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Autism and Theory of Mind

A parent's journey through building bridges of understanding.

Key points

  • Theory of mind (ToM) conceptualizes communication differences between autistic and neurotypical individuals.
  • There is a growing appreciation of the “double empathy challenge" perspective of ToM.

Research, across time, consistently documents unique social communication patterns in autistic individuals (Wang et al., 2022).

One of the more prevalent theories for conceptualizing the cognitive basis underlying social communication differences between individuals on the spectrum and their neurotypical peers is the theory of mind (ToM).

Sodian et al. (2003) broadly defined ToM as a “body of conceptual knowledge that underlies access to both one’s own and others’ mental states.”

Holt et al. (2021) defined ToM as the “ability to attribute mental states to others…understand that others have thoughts, beliefs, desires, and behaviors stemming from underlying factors and motivations.” This definition has been heavily debated, with many researchers offended by the implication that neurodiverse individuals are impaired in attributing mental states to others.

ToM includes abilities such as insight into other people’s intentions, understanding of the underlying rules for interactions and social games (play pragmatics), the reading of implicit body language, and understanding of pretense, to name a few. Hutchins et al. (2015) suggested that autistic individuals find specific components of ToM, including understanding pretense, counterfactual reasoning (if-then contingencies), play pragmatics, joint attention, and performatives (understanding that a word implies a transaction or a behavioral response), particularly challenging in comparison with their neurotypical peers. The conclusions of ToM research continue to be reexamined and challenged. For example, Williams (2021) suggests that autistic children show different patterns of ToM development to their neurotypical peers as well as continue to progress in ToM abilities during schooling.

Within my own family, ToM is a recurrent theme that underlies much of our experience of conflict, whether it be my nine-year-old son's interpreting well-meaning advice as criticism or myself interpreting my husband’s level of engagement in a conversation as lack of care, amongst countless other examples. In fact, any two individuals (whether neurotypical or neurodiverse) will experience differences in how they process what they see and hear according to their experiences, values, world view, and physiology (all of which color their unique interpretations), and in how they respond to these with their behavior.

With increases in insider research perspectives from neurodiverse researchers, there’s been a growing appreciation of the “double empathy challenge" perspective on ToM, which conceptualizes ToM as a reciprocal process (Holt et al., 2021) and not an impairment for solely neurodiverse individuals, as has been historically perceived.

Much research challenges this historical assumption about ToM, such as by Crompton et al. (2020), who found that autistic adults experienced high levels of mutual understanding within interactions with autistic peers. Or, Heasman and Gillespie (2018) found that youth on the spectrum accurately predicted their family members’ mental states in terms of how their families perceived them.

Building Bridges

Communication is the bridge that reconciles my and my loved ones’ meanings and nourishes our reciprocal ToMs, which is strengthened by the appreciation of our unique ways of processing information.

One example is our family appreciating my 9-year-old son’s detail-focused cognitive style, foreseeing that he may show reactivity to his interpretation of parts of situations and less to a consideration of the context or the big picture. For my other four-year-old son, a detailed-focused cognitive style means that he may find switching between activities uncomfortable and may benefit from the support of visual schedules and extra processing time. On the other hand, my children’s detail-focused cognitive style greatly enriches our family’s mindful appreciation of the details around us.

Another key piece of research I found insightful in expanding my understanding of my children’s way of processing information and nourishing our reciprocal ToM is Kana et al.’s (2016) finding that autistic young adults processed implicit emotions in different ways than their neurotypical peers. Kana et al. (2016) found that autistic individuals showed less activation in certain temporal areas of their brain in response to implicit (i.e., without awareness or intention) emotions than was the case for their neurotypical peers. However, they showed similar frontal brain evaluative processing of explicit emotions (i.e., directly expressed).

Kana et al.’s (2016) insight helped me set up my communication so it is more direct and purposeful, as well as supplemented with visuals where possible, which continues to positively influence my communication in general.

ToM affects every relationship uniquely and is acknowledged by many as a reciprocal process of mutual understanding. While building bridges of understanding means continuing to explore the unique ways in which neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals relate to the world and one another (appreciating one another’ sensory experiences, information processing, and learning), it is also important not to underestimate ToM abilities of neurodiverse individuals, as many researchers are concerned happened in the past.


Crompton, C. J., Hallett, S., Ropar, D., Flynn, E., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2020). “I never realised everybody felt as happy as I do when I am around autistic people”: A thematic analysis of autistic adults’ relationships with autistic and neurotypical friends and family. Autism : the International Journal of Research and Practice, 24(6), 1438–1448.

Heasman, B., & Gillespie, A. (2018). Perspective-taking is two-sided: Misunderstandings between people with Asperger’s syndrome and their family members. Autism : the International Journal of Research and Practice, 22(6), 740–750.

Holt, A., Bounekhla, K., Welch, C., & Polatajko, H. (2022). “Unheard minds, again and again”: autistic insider perspectives and theory of mind. Disability and Rehabilitation, 44(20), 5887–5897.

Hutchins, T. L., Prelock, P. A., Morris, H., Benner, J., LaVigne, T., & Hoza, B. (2016). Explicit vs. applied theory of mind competence: A comparison of typically developing males, males with ASD, and males with ADHD. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 21, 94–108.

Kana, R. K., Patriquin, M. A., Black, B. S., Channell, M. M., & Wicker, B. (2016). Altered Medial Frontal and Superior Temporal Response to Implicit Processing of Emotions in Autism. Autism Research, 9(1), 55–66.

Sodian, B., Hülsken, C., & Thoermer, C. (2003). The self and action in theory of mind research. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(4), 777–782.

Wang, X., Auyeung, B., Pan, N., Lin, L.-Z., Chen, Q., Chen, J.-J., Liu, S.-Y., Dai, M.-X., Gong, J.-H., Li, X.-H., & Jing, J. (2022). Empathy, Theory of Mind, and Prosocial Behaviors in Autistic Children. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, 844578–844578.

Williams, G. L. (2021). Theory of autistic mind: A renewed relevance theoretic perspective on so-called autistic pragmatic “impairment.” Journal of Pragmatics, 180, 121–130.

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