“Mind Blindness?” I Don’t Think So: Thinking Differently About Theory of Mind and ASD

It has been well documented in the literature that individuals with ASD have impairments with what it called “theory of mind.”  Basically, theory of mind refers to the ability to take the perspective of other people, or to see things from the point of view of someone else.  Some refer to the difficulties with theory of mind in people with ASD as “mind blindness.”  I find that to be quite a harsh description of individuals who have amazing minds and much to offer the world.  I’m not going to discount the fact that many people with ASD do have difficulty understanding the perspective of other people.  But what I am going to point out is this:  so do a lot of people who don’t have autism.  Let’s not deny that many people in this world spend the majority of their time thinking from their own perspective and have great difficulty seeing things from the perspective of others.  It may be true that people with ASD have more difficulty with perspective taking than individuals without ASD, but they are not a rare species of humans who are the only people who have difficulty with theory of mind.  

Here’s another thought to ponder: Individuals with ASD often have a very different way of viewing and experiencing the world compared to people who don’t have ASD.  How many people spend time learning about the perspective of children and adults with ASD?  Often times parents, therapists, teachers, and others are thinking of ways to change the behavior of children with ASD as opposed to first understanding the perspective of the child.  Thus, many people without ASD have difficulties with “theory of mind” when it comes to understanding the perspective of individuals on the autism spectrum.  They have “mind blindness” when it comes to truly understanding why a person with ASD thinks and behaves in certain ways.   

A friend of mine told me a story about her son with autism that illustrates my point that we need to spend more time working on our ability to take the perspective of individuals with ASD.  When her son was young he used to find specific praise aversive.  His parents and teachers tried to change his behavior so that he would receive praise in a positive manner instead of cringing every time someone told him something positive about his academic or social performance.  They were unsuccessful.  The child continued to dislike praise for many years.  Now the child is a very successful teen who is indistinguishable from his peers.  His parents can now ask him questions about why he behaved certain ways when he was younger, and this really has helped them understand autism from the child’s perspective.  When they asked him why he didn’t like praise he said, “Because I would immediately get anxious thinking that I wouldn’t be able to do whatever you praised me for again, and you would be disappointed.”  When she told me that story, all I could say was, “Wow.” Never in a million years would I have thought that a child would find praise aversive because of the fear of not being able to please that person again in the future.  A functional behavior assessment would have never gotten to the root of the problem unless the child was able to answer the question, “Why don’t you like it when people praise you?”  At the time, this child had limited verbal skills and was not able to answer that question.   

Keep in mind that I am a behavior analyst.  Much of the work I do involves teaching new skills by designing ABA interventions that will be implemented in natural contexts.   So, I am not suggesting that functional behavior assessments and ABA interventions are not necessary.  Of course they are.  What I am trying to say is that first and foremost those of us who do not have ASD must put forth much more effort to improve our “mind blindness” when it comes to understanding individuals on the autism spectrum.  While it will continue to be necessary to teach individuals with ASD how to take the perspective of others, it certainly will remain necessary for the rest of the world to understand their perspective as well.


Written by Deb Leach, Ed.D., BCBA

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