Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind.

Do you know what that is? Let me give you the Wikipedia version, it’s as good as any and easy to understand as anything else you will find online.

“Theory of Mind is the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. – to oneself and to others AND to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one’s own.”

Thanks Wikipedia! If I were Wikipedia, I’d be stoked that people utilize my services so often and proud to be providing a valuable service to the world. See what I did there? I used theory of mind to imagine what Wikipedia might be thinking or feeling. Hell, I even considered the idea that Wikipedia could possibly have feelings or thoughts. It’s my thing, you know, being intuitive and sensitive to others. A good metaphor for theory of mind is, “walking a mile in someone else’s moccasins.” Please note that nowhere in this definition does it reference anything about empathy. This is important. You can walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins and have no feelings for them at all.

Is it possible for a human being to have a severely limited capacity to understand the reasoning of others? The answer is YES. But this is not the same as not having feelings for and about others.

People with autism lack theory of mind. They also struggle to understand and process metaphorical language, but they feel things with the same intensity and passion of non-autistic people. It’s true!

Here is a link to a fabulously written piece on this. In honor of autism awareness month, I felt it was important to educate readers about theory of mind, because some people confuse it with empathy. I feel that this article does a beautiful job explaining not only the theory, but it is written from someone who has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Autistic people can love, comfort, share, laugh, listen and learn from others, but when it comes down to understanding that anyone could think, feel and believe things differently than they do, things get a little fuzzy. But  does their difficulty merit a diagnosis and all kinds of attention and awareness to their plight when non-autistic people struggle with this same thing? YES! Because it’s not the same at all. Are they really so different than non-autistic people? Yes. Yes they are.

In some very important ways, they truly are. However I’m suggesting that accepting this fact is just as basic as accepting the fact that people in general are different in very important ways. In both cases, difficulty COMMUNICATING  provides a barrier to intimacy and frustrating misunderstandings.

Anyone who is in a relationship of any kind knows this is true. You can care deeply for someone, love them with everything you’ve got and still have a hard time relating to them. Empathy and understanding are two completely different animals. ROAR! Here I go, Lynn (author or the article linked above), I’m going to answer the question you asked at the end of your piece: What do I think?

In my case, I have a daughter who thinks in absolutes. She has an autism spectrum disorder. She thinks I’m trying to hurt her when I brush her hair or accidently step on her foot. When I inflict any type of pain on her, she believes that it is because I intended to hurt her. She doesn’t care that getting the tangles out of her hair benefits her in the long run or that me being a clumsy hack has anything whatsoever to do with the fact that SHE HURTS BECAUSE OF SOMETHING THAT I DID. Here is an example of a how she thinks:

Her           I thought we were going to the library.

Me            I planned for us to go, but the dryer broke and so the repairman is coming.

Her          So you lied.

Me            No. I did not lie. I fully intended to take you to the library. I didn’t know that they dryer would break. An example of lying to you would be if you asked me to take you to the library and I told you that I would take you to the library, but didn’t really plan to take you at all and merely told you that I would.

Her          That would be so mean.

Me            Yep. It would. I’m sorry that our plans changed. Do you understand now that I didn’t lie to you or intend to hurt you? I would like to take you to the library tomorrow, unless of course something else breaks and we have to wait for another repairman.

Her          But you said we were going to the library today (starts to cry).

FACEPALM! Not only did she not understand ME, but I made a joke and I know damn well that she doesn’t do jokes. Was this an example of a failure to communicate? Yep. And I made it worse by being thoughtless. Is there a difference between the two of us? Are we so different?


We are. That is what I think. That is my answer and I will explain how I came to think this and believe this.

(Climbs on soapbox and clears throat)

I know that all humans are unique and there are indeed differences that are very significant among genders and people in general that make communication frustrating and difficult. The difference between the autistic mind and the non-autistic mind is that the autistic mind is less flexible and struggles to process and integrate the abstracts that are so important to understanding others.

By definition, empathy and understanding are different. So different that they absolutely cannot be used interchangeably. Love is hard to define. Why you love someone is much easier to explain. And THAT is the essential difference. It’s a matter of feeling vs. fact. Empathy is based on feelings, understanding is based on facts. It’s a fact that I didn’t take my daughter to the library like I said I would. This hurt her feelings. SHE FEELS! She just doesn’t have the ability to understand the facts.

So Lynn, you asked what I thought and I told you. I showed you with my words, just as you showed me with yours. I think it’s extraordinary what you are doing to raise awareness and to educate people about Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism and that’s a feeling and a fact.

The end.


Leave a comment
  • fb_avatar

    Let me just say....I feel for you. My son, 17, HAS always been like this. At the suggestion of a counselor, I would often change plans. On. Purpose. Of course, this was BEFORE we had his diagnosis. I think it helped.

    My son can't understand WHY listening to the announcements at school is SO important. Dude, you missed signing up for an AP test that could potentially help you skip classes in college. "Oh" was his response. ~sigh~

    You are not alone. You will never be alone.

  • In reply to MIGurl:

    change plans? GAH! but i get that. throw 'em off their game for practice.

    sigh back at 'cha, MIGurl. and i know i'm not alone. it feels good to know that. thanks for commenting.

  • fb_avatar

    Yes! You and I know life is ever changing.....they don't get that. SO if we change it for them, by time they leave us, they get it.

    We also have things that he doesn't have to change to conform to society. He also has a list of things that HE MUST do because it makes you stand out if you don't. You know, brush your teeth EVERY morning, Shower EVER SINGLE day, Change every PIECE of clothing every day, etc. That has totally worked with him.

  • Change and understanding the need for it can be difficult. My son, now 13, was diagnosed with AS at age 4. We practically "force-fed" him with humor, metaphors and sarcasm and now today he even quotes them at times (with some really, really interesting "outcomes" *gasp*).

    A walking diary helps with his day's organization, listing all activities, classes, start and end time/s, and this is monitored by the teachers and parents.

    For those new to the experience it helps we started with non-verbal cues, like tapping on your nose to remind them him to keep eye contact, cue cards for tasks of a regular nature (teeth, chores), color tabs (i.e. red-something's changed and we have to delay our trip, yellow-here we go, we need to change our plans, etc. ) These gave him a heads-up and avoided him getting lost after the first sentence.

    One thing is for certain, life is never boring...gotta luv them

  • My daughter thinks in absolutes too. This is a bit crazy in our household since my husband and I have a fairly dry, sarcastic (in a friendly way) sense of humor. All too often "Aren't we going to eat soon???" is met with "Nope, we're not going to eat dinner tonight" without even thinking about it. This usually ends badly, but she is gradually learning to ask if we're joking if something doesn't make sense.

    My husband took her to the ER the other night. They did an ultrasound because they were worried about appendicitis. The ultrasound tech told her there was a monster in her stomach. My daughter apparently asked if the tech was joking and the tech claimed to be serious. She told us about it the next day. It took two days and three adults to convince her the tech really was joking.

    You are absolutely right, life is never boring!!

  • One of the hardest things for us, dealing with a 10 year old with moderate/severe autism, is that he cannot understand that if he's in pain, we're not causing it. And he has a lot of pain. So there's a lot of hitting. Poor kid.

  • fb_avatar

    I have a 12 year old daughter that has MILD aspergers, and it has been a long road of learning.... for both her and I!!! I am glad to see that people are FINALLY being educated about it!!! THANK YOU for spreading the word!!! I had never heard about it until my daughter was diagnosed at the age of 3. I just thought (as everyone else did) that she was an unruly, bad child, but COMPATION, and understanding make ALL the difference!
    Love you! Thank you for brightening my day :-)

Leave a comment