Autism and Theory of Mind
One of the most common problems experienced by children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions is a difficulty in formulating a theory of mind. What this means is that autistic individuals tend to experience more trouble than most other people in understanding what others are thinking and feeling.
As Cambridge Professor Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen put it, having a theory of mind means "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 other’s minds." (Baron-Cohen, 2001, 3)
Autism as “Mindblindness”
Studies which test for abilities related to theory of mind repeatedly and consistently find that there is a developmental delay in this faculty among children diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions. For example, they generally have a more difficult time than typically developing children in explaining what others are thinking. They also have difficulty with identifying internal, mental states as causes of behavior.
These observations have led Cambridge Professor Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen to refer to autism as "mindblindness." That is, an inability to read and understand the minds of others.
The Social Consequences of Mindblindness
As many people who are familiar with the condition will agree, autism can often be socially debilitating. Failing to interpret others' minds in the way that most people do can lead to problems in communication.
A few examples of such communication/social impairments that Baron-Cohen (2001, 11) lists include:
- "tailoring one’s speech to a particular listener;"
- "turn-taking appropriately[…];"
- "recognizing what is the wrong or right thing to say in a particular context;"
- "staying on topic;"
These are only a handful of examples, but from this it is already easy to see how these traits can make it difficult for children with autism to interact and communicate with others.
Using DVDs to Develop Social Skills and Theory of Mind
In order to help autistic children develop a greater capacity to "read minds" and communicate effectively, researchers and educational media companies are coming together to produce innovative social skills DVDs for autistic kids. While they are by no means meant to act as a cure for autism, they can help children to learn and practice skills which are often a prerequisite for a more complicated social awareness.
One feature of autism which may partially cause this mindreading deficiency is the way in which children with autism process faces. They tend to pay less attention to others' faces than the general population, and they also tend to spend less time looking at eyes and more time looking at mouths when they do look at faces. (Golan, et. al.)
This can limit the amount of information about others' emotions and internal states that people with autism take in. Other than language, facial expressions – particularly around the eyes – are one of the richest sources of information about what other people are thinking and feeling.
One of the most popularly acclaimed titles in this emerging genre of social skills DVDs for autistic kids is a film produced by Changing Media Development called The Transporters. It was initially commissioned by the UK Government, and was the 2010 recipient of the AEP Distinguished Achievement Award for preschool special education. The film was developed with the help and direction of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, which is directed by Simon Baron-Cohen.
The Transporters focuses on using trains to help teach basic emotions to children who suffer from autism spectrum conditions. The trains in the film have human faces imposed on them, and this is meant to help viewers identify with the characters.
Mechanical objects like trains are less complicated and more predictable than humans, Baron-Cohen observes, and this might explain why children with autism tend to be so fascinated by them. They tend to also be particularly drawn to and talented in understanding systems which are able to be predicted and controlled.
The idea is that The Transporters plays to these preferences and strengths, creating an "autism-friendly context." (Golan, et. al., 271) Using something that the children may be more comfortable with might be an effective way to integrate helpful lessons into a fun and interactive experience.
As the researchers who developed the program explain: "The assumption was that through hours of repetitive watching of The Transporters, children with ASC [autism spectrum conditions], instead of avoiding faces, might tune into them without even realizing they are doing so, allowing them to pick up crucial information for learning about emotional expressions." (Golan, et. al., 271)
Each episode focuses on one specific emotion, and a study found that watching the DVDs for 15 minutes a day for four weeks can make a significant impact on a child's ability to understand basic emotions. (Golan, et. al.) Clips from episodes of The Transporters can be watched at cmdevelop's YouTube Channel.
Other Social Skills DVDs for Autistic Kids
Model Me Kids also produces helpful social skills DVDs for autistic kids. They offer educational DVDs on a variety of topics which range from conversation cues, facial expressions and friendships to organization and motivation. The DVDs by Model Me Kids range from target ages 2 – 8 to 9 – 17, and are tailored to assist children in learning social abilities that are important at these different stages of development.
Another company which is working on similar projects is Watch Me Learn. Founded by a woman whose son is autistic, it is also using research about effective autism therapy techniques to develop a series of DVDs which use video modeling to teach social skills to children. Its extensive curriculum is intended for use in both home settings as well as in classrooms.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. The MIT Press, 1997.
Baron-Cohen, Simon. "Theory of Mind in Normal Development and Autism", https://www.autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2001_BC_normdevelopment.pdf.
Cmdevelop's YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/cmdevelop.
Golan, Ofer, et. al. "Enhancing Emotion Recognition in Children with Autism Spectrum Conditions: An Intervention Using Animated Vehicles with Real Emotional Faces", Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2010, Vol. 40, Num. 3, pp. 269-279.
Hamilton, Jon. "DVD Helps Kids with Autism Read Faces, Emotions", https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=99732203.
Model Me Kids, https://www.modelmekids.com.
Soraya, Lynne. "Empathy, Mindblindness, and Theory of Mind", https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/200805/empathy-mindblindness-and-theory-mind.
The Autism Research Centre, https://www.autismresearchcentre.com/arc/default.asp.
The Transporters, https://www.thetransporters.com.
Watch Me Learn. https://www.watchmelearn.com.
"A Child Watching TV", Wikimedia Commons/(CC) Aaron Escobar.