Theory of Mind and Autism

(This is the second of a series of posts I am doing based on an Autism Spectrum Disorders course I took at UW-La Crosse.) 
  This week's post will be about Theory of Mind and Social Skills. Our instructor for this section of the class was Chris Nelson, MS. Chris is a licensed school counselor who counsels students on the autism spectrum at Chileda. The "Theory of Mind" concept is a label I was unfamiliar with (even though it has been around for well over a decade) but I do understand what it describes. Theory of Mind is something many of us take for granted and that folks on the Autism Spectrum struggle with. It's the ability to intuit others mental state and use it to understand what they say. It enables a person to anticipate what another might do next. It is also the ability to recognize deception, feel empathy, and understand reactions. The Sally - Ann Test is a well known test used to determine if an individual has Theory of Mind. The person is shown two dolls, Sally and Ann. Each doll has a box with a marble in it. Sally leaves and Ann takes Sally's marble and hides it in her (Ann's) box. The person is asked where Sally will think her marble is when she returns. A person with Theory of Mind knows Sally would be unaware of what Ann had done and would look for her marble where she had left it. An individual without Theory of Mind would assume Sally would look in Ann's marble box. For all the people who view Theory of Mind as a valid concept there are just as many who don't. The blog "Whose Planet Is It Anyway" has a post that disputes the validity of the Sally - Ann Test. Among other points they contend that since folks on the spectrum typically process speech differently they likely "misunderstood" the question. "Mind Blindness" is another term used to define an individual's inability to understand deception or discern how someone might react to something they do.
Counselors, Therapists, and Educators who work with individuals on the spectrum have created a variety of strategies to teach Theory of Mind. Nelson gave us an overview of several. I've posted links to resources for teaching social thinking and awareness in the "Summer Autism Series Resources Week 2" section.

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