One controversial theory on the cognition of children with Autism Spectrum Conditions (ASCs) is that these individuals lack theory of mind. This concept was first explored by Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1985). They conducted experiments which demonstrated that while most children with cognitive disabilities (i.e. Down Syndrome) were able to answer a question based on the perspective of another, most children with ASC were unable. Even the majority of children with ASC and normal IQ failed on these tasks. Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1985) stated that children who were able to pass simple theory of mind tasks often failed the higher-order tasks.
According to Rajendran and Mitchell (2007), theory of mind ability in children with ASC is dependent on language development. Rajendran and Mitchell infer that because some children with ASC are capable of theory of mind suggests that this is not a universal deficit in autism. From my personal experience as an individual with ASC and my work with children with autism, I believe that theory of mind is more difficult for individuals with autism and is often context-specific. For instance, people with ASC may be more capable of taking the perspective of another for something they have experienced. For instance, individuals may know how it feels to lose a pet and feel sympathy for a friend in that situation, but be unable to relate to peers who experience difficulties in romantic relationships if they have not experienced these feelings themselves.
From my experience, I have found I have a greater ability to relate to individuals with either an Autism Spectrum Condition or similar cognitive style than I do to members of the general population. When I work with children with autism, I understand the emotions behind certain body language that would be considered stimming by most. For instance, when working with a girl with severe autism who was non-verbal and did show facial expressions, I was able to tell she was excited by what she saw out the window because of the way she was waving her hand. I am also able to recognize when a child with autism is becoming overstimulated before many of my co-workers. Even for children who are non-verbal, some of their “language” is my “native language.”
It is also possible that individuals with ASC may also be able to take on the perspective of another easier in cases where that individual is experiencing a simple versus complex emotion. For instance, Temple Grandin has a great deal of insight into the emotional and cognitive lives of livestock in her book Animals in Translation. In her career in the animal industry, she is easily able to empathize with the fear animals may experience in slaughterhouses and is able to notice tiny details that make the process more humane for the animals involved. However, I read in one of her books that she did not respond when a fan with autism sent her a valentine. Even though she was not interested in the fan, she would fail to recognize that a simple response might give this young man a smile and that not responding may hurt his feelings.
Children and teenagers with autism may relate to friends who are several years younger than they are. For instance, when I was a teenager, I often played with the kids I babysat outside of work hours. I preferred playing dolls and going on adventures in the woods over hanging out with other teenagers. The children I babysat lost interest in children’s games and wanted to move on to adolescence before I did.
From my experience, many children with ASC do play pretend games. However, they are more likely to pretend to be an animal, inanimate object, or character younger than themselves. As a child, I spent many hours pretending to be a cat and copying the movements of my own housecats as best I could. As an adult I spend some time in the virtual world of Second Life and in his experience I have met other adults with ASC who engage in online role play. Many of these individuals choose to role play as child or fantasy characters rather than humans their age. I believe this is due to the fact that they are unable to take the perspective of an individual with complex emotions they have not experienced themselves. However, children and adults with ASC are capable of pretense and in the process, taking the perspective of another, unlike what was initially believed by Baron-Cohen and Frith (1985).
Another consequence of limited theory of mind in individuals with ASC is inability to understand when another individual does not share their viewpoint. For instance, as a child and teenager, I had very rigid religious and political beliefs and would get upset talking to someone who had a different opinion if they would not conform to my viewpoint. Also, individuals with ASC may fail to realize something enjoyable to them is upsetting someone else. For instance, a child with ASC may continue to have a “snowball fight” with a sibling after the sibling is crying and fail to realize or be shocked by the fact that their sibling is no longer having fun.
Lack of theory of mind may also be inhibited by lack of ability to read facial expressions and body language. For instance, when I was a young child, I would not realize my parents were annoyed and wanted me to stop doing something until they were yelling at me. It was not that I did not want to make my Mom and Dad happy, but I had no ability to read annoyed facial expressions. If my parents told me that something upset them and explained why, I would feel bad and apologize.
It is my belief that Baron-Cohen and Frith (1985) addressed a common developmental problem that is present in most of children with autism. The degree of impairment likely varies between individuals with ASC with some being more severely affected than others. Also, as stated by Rajendran and Mitchell (2007), language development likely plays a role, especially since more language ability allows for teaching opportunities and explanations of others’ feelings. Taking the perspective of another is more difficult for children with ASC and occurs later than in typically developing children or even children with other developmental disabilities. However, having more difficulty with a cognitive process does not mean total inability. Rajendran and Mitchell (2007), coined the term “mindblindness.” Individuals with ASC are not “mindblind” but “mind partial-sighted.” Just as glasses can improve vision, maturation, repeated practice, and sometimes simply explaining to them how another person is feeling, individuals with ASC can develop and improve upon this ability.
Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a theory of mind? Cognition, 21, 37-46. http://login.ezproxy.library.ualberta.ca/login?url=http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0010027785900228
Rajendran, G., & Mitchell, P. (2007). Cognitive theories of autism. Developmental Review, 27, 224-260. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2007.02.001