Theory of mind

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Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have their own minds with their personal state of knowledge, their personal beliefs, wishes and intentions, and that these may differ from one's own mind. Autistic people typically show an impaired ability to recognize other people's minds. Therefore they experience difficulties with explaining and predicting other people’s behaviour. This leads to problems in social communication and interaction. Children on the autistic spectrum usually develop the theory of mind more slowly than other children. They have difficulties with it throughout their lives. However, autistic people's performance on theory of mind tasks varies.[1]

For testing whether someone lacks the theory of mind, the Sally-Anne test is performed. The child sees the following story: Sally and Anne are playing. Sally puts her ball into a basket and leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne moves the ball from the basket to the box. Now Sally returns. The question is: where will Sally look for her ball? The test is passed, if the child correctly assumes that Sally will look in the basket. The test is failed if the child thinks that Sally will look in the box. Children below the age of four and autistic people typically fail this test.[2]


  1. Happé, F. G. (1995). The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Child development, 66(3), 843-855
  2. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?. Cognition, 21(1), 37-46