This is part of a series of posts I’m trying to do about the cognitive theories of autism that are prevalent today, which attempt to explain the outward signs of autism and Asperger’s syndrome by what is happening in the mind or brain.  I have heard of at least five such theories; how much I am able to tell you about them depends on how much I’m able to understand.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about this first one, and it still has me pretty confused– not so much about what the theory says, but about whether and how it may apply to me.  I’m not sure that I agree with it, but I’m also not positive that I understand it properly.

At any rate, I’m looking at the view that autism is characterized by a difficulty or delay in developing a theory of mind.  One of the biggest proponents of this idea is Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychology professor whose research of autism has gathered a lot of evidence that seems to show a connection.  (If his name sounds vaguely familiar to you, that may be because he has a famous cousin, actor Sacha Baron Cohen.  Yes, his cousin played Borat.)

So, anyway, what is a theory of mind?  Simon Baron-Cohen defines it as follows:

“A theory of mind is the ability to infer mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.).  We seem to do this an enormous amount, as a natural way of thinking about why people do what they do.”

Developing a theory of mind includes recognizing that other people have their own minds, with their own beliefs, desires, and awareness of the world; and that one’s own mind also has these properties; and that the perspectives, beliefs, and emotions of others can be different from one’s own.

This isn’t a simple concept.  What is a mind, after all?  You can’t see another person’s mind, or even your own.  You can’t directly hear another person’s thoughts or feel their feelings (unless you know how to do a Vulcan mind meld).  That’s why psychologists call it a theory of mind– the idea that each person has a mind is not directly observable, but like a scientific theory, it helps us to make sense of what we see– in this case, the behavior of people around us.  Baron-Cohen gives an example of how we regularly make use of the theory of mind, using italics to mark the words that refer to thoughts about what’s going on inside another person’s mind:

“For example, you might wonder why someone hasn’t phoned you in a while:  You speculate that maybe you’ve offended them in some way, or at least they think you have.  Or maybe they’re trying to avoid you because they feel the friendship is suffocating.  Or maybe they just want more space.  So you phone them up and they say that everything is fine.  You start wondering whether, when they say that, do they actually mean it?  Perhaps they’re intending to keep things polite but really wish the friendship was over?”

Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that we work all of this stuff out when we’re still very young, but we do.  Psychologists have studied how children tend to develop a theory of mind, and they can see signs of it developing between the ages of 1 and 4 for most children.

Simon Baron-Cohen gives several examples of signs that a child is developing a theory of mind:

  • Understanding the difference between mental and physical things.  If one child is holding a dog and another is thinking about a dog, which of them can pet the dog?
  • Being able to name some of the mental functions of the brain– understanding that the brain thinks, feels, dreams, etc.
  • Being able to pick out words that refer to things that happen in the mind (think, imagine, pretend) from a list that also contains words referring to physical things (jump, climb, run).
  • Using these words to describe things.
  • Playing make-believe.
  • Understanding that emotions can have mental causes (disappointment), not just physical causes (scraping your knee).
  • Being able to tell what a person is thinking about from clues about where they are looking– a person may stare at something they want or are interested in, or they may look up at nothing in particular if they are thinking hard.
  • Understanding that one’s intentions can be different from what actually happens.
  • Deception (whether that means lying or playing a game like hide-and-seek),
  • Understanding metaphor, sarcasm, and irony– non-literal speech.

These are all areas that autistic children tend to lag behind in learning, and Simon-Cohen believes that many of the traits of autism are related to difficulty developing a theory of mind.

The classic test of theory of mind in young children is the Sally-Anne test, in which a simple story is acted out, usually with two dolls, a basket, a box, and a marble.  The child is asked to answer a few questions about it.  Here’s how the story goes:

  • Sally has a basket, and she decides to put her marble in it.
  • Sally leaves the scene, leaving Anne alone in the room.
  • While Sally is gone, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it into her box.
  • Sally returns to the room.

Here’s the question:   Where will Sally look for her marble?

Studies by Baron-Cohen and others have found that most non-autistic children over the age of 4 will answer “In the basket.”  This is thought to indicate the development of a theory of mind.  The child is taking into account that the character of Sally does not know that the marble was moved– from her perspective, it makes sense that she would expect the marble to still be in the basket.

However, most autistic children will answer “In the box” (which is the same way that most non-autistic children under 4 would answer the question).  This is thought to indicate that the child has not yet developed a theory of mind:  Because the child knows that the marble is in the box, he or she thinks that everyone knows it is in the box.

Baron-Cohen has built on this theory of autism, suggesting a way to diagnose autism at an even earlier stage (18 months) by observing a child’s tendency to follow non-verbal signals (looking at what an adult points at rather than looking at the adult’s hand).  He has also identified areas of the brain that seem to be used in theory-of-mind-related tasks, and studies have indicated that these areas do not respond the same way in autistic people.

Now, I said that I have a tough time with this theory of autism because I have trouble seeing how it applies to me.  Obviously I have a perfectly fine theory of mind now— I wouldn’t have seen any point in writing a blog or studying rhetorical methods at Texas Tech if I didn’t understand that other peope have different perspectives.  Of course, Simon-Cohen’s theory doesn’t in any way claim that autistic people never develop a theory of mind; simply that they do so a bit later than non-autistic people.  (This is a very important point to remember, as not understanding this can lead to some huge misconceptions about autism, which I’ll get to in another post.)

But more than that, I have trouble remembering a time when I didn’t have a well-developed theory of mind.  I loved to play make-believe with my brothers about things like exploring other planets, and I did know how to lie (just not very well, and after I did it once to see what my parents would do, I found out and decided not to do it again!).

This may be simply because I would have been so very young when that test would have applied to me that I have trouble remembering it now.  Baron-Cohen has actually addressed the criticism that children and adults with Asperger’s or autism seem to have no trouble passing the Sally-Anne test, or in demonstrating the other traits commonly associated with theory of mind.  He suggests that this is because those tests are all intended for young children and proposed that a test of the same skills at a higher difficulty would still show a difference between non-autistic adults and those with autism or Asperger’s.

The test he designed for this purpose was a test of identifying the emotions expressed by a person’s eyes.  The subjects were shown a series of rectangular photos taken from magazine ads showing just a person’s eyes and were asked to select what emotion was being expressed from a list of options.  Non-autistic adults did significantly better at this than adults with Asperger’s did.

And I can tell you that I would be extremely lousy at such a task myself.  I tend to avoid eye contact in real life, and I’m not good at picking up an emotion from just one part of a human face.  I don’t remember people’s faces well at all.  What I’m not as sure of is that this is really testing the same thing as the Sally-Anne test, only at a higher level.  I have trouble understanding how the two skills are related.

I’d be really interested to hear questions, comments, and other feedback from autistics, Aspies, and non-autistics alike about the subject of theory of mind.  I find that what makes it so hard to write about is the fact that I can only extrapolate based on my own mind and experiences– and isn’t that how everyone’s mind works?  Maybe I actually have lagged behind in developing a theory of mind; how would I know the difference between this and “normal”?

It’s like the question of whether the color green looks completely different to me than it does to you.  How would we know?  Maybe my “green” looks to me like your “red” looks to you (and my “red” looks like yet another color to you, and so on).  But we’d both still point to a leaf on a tree as an example of something that is “green,” and we’d both point to a stop sign as something that is “not green.”

Pretty confusing stuff!  And I haven’t even gotten to the part that confuses me the most– the question of whether autism and Asperger’s are characterized by a difficulty with empathy.