Theory of Mind – a reflection

Last year, when I found out I had autism–more specifically aspergers–I read and read and read every list of symptoms, traits and attributes of the disorder. Well, I’m an aspie after all, so why wouldn’t I obsessively research the hell out of something? Anyhow, one of those traits is Theory of Mind. It’s a relatively easy way for psychologists to diagnose children as young as 3-4 years old with autism spectrum disorder. I have my own thoughts about it.

Theory of Mind Defined

First, what’s theory of mind? As it’s defined by Google

Theory of mind (often abbreviated ToM) is the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.

When dealing with autistic kids, this tends to be true. They don’t understand that you don’t know what they know. But, in hind sight, normal kids struggle with theory of mind, but have to actively remember that not everyone knows the same things. It’s the number one reason mom and dad cease being cool in your teens. Your theory of mind has developed and your experience has removed itself from your parents, so they’re no longer impressively knowledgeable. /tangent

I have been an active participant in quite a few groups on Facebook that facilitate interaction with other autists. I have noticed over the past 8 months that it’s not adult autistics that struggle with theory of mind. It’s adult NT’s (NT stands for NeuroTypical, which accounts for the other 67 people). I have interacted with a lot of NT’s in the world and the common underlying factor is they expect you to read their mind, experience what they experience, do what they do, see things the way they see them, etc ad naseum. It’s quite frustrating really. Especially when I go to my autism groups and chat with my lady friends and there’s very little misunderstanding, lots of asking questions and not much arguing (if any at all). We come from all walks of life with very different interests and beliefs and we tend to take people at face value.

How do NT’s have 0 theory of mind?

All I can give are examples. Ranging from the very rich commentary during Katrina “Why didn’t they just go to their summer homes?” to the idiot on facebook that says “everyone knows who Jim Parsons is, he’s on Big Bang Theory, played in [some obscure Broadway shows] and [some other really really obscure random fact about Jim Parsons].” As if that’s a reason for me to know him at all let alone recognize his face. I’ve only seen one episode of BBT and thought it was droll. I have no desire to watch it and probably never will.

Honestly, though, I don’t recognize faces very well and if I haven’t developed a way of recognizing you, I won’t. I still have to map my mother-in-laws face every time I see her because I only remember her by her short pudgy build. You should have seen me when I used her hair as a mnemonic… haha, I would look at her completely confused whenever she dyed her hair or changed the style. She’d ask me if there was something wrong with her hair and I’d have to tell her no, but really I wanted to say “you look like a completely different person.” I had to find another feature to recognize her by. She loses weight or starts walking more elegantly and I’ll be lost.

So, another example would be a lawyer I’ve dealt with recently. When you live in the city, as a woman, it’s kind of a running joke to carry a weapon with you when you’re out alone at night. Women are 10x more likely to be raped than a man. Especially at night, especially in the city. A weapon is a necessary thing. It doesn’t make the neighborhood unsafe for children to grow up in. Children aren’t going to the store by themselves at 10pm and they’re not playing outside by themselves. So the point is moot. But he says, “why did you have to carry a knife to the store with you at 11pm if the neighborhood is so safe?” Mind you, the neighborhood my ex lives in has survived 3 murders during the day within the past 4 years. The guy was never caught. So… How does this question even get asked? For one, your white male privilege is showing and two, you’re completely oblivious to the real world and how it works. Honestly, he got the idea from a tweet I posted. If you take a tweet seriously, I got some tweets to show you that my ex posted to a 17 year old girl. I’d love to bring those up in court and use his complete lack of theory of mind against him. But I’m not petty.

Plus, there’s just about every republican or rich person who doesn’t understand poverty. Michelle Bachman, this chick… “It’s so bad being homeless in winter. They should go somewhere warm like the Caribbean where they can eat fresh fish all day.”  —model/socialite Lady Victoria Hervey. It’s really a matter of theory of mind here. They assume the whole world is like them and lives like them.


When reflecting on this, I start to think theory of mind isn’t an autism issue. Over the past 8 months, I’ve definitely figured out that I don’t have theory of mind issues. What I thought was a struggle with theory of mind was just being a considerate person. I assumed that consciously thinking about other people and their needs and emotions was struggling with theory of mind. After a few talks with both Aspies and NT’s I realized that this is the exact opposite of lack of theory of mind. I realized that people who expect you to read their mind, live the way they live, understand things the way they understand them lack the theory of mind. Only a few of the autistic women I know and none of the autistic men have this issue (I know way less men than women, so this is not a representative comparison). The idea that theory of mind is a way to determine autism is a joke. I think it’s a way to determine nuerotypicalism. And the more I interact with people who assume I know what they’re trying to say when they call a DVD player a tape deck and Facebook messaging texting, the more I am aware that, as adults, autistics don’t suffer from theory of mind issues, NTs do.

So, maybe it’s flipped. Maybe young Autists struggle with theory of mind and young NTs don’t, but because autistic children have to develop or be taught theory of mind, they don’t lose it like NTs do. It’s actually pretty rare for an NT to have theory of mind. When I find them, I am so refreshed and the interaction is so easy and smooth. I would love for everyone to have theory of mind. I wish they taught it in school so the kids don’t lose it as they get older.