Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, knowledge, etc.—to oneself, and to others, and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own. 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. ll of these capabilities, notably, are the same ones that individuals with ASD have the most difficulty with. They are late to develop speech and communication skills, unlikely to exhibit empathy, and often unable to even play games with others. Their social skills often remain stunted or nonexistent through most of their lives.
Although a number of observational brain studies have suggested that certain areas of the brain are not being activated in those with ASD who cannot easily form a theory of mind, the connection between theory of mind and ASD has not resulted in any practical direct treatment for the condition or definitive information about the roots of the disorder. At present, it simply offers another avenue for investigation into the mysterious causes and mechanisms of ASD.
On the treatment front, however, linking theory of mind issues with ASD provides some basis for the use of applied behavior analysis (ABA) to deal with behavioral matters stemming from social or communication deficits. The use of ABA in perspective training is common today; just as verbal and other skills can be built and trained through behavioral reinforcement, many therapists believe that theory of mind can also be trained in individuals with ASD.
The fact that ABA therapy has been shown to improve social behavior among those with ASD is an encouraging sign that this may be true. Although it may never be possible for some individuals with ASD to truly construct a theory of mind in the way that most people do, from a functional perspective, they may be able to learn how to perform similar behaviors… a kind of simulation that may be just as effective as the processes behind the theory of mind in neurotypical individuals.