Perspective taking involves the ability to understand the thoughts of others (Baron-Cohen, 1995).
Theory of mind (ToM) is a cognitive function that allows us to depict the psychological states (thoughts and beliefs) of others and to separate them from our thoughts. It is the ability to know that others have different thoughts from ours.
Typical development of theory of mind in children:
At 5 months of age, typical children can recognize different facial expressions, and a few months later they learn to reliably interpret the facial expressions of others, using this nonverbal information to guide their behavior.
Typically developing two year olds engage in pretend play and demonstrate some understanding of pretense.They can predict the desires of others, understanding what others want even if it is different from their own
Typical 3 year old children understand the simple emotions of others, but have difficulty understanding feelings such as surprise that are the result of mistaken beliefs.
By the age of 5, children can recognize feelings that are the result of an unexpected outcome (Hadwin & Perner, 1991).
During the school years, children learn to understand that people's actions do not always reflect their true inner feelings, and that people can have a variety of feelings at one time, some of which conflict. School-aged children understand irony, sarcasm, white lies, the distinction between literal and non-literal speech, and metaphors indicating more advanced ability to understand the beliefs of others.
The theory of mind impairment describes a difficulty someone would have with perspective taking. This is also sometimes referred to as mind-blindness.
** IMPLICATIONS FOR LEARNING **
Children with autism have difficulties viewing others ideas as being different from theirs. They assume that the way they look at something is the way everyone looks at it. Failure to understand the thoughts of others gravely impacts a child's social skills because they are unable to understand that their friends have different perspectives from theirs.
A child who is on the spectrum will, for instance, talk about his topic of interest over and over again because he assumes that his friends share what interests him at the time. It is thus difficult for him to understand the social world around him and to predict the action of others because one needs to understand the thoughts, motives and intentions of others to understand figurative language such as sarcasm or non-literal utterances.
Because they have a hard time seeing things from any perspective other than their own, individuals who experience a theory of mind deficit have difficulty determining the intentions of others, lack understanding of how their behavior affects others, and have a difficult time with social reciprocity.
They do not pay attention to the face of others or seek the gaze of another to guide their behavior.
They rarely imagine an object to be something that it is not (e.g., pretending a block is a car).
The use of gestures to communicate is often strikingly absent.
They have particular difficulties with tasks requiring them to understand another person's beliefs.
They may not understand the many unwritten social rules that exist and that these rules often change with the context.
For example, a man with an autism spectrum disorder may be told that it is okay to ask close friends or children how old they are, but it is considered impolite to ask strangers or older people their age. Now imagine he accepted a job at a license branch and is told to verify the age of the customer. He would likely become upset because in his mind this is breaking the rules.
Individuals across the spectrum may be brutally honest and in return, take all words as truth.
This also leads to problems understanding deceit, which can put their safety at-risk. People with autism may not understand that an event they experienced was not experienced by all, so they may not be able to provide the background necessary to be understood by others.
** STRATEGIES **
Activities designed to help children understand the emotions of others include direct instruction in recognizing facial expressions from photos and schematic drawings, and identifying situations, desire, and belief-based emotions.
Design activities around understanding the emotions of others including instruction in recognizing facial expressions from photos and schematic drawings, and identifying situation-, desire-, and belief-based emotions.
Design instruction in simple and complex visual perspective taking; understanding that seeing leads to knowing; predicting actions on the basis of a person's knowledge; and understanding false-beliefs.
Design activities to promote the development of play skills from the child's current level of functioning (e.g., sensorimotor play) to pretend play.
**Carol Gray's book, "Comic Strip Conversations," is a wonderful resource available to help individuals with autism spectrum disorders develop theory of mind understanding. This activity involves using simple drawings to illustrate conversations between people. With the help of a parent or professional, participants use drawings to comprehend problem situations and to communicate ideas in conversational form. They are asked to identify what people do, say, and most importantly, think in social situations. Color is added to the comic strips to represent emotion.