Autism and Theory of Mind

One of my courses is focusing this week on Nonliteral Language ability. For this module, I read An Exploration of Causes of Non-Literal Language Problems in Individuals with Asperger Syndrome. This article claims that the Theory of Mind is underdeveloped in individuals with autism. Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that someone else’s mental state differs from one’s own. Researchers have tested the presence of Theory of Mind by hiding an object with the child’s knowledge and asking the child where the object is. The researcher would then ask the child where someone not present would think the object is. In the absence of Theory of Mind, the child would respond with where the object really is.

Theory of Mind involves many pragmatic language skills. Without these skills, children with autism will not understand irony — rather, they will understand the speaker to be lying. How does a speech pathologist support a child in development of Theory of Mind?

I found some resources while trying to understand how to apply this theoretical information clinically:

Practical Theory of Mind Games available from Linguisystems.

At Amazon:

Teaching Theory of Mind: A Curriculum for Children With High Functioning Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Related Social Challenges

Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-Read: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Parents

Pair Up Free — Preschool Brain Matching Puzzles

However, there is one activity I can think of that uses the child’s interests to stimulate Theory of Mind. I used to tutor a child with autism, and he loved to play chess. However, since he lacked Theory of Mind, he struggled to guess which move I would make following his. I capitalized on this and allowed him to move his piece and then come to my side of the board and look at the chess situation from my perspective.

Although this did not fix all of his pragmatics issues, I believe it was an important stepping stone to later skills of understanding how someone else feels.

If your child does not like chess, any strategy game should be sufficient. One game I love playing even as an adult is to choose a question and have everyone write down their answers to the question. Then one person reads all the anonymous answers and has to guess who said what. My friends and I sometimes answer for ourselves and for someone else, like a mutual friend, teacher, or even Julius Caesar. This game requires a higher level of Theory of Mind that might be appropriate for the developing child who needs extra guidance in this pragmatic language skill area.

This game is available at Amazon, but you don’t need the question cards to play it. You can make your own. Some example questions are given below.


What do you do when nobody is looking?

What is your favorite book?

What is your favorite movie?

If I could have any superpower, what would it be?

What is your favorite dessert?

Where would you travel if you could go anywhere?

How would you spend one million dollars?


Martin, I., & McDonald, S. (2004). An exploration of causes of non-literal language problems in individuals with Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 34(3), 311-328.



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