Do Children With Autism Understand What Others Think or Feel?

"Theory of mind" describes the human ability to understand that it is impossible for one person to know what is going on in another person's mind. "Theory of mind" sounds like a complex concept, but in fact, it's usually mastered by children before they're five years old.

Autistic child receives therapy with dolphin trainer and bottlenose dolphin
Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

A child who has mastered theory of mind understands that for example:

  • If they hide, other people don't know where they are.
  • If they think a thought or have an emotion, but don't express it, that thought or emotion is not communicated to others (and that others may not share all their thoughts).
  • Their likes and dislikes may or may not be shared by others and others may have completely different preferences and tastes.
  • They have information that someone else does not have, they must communicate that information or risk being misunderstood.
  • If they witness something that others don't witness, they know something that other people don't know.

Autistic People Find Mind-Reading Difficult

Theory of mind may be elusive for both children and adults on the spectrum. This does not mean that people with autism lack empathy, but rather that it is difficult for them to second-guess others' motivations, intentions, or hidden agendas.

Research suggests that challenges include difficulty with reading subtle facial expressions and body language. For example, it may be hard for autistic people to intuit whether raised eyebrows are a sign of surprise, fear, or disapproval.

Vocal tones can also be an issue. For example, we use subtle changes in tone and prosody to express the idea that we are joking, sarcastic, disbelieving, and so forth. But when autistic people can't recognize those subtle changes, they may take jokers seriously, or believe that a sarcastic statement is sincere.

As a result, people on the spectrum often misunderstand other people's motivations or desires. They may also fail to communicate information or advocate for their own needs. Difficulty with theory of mind can also make autistic people more vulnerable to being misled, bullied, or abused.

Autism and "Mind-Blindness"

Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen describes Theory of Mind as "...being able to infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having a theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one's own and others' minds." Baron-Cohen developed a term for lack of theory of mind that he called "mind blindness."

Researchers including Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith believe that mind blindness at some level is present in all people on the autism spectrum. They also feel that the lack of theory of mind is a result of neurological differences, and that theory is supported by research.

For those individuals on the autism spectrum with strong intellectual abilities, it is possible to build some "mind reading" abilities through practice, discussion, and social skills training. Even with practice and training, though, mind blindness is likely to be an issue for all people on the autism spectrum throughout their lives.

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  • Baron-Cohen, Simon. Theory of Mind in Normal Development and Autism. Prisme, 2001, 34, 174-183.
  • Chevallier C, Noveck I, Happé F, Wilson D."What's in a Voice? Prosody as a Test Case for the Theory of Mind Account of Autism. Neuropsychologia. 2011 Feb;49(3):507-17.
  • Frith, Uta. Mind Blindness and the Brain in Autism. Neuron, Vol. 32, 969–979, December 20, 2001.
  • Kana, Rajesh, et al. Functional Brain Networks and White Matter Underlying Theory-of-Mind in Autism.Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2014) 9(1): 98-105.
  • Tager-Flusberg, Helen. Evaluating the Theory of Mind Hypothesis of Autism. Current Directions in Psychological Science, December 2007.  Vol 16 no. 6 311-315.

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.