“THEORY OF MIND” IN AUTISM
“THEORY OF MIND”
In previous posts, I discussed how the mind works in young children. I explored “The Theory of Mind” which means how we infer mental states such as beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination and emotions that cause behavior or actions. It means that children and adults can reflect on what is going on in their own and others’ minds.
THE MIND OF AUTISTIC CHILDREN
Difficulty understanding others’ minds is a feature of development for autistic children. Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge, England describes several questions children with autism have been asked in studies that reveal this difficulty. Generally the questions are asked to four-year-olds because children without autism can answer these questions readily. Here are a few examples. Once parents and special educators recognize how children with autism understand these questions, they can help the children learn to grasp them by older ages. REMEMBER TO FOCUS ON WHAT YOUR CHILD CAN DO AND WHAT THEY WILL DO LATER ON AND JUST CAN’T DO YET! ALL KIDS ARE DIFFERENT. THEY ARE READY TO UNDERSTAND THINGS AT DIFFERENT TIMES.
“WHAT IS THE BRAIN FOR?”
Children with autism above the chronological age of four do not mention any mental functions of the brain compared to typical children who report the brain causes us to dream, want things, think, and keep secrets. Autistic children do, however, point out physical functions of the brain like typical children who say the brain makes you move and helps you stay alive.
“WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOW THINGS APPEAR AND HOW THINGS REALLY ARE?”
Four-year-olds are able to distinguish between appearance and reality when objects appear in misleading ways. For example, when a four-year-old sees a candle in the shape of an apple, they tell us. “It looks like an apple, but it’s really a candle.”
An autistic child might say, however, that it really is an apple, an error about realism. Or, they might say, it is really a candle, not being able to capture the two identities of the object at the same time. How you think about something objectively or subjectively is too difficult.
“WHAT DO OTHER PEOPLE THINK?
As seen in the video of my last post, four-year-olds are capable of thinking of others’ points of view, unlike most three-year-olds. Autistic children like the younger children have difficulty taking another’s perspective. They only speak of what they know, not what others’ know. They assume others think what they think.
“WHO KNOWS WHAT’S IN THE BOX?”
If an autistic child sees one person look inside a box and another person just touch a box, they will be unclear on who knows what is inside the box. In contrast, a typical three-year-old recognizes the seeing-leads-to-knowing principle: “The person who looked inside the box knows what’s there. The other person doesn’t.”
The vocabulary of autistic children while looking at picture stories are more likely to include verbs like “jump,” “eat,” or “move.” They are less likely to include words that describe what is going on in a person’s mind such as “think,” “know,” “hope,” “pretend,” and “imagine.” So if parents and educators use this vocabulary with the children frequently, they are more likely to understand these words over time.
“WHAT DO YOU IMAGINE”?
This lack of using and understanding such language corresponds to the infrequent use of pretend and make-believe play. This could be due to the young autistic child not spontaneously thinking about what they imagine. Thus, playing pretend with the children will stretch their capacities.
They may not realize that what we feel can have to do with not only what happens, but also what goes on in our minds. Thus an autistic child may recognize they “feel happy” when they are eating ice-cream, but not recognize they also “feel happy” when they are just imagining or thinking about eating ice-cream.
Meet some children with Aspergers who speak out.
It has been found that children with Aspergers who are at a high functioning level on the autistic spectrum without intellectual impairment, as well as, a proportion of those with autism in general are able to consider what another person thinks—“Lin is thinking she is hungry.” However, they do so when they are between five and a half and nine-years-old, an older age than typical children.
More difficult thinking such as, “What does Lin think about what Todd is thinking?” which can be done by typical children at age six can be reached children with Asperger Syndrome by their teens.
POSSIBILITIES FOR THE FUTURE
THE FLOORTIME APPROACH
When Dr.Greenspan introduced the floor-time approach to parents, playing with autistic children on the floor to stretch their interpersonal abilities, he achieved great success. These children learned to play with one another, engage each other in conversation, think about each other, and become much more able to be a part of the social world.
“Floortime meets children where they are and builds upon their strengths and abilities through creating a warm relationship and interacting. It challenges them to go further and to develop who they are rather than what their diagnosis says. In Floortime, you use this time with your child to excite her interests, draw her to connect to you, and challenge her to be creative, curious, and spontaneous—all of which move her forward intellectually and emotionally. (As children get older, Floortime essentially morphs into an exciting, back-and-forth time of exploring the child’s ideas.)”
I am hoping that as parents use Parental Intelligence they will advance their high functioning autistic children’s ability to understand others’ points of view by playing pretend with them, using feeling language, and reading stories often asking what different characters think and feel.
“WHAT ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT?”
Parental Intelligence focuses on parents working hard to understand what is going on in their child’s mind. When understanding your child’s mind is a focus of family life, children become accustom to thinking about what is on their siblings’ and parents’ minds as well.
I’m hoping when mothers and fathers use Parental Intelligence, it will help children with high functioning autism or Asperger Syndrome to engage with others more readily.
Are you a parent with a child with Aspergers? Would like to read a chapter about a four-year-old with Aspergers from PARENTAL INTELLIGENCE: Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior? It’s my book in progress. Let me know and I’d be glad to send it to you.