Theory of Mind

Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty with social skills as they are not logical – rules change, games change, people are your friend one day but not the next and children use language and phrases that can be confusing. In addition not being able to predict what people mean and understanding the context of a social situation can make social situations very frustrating. This is called ‘Theory of Mind’. Most children can pass a Theory of Mind test by age three, whereas most people with ASD have an impaired Theory of Mind.


‘Theory of Mind is the ability to recognise and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behaviour and predict what they are going to do next. It has also been described as ‘mind reading’ or ‘mind blindness’.

(Pg 112 ‘The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome’ by Dr Tony Attwood)


Signs of an Impaired Theory of Mind

  • Problems with explaining own behaviors
  • Problems with understanding emotions
  • Difficulty understanding their impact on others’ emotional state
  • Anxiety
  • Exhaustion in social situations
  • Making literal interpretations

One resource that I find helpful to improve Theory of Mind abilities is What Did You Say? What Did You Mean? This book contains over 100 metaphors and can be used with the whole family or class.

Language that does not mean what it literary says can contribute to the stress experienced by children with ASD. Many of you would have heard stories where children took comments such as ‘to put their skates on’ or ‘pull their socks up’ literally, these are harmless misunderstandings. However there are some metaphors that can cause distress like, ‘school is breaking at the end of the day’ or ‘Ms Green is going to bite your head off,’ – these can actually make children frightened. (Try re-reading them and imagine you are literal – you would believe the school is falling apart at end of day)

Taking language literally is much more than misunderstanding metaphors, it extends to taking words at face value and not understanding the inferred meaning behind questions. With questions like, “Can you count to ten?” and “Can you sit down?” children with an ASD will often just answer, “Yes” or “No” rather than realising that they are meant to follow the instruction. Another example would be when a child picks up something they are not meant to have – you might say, “You can’t have that,” but they HAVE got it. So they will often then argue with you as they ‘have’ it and thus you are wrong! At one of my workshops a Mum had a huge “ahh haa” moment when I was discussing this particular scenario and why kids with an ASD will call you a LIAR. She realised that her son was not being rude he was being HONEST!

Another great resource is the book Why Do I Have To?, which is designed for children to understand why rules exist and how they make things work better. Establishing rules can be very frustrating for adults and children, and this book helps children understand why they have to! The book is under three main areas home, school and friends. It is a great book for children who have difficulty coping with the expectation of daily living, as well as for their parents and the professionals who work with them.

Here are a few great examples found in the book:

  • Why do I have to listen to the teacher talking about something I already know?
  • Why do I have to rest when I am not tired?
  • Why do I have to stop talking about things that I like?

    I highly recommend you include Theory of Mind activities on your home or school to support children with ASD.

Books to help improve Theory of Mind

What Did You Say? What Do You Mean?

By Jude Welton
Jude Welton looks at a hundred of the most common figures of speech in the visual workbook designed as a springboard for family and classroom discussions. Each figure of speech is accompanied by an illustration showing its literal meaning, which will help ASD children recognise and learn to enjoy metaphors and figurative language.

Click here for more information about this book.

Why Do I Have To?

By Laurie Leventhal-Belfer
Why Do I Have To? looks at a set of everyday situations that provide challenges for children at home, with their friends, and at school. Empathises with children’s wish to do things their way, explains clearly why their way does not work, and provides a list of practical suggestions for how to cope with these challenges and avoid feelings of frustration.

Click here for more information about this book.

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