Theory of Mind: What it is, evaluate it and activities to enhance it

Have you stopped to think about what your world would be like if you were not able to imagine others’ intentions and thoughts? The ability to take into account aspects like this is known as Theory of Mind. In this article, we explain what it is, how it relates to Autism Spectrum Disorders, how to evaluate it and activities to enhance it. 

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind: What is it and how does it develop?

The concept of Theory of Mind was first used by Premack and Woodruff in 1978 to explain the behavior of a chimpanzee after performing a series of experiments. They were presented different problem situations and were given two alternatives to solve them (one correct and another incorrect). Finally, they concluded that the chimpanzee was able to correctly solve problem situations because he was able to recognize the problem and the experimenter’s desire to solve it. They established that the chimpanzee was able to attribute a mental state or desire to the experimenters. To account for this fact, they coined the concept of Theory of Mind:

“In saying that a subject has a Theory of Mind, we mean that the subject attributes mental states to himself and to others, … A system of inferences of this kind is considered, in a strict sense, a theory; in the first place, because such states are not directly observable, and second because the system can be used to make specific predictions about other organisms’ behavior…” -Premack and Woodfruff, 1978 (p.515- 526)

For example, if we are talking to a group of people, and suddenly, one of them gets up and leaves, we almost automatically try to understand their behavior. To do this, we are able to infer that it may be driven by a mental state (for example, my comments might have offended her), a belief (she believes we finished the conversation), or because she has another plan. By doing this, we are performing a kind of theory of mind inferring mental states or beliefs that explain behavior.

Theory of mind develops between the ages 3 to 5 regardless of gender, although it continues to improve over the following years. When a child discovers “his mind”, he becomes aware that other people have minds as well. He is now aware that within this mind are desires, emotions, beliefs, and intentions (mental states) and that they can guide his behavior.

In recent years, the theory of mind concept has gained great relevance in research and clinical practice, especially in relation to the development and management of autism spectrum disorders.

Theory of Mind and Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Autistic Spectrum Disorder (which includes Asperger’s Syndrome) is characterized primarily by problems with:

  • Social relationships (Theory of Mind, Difficulty understanding others’ emotions, empathy, communication problems)
  • Language development (in some cases, the absence of language and gestures of compensation) 
  • Communication (problems to start a conversation, intonation problems, etc.)
  • Imagination

Focusing on the implications of a theory of mind deficit on a child we can highlight his (Baron Cohen, 1999):

  • Lack of sensitivity to others’ feelings.
  • Inability to take into account information that others might know.
  • Inability to detect a person’s interest what he is saying.
  • Difficulties in detecting irony or figurative meaning.
  • Inability to anticipate what other people may think about their behaviors.
  • Inability to take into account misunderstandings.
  • Inability to understand deception and deceit.
  • Inability to understand the reasons that lead people to behave in a certain way.

All these deficits will make it difficult for the child to adapt to his/her environment, so it is very important to provide the child with tools that help him adjust. 

Sally and Anne test: A way to detect difficulties in Theory of Mind in children

The theory of mind begins to develop around during early childhood development.

There is a test, called Sally-Anne Test, allows to detect that something is failing in the development of the theory of mind in a child. 

In general, it is normal for a 3-year-old child to not respond correctly to the demands of the test, but by 5 years old, the child should be able to respond without difficulty.

To take or execute the test you don’t need to be a professional, it follows a rather simple and everyday methodology.

To perform the test you will need two dolls, two different boxes or basket, and a ball. The two dolls will be Sally and Anne and each should have a box. 

Now narrate and represent the following story:

“Sally and Anne have a box each. Sally places a ball in her box before leaving the scene (we put the ball in Sally’s box). 

Take Sally out of the scene, and now Anne changes the ball into her box without her noticing. Then Sally returns to the scene, and we ask the child: Where will Sally look for the ball?”

A child with a good theory of mind development will say Sally will look for the ball in her box because she has not seen Anne change the ball. Instead, a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder will say that Sally will look in Anne’s box because she does not understand how Sally can still think the ball is where she left it.

In summary, a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder finds it difficult to understand that others have their own thoughts (mental states) that may be different from ours, or even different from reality.

As you can see, it is a simple test to apply, but the information it provides is very significant. If you detect problems in the child performance it is necessary that you contact a specialist, although probably, you have already done that.

It’s likely you have noticed other aspects like your child’s difficulty adapting to the environment before the age of 3.

Activities to work Theory of Mind in Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder

Explain emotions and actions

Since children with ASD have a difficulty understanding thought or cognitive processes in other people, it’s important to explain why people behave in different ways. It’s important to explain why a person acts or might feel a certain way, as well as, why some actions have certain consequences. Another important issue to tackle is how some things the child might say can hurt other people’s feelings, that way they understand that other’s feel and think differently. For example, “I don’t like it when you call your sister ugly because I believe it hurts her feelings and it makes me sad.

Read Books

Reading books with your child can help your child see different perspectives. You can even work on the previous point, asking them how a character might feel, how he might think, how would he change the scene. These types of exercises help the child gain different perspectives and also understand that others have mental states different from his.

Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind


Not only reading about the situations can a child learn the theory of mind. Roleplaying is also important. Pick out situations and pretend play with your child, changing the outcome, emotions, thought process, etc. This helps them be prepared for the unpredictability that is life and people. Use fantasy and figurative language since it can help him understand that we can say things that we don’t necessarily believe, or that aren’t necessarily true.

These activities work their theory of mind and in turn, they reinforce their social skills. The main aim is to make it easier for children with ASD to understand that others might have other feelings and thoughts different from his own and relate better to others.

We hope this article was useful and feel free to leave a comment below.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Rosa García Tribaldo, translated by Alejandra Salazar.

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