Theory of mind (ToM)

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Children with autism are considered socially impaired. As described by the National Autistic Society, people with autism have difficulties with social relationships, with verbal as well as non-verbal communication, with play and imagination, and they display resistance to change in routine. This impairment, as frequently postulated, is that children with autism lack a Theory-of-Mind (Lee 2000).

Theory-of-Mind or ToM is people’s common-sense knowledge about others and their own mental activities (Lee 2000). With it, one can read another’s mind or guess what he or she is feeling, intending, believing. ToM, a prerequisite for socially adequate behaviour, is also known as folk psychology or common sense psychology. The development of ToM normally takes place between three and six years (Lee 2000).

There are two issues that development of ToM theories try to answer: 1) When and why do children develop understanding of the minds of others? 2) When and why do children develop the ability to distinguish appearance from reality? (lbid).

Cognitive Deficit Theory

This is one of two general categories of ToM theories, one that dominated research for many years. This theory believes that ToM is not acquired until there is a radical shift in our thought processes. Accordingly, ToM illustrates a ‘stage-like’ qualitative change in thought processes. It also believes children under 4 years of age do not have ToM (Lee 2000).

Modularity theory

Alternative theories other than cognitive deficit theories are lumped under modularity theory (Lexcie 1999). Certain humans are deemed to fail to progress through the normal stages of cognitive development leading to acquisition of a theory of mind. In 1985 Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith published an article on the autistic child on whether it has ToM. They suggest that the human brain normally has a “theory of mind module” but that this particular component of the brain may not develop normally in some people. With brain imaging techniques available now, particular brain regions found important for theory of mind have been identified.

Lexcie (1999) did an exploration of the major cognitive theories of autism with particular emphasis on evolutionary implications. He states that modularity theory or theory of mind module is more promising based on evidence, however newer than cognitive deficit theories.  He says –

“The current academic consensus is that evidence stacks up for the ‘theory of mind module’ idea and there are few problems with the theory (Baron-Cohen 1996). It is important to mention, however, that some adults with Asperger’s Syndrome pass both second-order false belief and the test of figurative language, i.e. inferring the preference of a cartoon character from where it is looking. Whether this means there is a subclass of autists with a theory of mind or if they have simply learnt to do these tests remains to be seen.”

However, Lexcie (2000) is quick to state that a problem with this theory is that it offers no explanation for everything, nor does it contradict completely the other credible theories. It is at best, he says, a partial explanation at the cognitive level (or the cognitive deficit theory) which may be linked to a specific region of the brain on a physiological level.

Predictions on recovery of autism

The following discussion have been sourced from Lee (Derby Lecture 2: 2003) on predicting chances of autism recovery by techniques and research.

Cognitive deficit theory

This theory is behind the use of False belief tasks in two categories: a) The Unexpected Transfer Test (e.g. the Sally- Ann Task, Frith study), and The Deceptive Box Test (e.g. Perner, Leekam and Wimmer research). It is also advocated in Appearance-Reality Tasks an exemplified by the rock/sponge experiment (e.g. Flavell, Flavell and Green research). Another is in Cross-cultural Studies (e.g. Avis and Harris research) as used in the Baka tribe of pygmies, and unexpected transfer test, but in this last study those under 5 years of age failed and those over 5 years of age passed.  These tests mentioned registered success in predicting recovery over the years (Lee: Derby Lecture 2, 2003).

The cognitive deficit theory however is criticized on four major points: 1) There is an over-reliance on False Belief Tasks; 2) Naturalistic studies suggest that young children are good at ToM type tasks; 3) There is evidence of ToM failure in older children and adults, and; 4) There is evidence of being deceived by reality in adults (Derby Lecture 2003).

Also chronicled specifically in the false beliefs tasks are that children are found to misunderstand the questions (e.g. Lewis and Osborne); there is difficulty understanding and integrating key elements of the story (e.g. Lewis et al  study); and children do not know that ‘seeing is believing’ (e.g. Wimmer et al research). In the naturalistic tests, children’s ToM are found to develop slowly over a number of years as found in disputes, jokes, pro-social behaviour, cooperation, pretend play, and conversations (Dun’s study); and in hunt studies (Chandler’s research). ToM failure in older children and adults were also found (Derby Lecture 2, 2003); and evidence of being deceived by reality in adults was found by Taylor and Mitchell (ibid).

Modularity Theory

This is a new theory on ToM. Also called ToM module by Gopnik and Meltzoff (In: Lexcie 1999). Modularity theories claim that “representations of the world are not constructed from evidence in the course of development. Instead, representations are produced by innate structures, modules, or constraints that have been constructed in the course of evolution. These structures may need to be triggered, but once they are triggered, they create mandatory representations of input.” (Ibid). Criticism to this theory is found on bias towards paying attention to reality, and the fact that knowledge of the world gradually builds up. This second theory, however, is not commonly tested for, just as there is noted slow progress in the development of theory of mind due to the difficulty of development (Wikipedia 2005).

The development of theories of mind is still going on as scientists try to uncover more facts in understanding autistic brains. Fields (1999) urges scientists to consider that there is no single cause to autism, nor a single cure, and to look into the past in their study of fetal development, for example in the use of mothers of the notorious thalidomide in the 1960s that gave rise to “thalidomide babies” (Fields 1999).

Researchers are still unsure of the precise function of some regions of the brain, and how they interact with each other. As a result, Fields says, science’s understanding of the complex disorder that affects an estimated 400,000 Americans remains “dreadfully below our knowledge of most other diseases.”

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  1. Baron-Cohen, S. and J. Swettenham. (1996). Theory of mind in autism: its relationship to executive function and central coherence. In D. Cohen & F. Volkmar (eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders, 2nd edition. New York: John Wiley and Sons. In: Lexcie (1999)
  2. Connor, M.J. (2000, November 19) Autism: Current Issues.  Retrieved September 9, 2005 from
  3. The development of theory of mind. (2003, autumn). Lecture 2. Developmental Psychology archive. Psychology, University of Derby.  Retrieved September 10, 2005 from
  4. Fields, J. (1999). No single cause, no single cure. In: The Bergen Record. Professional Corner. Retrieved September 11, 2005 from
  5. Lee, K. (2000). Childhood cognitive Development: The essential readings. Oxford: Blackwells. Chpt 10. Retrieved September 9, 2005 from
  6. Lexcie, L. (1999, October 23). Evaluate critically cognitive theories of autism. Retrieved September 9, 2005 from
  7. Stich, S. and S.Nichols (1997). Theory theory to the Max: A critical notice of: words, thoughts and theories by Alison Gopnik and Andrew N. Meltzoff. Website for the Rutgers University Research Group on Evolution and Higher Cognition. Retrieved September 10, 2005 from
  8. Theory of mind. (2005). Wikipedia. Retrieved September 9, 2005 from
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