Keys to Social Communication: Theory of Mind

Keys to Social Communication: Theory of Mind

In our past two articles about Keys to Social Communication, I talked about Nonverbal Communication and Big Picture Thinking. This third key is called Theory of Mind (ToM).

ToM is an invaluable tool in having successful social relationships. According to Dr. Tony Attwood’s book, The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome (2007), Theory of Mind (ToM) is “the ability to recognize and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires, and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behavior and predict what they are going to do next.”

In a very simplistic way, it’s ‘putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes” and then guessing which way the person might walk and why.

It helps us ask the right questions in an initial conversation with someone and then guides our responses as to whether we want the conversation to keep going or not. It helps us adjust our communication based on our audiences. It is a key ingredient in how we show empathy to others and how we ‘infer’ what they are thinking. It is also an important element for determining whether someone is safe or not. It’s how we can make ‘good guesses’ about what to buy Mom for her birthday or predict whether Dad will let us play a certain video game or not.

Paired with our knowledge of nonverbal skills, ToM helps us adjust our communication to the people around us by ‘guessing’ their mental states based on their nonverbal communication.

Dreams, aspirations, beliefs, desires, and emotions are all ‘keywords’ within the umbrella of ToM because they are things that happen in the thoughts which then encourage a certain behavior.

Kids usually start speaking in terms of ToM by 3 years old. I remember when my youngest was 2 and half years old. I was writing a report and must have had a look of concentration on my face. She came up to me, patted my cheek, and said, “Mommy sad?”

Wow! At such a young age, she was able to read my facial expression, apply meaning to it, and then show empathy by ‘checking on me.’ That’s some pretty complex thinking at such a young age – and it’s developmentally on target! She may not have ‘guessed’ the right emotion, but she came pretty close.

Another aspect of ToM is the awareness that someone else may not know the same thing you know. IT’s why we don’t try to teach astrophysics or skydiving to 3-year olds. Their minds are ready for the info.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to work with or live with kids who have Autism, early on it’s apparent that they assume you know and feel the same things they do. For example, because Joe loves Thomas the Tank Engine, it means everyone else Joe knows loves Thomas the Tank Engine with the same passion and desires to hear about Thomas as much as Joe does. That’s why Joe is shocked when people get annoyed by his constant chatter about Thomas.

Or Joe has the assumption that other people know his basic needs. If he’s hungry, he may not ‘ask’ for something to eat, because he doesn’t have the ToM to recognize Mom isn’t thinking the same thing he is.

ALSO SEE: Keys of Social Communication: Nonverbal

Does that make sense?

This more complex level of Tom usually begins to emerge around 4 years old.

We build our worlds based on our ToM.

So, what are some of your thoughts about ToM? Ever heard of it before? Have something to add to the discussion?

If you’d like to learn more, one great book is called Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-Read – A Practical Guide, by Patricia Howlin, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Julie Hadwin.

Also worth note is Dr. Tony Attwoods popular book, The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome.

Keys to Social Communication: Theory of Mind
Pepper Basham, MS, CCC-SLP

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