Theory of Mind – Part 2

As mentioned in the last article, ‘Theory of Mind’ (ToM) involves recognition and attribution of mental states in others or oneself and it is crucial for making references and predicting behaviors. ‘Mind-blindness’ is a theory that suggests the ASD population suffers from varying degrees of impairment in ToM, or sometimes referred as ‘mind-reading’ (Baron-Cohen et al. 2015). Some people might wonder if it is possible to teach children with ASD to mind-read. Howlin and colleagues (1999) pointed out that explicit teaching provides an alternative route for mind-reading, by which leads to improvement in social and communication. The following is some of the teaching elements proposed by the authors.


  • Level 1: Teach students to recognize facial expression from photographs.
  • Level 2: Teach students to recognize emotion from schematic drawings.
  • Level 3: Teach students to identify emotions that are triggered by situations (‘situation-based’ emotion), for instance fear when a fierce bear is approaching.
  • Level 4: Teach students to identify emotions that are produced by fulfilled and unfulfilled desire (‘desire-based’ emotions).
  • Level 5: Teach students to identify emotions that are caused by what a person thinks, despite it conflicts with reality (‘belief-based’ emotions).

Informational States

Level 1: Simple visual perspective taking
This phase aims at teaching students to understand different people can see different things. For example: Two different pictures are presented to the student and the teacher, and the teacher asks the student “What do you see?” and “What do I see?”

Level 2: Complex visual perspective taking
This level involves recognizing not only what others see but also how things appear to them.
For example: The student and the teacher sit across from each other while looking at the same picture. The student is then asked “When I/you look at the picture, is it right way up or upside down?”

Level 3: Understanding the principles of ‘Seeing/hearing/feeling-leads-to-knowing’
– This level targets students’ ability to understand that people only know what they have experienced directly or indirectly. For example, a big box and a small box (both solid with lids on) are presented to the student. The teacher instructs the student to close his/her eyes or uses any other means to obscure his/her eyesight before putting a crayon in one of the boxes. Later the student is asked “Do you know where the crayon is?”, ‘Why don’t you know where the crayon is?” To increase complexity, similar situation is set up but with addition of a third agent witnessing or not witnessing the movement of crayon. The student is asked “Does so-and-so know where the crayon is?” and “How does so-and-so know?”

Level 4: Predicting actions based on a person’s knowledge
This level involves understanding people can hold true beliefs and predicting others’ actions based on what a person knows.

Level 5: Understanding false beliefs
The goal of this level is to increase students’ understanding that people can hold false beliefs through ‘unexpected transfer’ task and ‘unexpected contents’ task.
‘Unexpected transfer’ task involves the unexpected change of object location; and ‘unexpected contents’ task is related to the unanticipated change of content. The well-known Sally-Anne and Smarties tests are the perfect examples of these tasks.

The original Sally-Anne cartoon used in the test by Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) – from wikipedia

As many of you might have known individuals with ASD might find generalizing learnt skills across different settings/materials/people challenging, thus using multiple sets of example and teaching material is imperative. And of course, utilizing naturally occurring opportunities and games is beneficial for generalization but also makes teaching fun and functional as well.


1. Baron-Cohen, S., Bowen, D. C., Holt, R. J., Allison, C., Auyeung, B., Lombardo, M. V., Smith, P., & Lai, M.C. (2015). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” Test: Complete Absence of Typical Sex Difference in ~400 Men and Women with Autism. PLoS ONE 10(8), e0136521.
2. Howlin, P., Baron-Cohen, S., & Hadwin, J. (1999). Teaching Children with Autism to Mind-Read. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Information provided by:

Teresa Ng (Autism Partnership Senior Case Supervisor)
Teresa Ng
Ms. Teresa Ng, a master degree holder in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) from St. Cloud State University and a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, joined AP in 2001. Over the past decade, she has received regular training from Dr. Ronald Leaf and Dr. John McEachin and acquired extensive experience in treating and developing treatment programs for young children and adolescents with ASD as both therapist and supervisor. Apart from providing parent training, staff training, consultation to local and oversea families in South Africa, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Mainland China, and conducting workshops in local preschools and non-profitable organizations, she has been responsible for overseeing Little Learners, a simulated kindergarten classroom using ABA approach. Currently, she is responsible for local and overseas consultation, case management, program design, and case supervision.

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