with Autism are not superficial.

  9. tev says:

    So I have a question about an expression used by non-autistic people that bugs me: Is anyone not stuck in their own head? It’s confusing in the same way as expressions like “in her own world,” because what other world is it supposed to be? I’m here, I’m perceiving things, I’m responding to stimuli, even if people around me don’t recognize that I am, I didn’t go into another dimension or something. You could say in some cases that I’m in a subjective world or an internal one, but I’m still physically present, and mentally present also, in this world, unless I’m unconscious or something. But that isn’t necessarily less true of non-autistic people than it is of autistic people, and people often use “being in different worlds” as a metaphor when “normal” communication problems happen (like between parents and teenagers, between people living in different cultures, etc). But somehow we’re assumed to not be as literally present in this world as other people are, and I’m not sure how that’s possible.

    Which is why, likewise, I wonder where I’m supposed to be if I’m being seen as not being inside my own head. Do most non-autistic people consider themselves to live outside of their heads? Some people say they’ve had out-of-body experiences, and some people say they don’t believe out-of-body experiences are real, but then will continue to talk about autistic people as if we are somehow more inside of our heads than non-autistic people are. Regardless I don’t think most non-autistic people normally actually conceptualize themselves as floating somewhere outside of their bodies, controlling them from some remote distance. I mean, where else am I supposed to go, if I were not inside my head? How would I be typing this?

    And I don’t ask these questions out of malice, but because people can do awful things to other people if they really believe that they are in another world that they need someone to rescue them or forcibly pull them out of, or that they are trapped inside some place that they need to be pulled out of, same thing. People used to say I “lived in my own world” as a kid when I would do things like pacing and stimming, and I can tell you that I definitely was not in another world, and that I did not somehow become more in this world when people made me stop doing them (sometimes violently). Just because people interpreted certain behavior as “being in my world” versus “being in this world” doesn’t mean that was how I actually experienced it from my perspective, where I had never actually left this world. Likewise with being told I was “living in my head” versus living… wherever a person is apparently supposed to live if it’s not in their head. I’m “stuck in my head” because my brain is stuck in my head, just like everyone else’s, autistic and non-autistic, and no one has come up with any other viable place for it to be.

    (BTW, I’m not trying to say anything about whether the brain creates consciousness or where the soul is or whether people have souls in all of this, and I don’t want to debate about that or about religion or anything else here. In fact, my brain generally [metaphorically] breaks when standard “Western” concepts of what is and isn’t religious or spiritual get thrown at it, which isn’t to say I don’t have my own definitions of those things, they’re just very different from most other people’s in the society I live in. My point is more that whether you think the brain creates consciousness or holds your soul, however you define it, or whatever, we are all “stuck in our heads” while we’re alive because that’s where all the interfacing between our minds and the things surrounding us happen. Even if some of us look very different from most people in how we interface with the things surrounding us, the idea that other people are less inside their heads than I am is confusing to me.)

    • liz says:

      Tev – I LOVE your post!!!!! I have been arguing that for years! I hate the expression “in their own world” as my son is in my world, with me and I am in his. This was a huge saying when my son was young and it really irks me that people still use this antiquated phrase. It’s the same as saying autism is mom’s fault (refrigerator mother) and it’s time to get rid of it. When people say something like, “he’s in his own little world” they are basically pushing him away into a box so they don’t have to deal with someone who is different than themselves. Matt (my 25 year old, wonderfully autistic son) is kinder than anyone I have ever known, very intelligent, empathetic, talented, and generous – how can all those qualities be considered a handicap? Your post was excellent – well stated and right to the point. May I quote you on my website? World According to Matt – autism awareness and stories to help parents and educators understand autism. Looking forward to hearing from you.

  10. Tom says:

    Tev- that was a most excellent post. I am the husband of Liz (above post) and daddy to Matt. Our son is the most considerate and most polite young man I’ve ever met. I am honored and privileged to be in “his world” and have him in mine. Though he doesn’t go blathering about every little detail of the world around him, as so many neurotypical people do, I know that he is exceptionally present and aware of things around him. I too despise the inference of “inside one’s head.” You detailed that perfectly, where else are we supposed to be? When a person “goes out of their mind” it’s meant as a bad thing, (though actually they never leave). These writers should be more conscious of the metaphors they toss around, it takes away from their writing by making them look ignorant of the subject. Thank you Tev for writing your feelings so clearly. I hope that you can talk with my wife and help with her website. We all would appreciate it.

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