Imagine how confusing life would be if you didn’t have a sense of why people feel and act the way they do. Maybe you’d witness others’ tears and laughter and feel confused at the reason for their emotive behaviors. Perhaps you’d see someone’s fleeting facial expression as complex, stressful puzzle … one with too many pieces to put together in too short a time.

“Theory of mind” or “ToM” refers to the ability to recognize and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. As this process involves both sensory interpretation and social skills, it can pose challenges for individuals on the autism spectrum.

As we wrote in our blog post FirstPath Autism Q&A: Teaching children with autism social skills:

 “Children with autism often experience a ‘Theory of Mind’ deficit. Basically, this means that they are unable to read social cues effectively or look at life from another person’s point of view. Another term for this social disconnect is ‘mind blindness’.”

How does empathy fit in?

One common misconception often associated with people with autism is that if they struggle with mind blindness, they also lack empathy. However, dealing with Theory of Mind issues does not mean that an individual lacks empathy. In fact, just the opposite is true.

Theory of Mind (ToM) deficits help explain why people with autism sometimes find it difficult to respond appropriately in social situations. What appears as uncaring behavior at first glance may be a simple lack of understanding.

For example, if your child laughs at the sight of another person bursting into tears, don’t assume callous indifference. Instead, consider other interpretations. Your child may not recognize that the tears signify sadness. As such, your child might respond with laughter for any number of reasons.

Perhaps he’s laughing because he feels anxious and doesn’t know what to do. Maybe he’s giggling because the other person’s face looks strange, or because the unexpected wave of emotion took him by surprise.

It’s almost impossible for a child to respond appropriately if they don’t grasp the meaning of what’s happening. Individuals with autism do respond empathetically once they understand the emotional dynamics of a situation.

As Psychology Today blogger and self-advocate Lynne Soraya emphasizes:

For myself, I can say that I absolutely understand that people have their own plans, thoughts, and points of view – but those plans, thoughts, and points of view are often a mystery to me.”

How to develop Theory of Mind skills

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a scientifically proven behavioral treatment for autism. One of the reasons why ABA is so helpful as an autism resource is because it breaks down complex social skill sets into manageable, teachable pieces, and then reinforces each one with consistent practice. This is tremendously useful when it comes to working with Theory of Mind skill gaps. Our video on “labeling and identify emotions” below shows this principle in action:

All of the exercises included in this FirstPath Autism video lesson focus on the same skill set – labeling emotions – but they approach it from different angles and utilize slightly different parts of the brain. This helps to facilitate learning and build up new neural connections too.

ABA exercises and autism resources such as picture cards help children with autism to develop Theory of Mind skills by teaching them how to interpret emotional cues. When a child has practice with identifying emotional states, he is empowered to respond empathetically and develop a Theory of Mind as well.

Looking to access additional ABA therapy video lessons? Sign up for your free 14-day trial of FirstPath Autism today and let us help you get started.

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