1. What is Theory of Mind – What does it mean?

  • Theory of mind is the ability to infer and understand another’s mental state (another’s beliefs, thoughts, intentions, and feelings) and use this information to explain and predict human behavior.
  • It therefore investigates understanding people as mental beings, who have beliefs, desires, emotions and intentions, and whose actions and interactions can be interpreted and explained in terms of these mental states.
  • In simple terms, theory of mind involves understanding that people do not share the same thoughts and feelings as you, allowing the ability to “tune in” to other people’s perspectives.

2. Theory of Mind (ToM) and Social interaction

  • Social interaction is an important process for individuals working together to achieve common goals (apud, Argyle, 2017)
  • Social interaction consists of verbal and non-verbal exchanges between individuals, including initiation and response in dyadic or triadic social interaction (apud Argyle, 2017, Little, 2016).
  • In a successful social interaction, individuals must receive conscious and unconscious social cues (e.g., actions and intonation) from their partners to predict their subsequent behaviors (apud Hari et al., 2015) and then perform behaviors in response.
  • During childhood, successful social interaction helps children not only establish relationships with family and friends, but also improve school performance and mental health (apud, Lord et al., 2018).

3. Theory of Mind (ToM) – early development

  • ToM begins to develop in early childhood, from birth to age 5 and is now well described in the research literature, or at least, we can describe how infants and children behave in experimental situations as well as in the setting natural.
  • However, there are problems in interpreting the findings. Some researchers argue that even babies are aware of other people’s thoughts and people’s desires, while others believe that this understanding does not develop until the toddler or preschool years.
  • A common view is that there is an intuitive awareness that develops early, later becoming reflexive and explicit, especially with the development of children’s language skills
  • Research shows that infants exhibit behaviors that are important beginnings for theory of mind
  • By age 2, children clearly show that they are aware of the difference between thoughts in the mind and things in the world. In pretend play (e.g. pretend a cube is a car)
  • Toddlers at this age can distinguish between an object – cube – and thoughts about the object and also understand that people will feel happy if they get what they want and sad if they don’t
  • Can identify that there is a difference between what they want and what another person wants, developing awareness seen in children’s language; at the age of 3, they can talk about what other people think and know
  • A crucial development occurs around age 4, when children realize that the thoughts in their minds may not be true. For example, children are allowed to discover that a familiar box of candy actually contains crayons and are then asked what their friend will think is in the box by first looking inside. Three-year-olds assume that the friend will know that it has pencils in it, just like they do now, but 4-year-olds recognize that the friend will be tricked, as they were.

Some factors in the social environment influence the typical rate of development of theory of mind, for example:

  • Children show awareness of mental states earlier if their mothers talk about thoughts, desires and feelings and provide reasons for correcting inappropriate behavior
  • Siblings are aware of mental states earlier than firstborns
  • The rate of development is also influenced by children’s participation in pretend play, their experiences with reading story books and talking to others about past experiences
  • Factors internal to children that influence the rate of development include language skills and cognitive skills that control and regulate behavior (also known as executive functions)
  • Research shows that developing theory of mind has consequences for children’s social functioning and school success
  • Children with more developed theory of mind are better communicators and can:
    • resolve conflicts with their friends
    • their pretend play is more complex
    • their teachers consider them more socially competent
    • are happier at school and more popular with their peers
    • their school work is more advanced in some respect
    • However, developed theory of mind can also be used in antisocial ways such as teasing, bullying and lying

4. ToM and Autism
-According to the DSM, impairment of social interaction is the main characteristic of children with ASD.

A team of cognitive psychologists, formed by B. Hermmelin, N.O’Connor and L.Wing, showed in the 70s that there is a central problem common to all people affected by autism, from which the triple deficiency would derive:
-insufficiently developed social interactions,
-poor verbal and non-verbal communication,
-insufficient development of play and imaginative skills

-Impairment can be expressed in very different ways from individual to individual (apud, Kanner, 1943, Lord et al., 2018), such as lack of eye contact, initiating one’s turn in conversation, or inviting others to participate in joint games (apud Knott et al., 2018).

-Therefore, children with ASD have difficulty interacting appropriately with others, which affects their development and social participation (apud, Hobson et al., 2013). Understanding the factors that influence the impairment of social interaction in children with ASD may contribute to the development of better treatments to improve their social participation and ease the burden of caregiving (apud Lord et al., 2018).

Theory of mind (ToM) continued to be associated with impaired social interaction in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD); recent research has shown ToM to be a good predictor for general social interaction, but the diversity of symptom severity and verbal abilities in ASD makes ToM moderately correlated with ASD (for example, ToM is not related to social routines “hello”, “please’’, but rather with the involvement of thinking and deducing the thoughts of another before acting in social scenarios – recognizing surprises, embarrassment, keeping secrets.

5. What we can do from the perspectives of ToM and ASD psychoeducation
Self-knowledge, self-image
It begs the question, if autistic people show deficits in Theory of Mind in relation to others, then what about their “Theory” of their own “Mind”? If we wear glasses that give a distorted view of others, these glasses will also distort our own view in the mirror
The self-image of people with autism differs qualitatively from that of people without autism. The main difference lies in the level of coherence. The self-image of autistic people appears to be less socially anchored and also less anchored in a subjective self, the “self as actor.”
Ensuring that people with autism experience success is perhaps more important than any psychoeducation or psychological counseling.

Aspects and important work directions from the perspective of ToM and ASD psychoeducation
• To learn to know their autism, to understand it and to be able to describe it themselves;
• To be able to describe the consequences that autism has on one’s own person and one’s own life
• To be able to concretely define difficult situations caused by autism
• Be able to identify strategies that can be used to manage these difficult situations (both strategies and skills to be learned);
• To be able to give autism a place in the self-image, so that the self-esteem is or remains positive
• These are the five primary goals of I Am Special.


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Camelia Krupp

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