It is generally accepted that children on the autism spectrum have a deficit in or delayed theory of mind. Theory of mind can be defined as the ability to attribute mental states (thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions) to ones-self and others and the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that may be different from our own. A delay or deficit in the development of this ability therefore makes it difficult to understand the perspectives or beliefs of both your-self and of another person.
A few months ago we decided to test whether or not Rowan has theory of mind yet using a variant of the classic false belief task known as the ‘Sally Anne’ task. The ‘Sally Anne’ task involves children being introduced to two dolls named ‘Sally’ and ‘Anne’ and then show a little ‘skit’ which involves Sally taking a marble and hiding it in her basket and then ‘leaving’ the room. Whilst she is away and unbeknownst to her, Anne takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it in her own box. Sally then returns and the child is asked the key question: ‘Where will Sally look for her marble?’
Despite the fact that we tried to make this story more relevant to Rowan by using animal models as opposed to marbles he was still unable to tell us that Sally would look for the toy in her basket as that is where she believes it to be. Instead he stated that Sally would look in Anne’s box as that is where he knew it to be.
We were, however, curious as to whether this was because Rowan does indeed exhibit deficits in theory of mind or whether the language that the test uses is simply too vague and arbitrary for him to understand what we are really asking him. The reason for our misgivings is because of a number of studies that link theory of mind development to language development. In one particular study a community of deaf people in Nicaragua who had only developed the most basic sign language were found to display very poor performance on theory of mind tasks such as the one previously described. However once they were taught a more complete and complex form of sign language their performance increased indicating that language was key to their theory of mind development.
We therefore decided to approach Rowan’s theory of mind development using a similar technique to how we approach his academics, by introducing and modeling the concept in a no pressure environment without expecting anything back.
A good example of this technique working was a few years ago when it was necessary for Rowan to learn about fractions. Rupert began by taking Rowan into the round pen and simply talking in terms of fractions as they rode around e.g. ‘let’s ride half the way around the round pen…now let’s ride the other half…oh look now we have ridden the whole way around the round pen…that must mean that two halves make a whole.’ As time went by Rowan began to ask to ride a certain fraction of the round pen and two weeks later this had somehow translated to paper and he was adding and subtracting fractions with ease. We now employ this technique to introduce him to all new mathematical concepts.
We therefore decided to model theory of mind and perspective taking using a game we invented during which one of us went out the room and whilst we were out Rowan and whoever was still left in the room had to hide either a flute or accordion inside the guitar case. When the person who left returned to the room they were asked to get the guitar out and then feigned shock and disbelief when they opened the guitar case to find a flute instead. In a similar way to the fractions Rowan was soon actively participating in the game and finding it immensely amusing to boot.
About a week after we first ‘invented’ this game Rowan and I were due to go out in the car and I was unable to find the car keys. He let me look for about 5 minutes before admitting that he had hidden them from me in a drawer and then doubling over with laughter. The ability to trick people indicates the presence of a pretty complex theory of mind - and all this only 2 weeks after Rowan had 'failed' the false belief task.