C. Theory of Mind

Theory of Mind is a topic that comes up regularly on a.s.a., frequently leading to complex philosophical debates.


  1. Definition
  2. The Sally-Ann Test
  3. Becky and the Plant Sprayer

1. Definition

The meaning of the term is very difficult, but my understanding is that it refers to the innate ability of one person to sense the state of mind of another (a kind of empathy, in a way); and to be able to see the world through another person's eyes, another person's point of view. If you have T.O.M., you will instinctively understand that just because you know something, it doesn't mean that I know it too. It is as if people who lack T.O.M. assume others are telepathic, and explains why some ACs often open with statements that seem to come from the middle of a conversation, not the beginning, not giving all the necessary background to ascertain the context.

The debate generally centres around the belief that ACs invariably lack T.O.M. Does T.O.M. even exist? Is it perhaps a learned behaviour for everyone that ACs aren't so good at? Is it just psycho-babble?

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2. The Sally-Ann Test

The Sally-Ann test is a famous test used to judge whether a person has T.O.M. or not, and the test itself probably explains what T.O.M is, better than I can. Children are supposed to be able to do this test by around 6-8 years old.

The procedure goes thus:

You introduce the child to two dolls, Sally and Ann, and show the child that each doll has her own box, with a marble hidden inside. Then you tell the child that Sally is going out for a minute, and remove the doll from the scene, leaving her box behind.

Next, you tell the child that Ann is going to play a trick on Sally: she opens Sally's box, removes the marble, hiding it in her own box. Sally returns, unaware of what happened and you ask the child where Sally would look for her marble.

A child with Theory of Mind will realise that Sally doesn't know that Ann has played a trick on her, and will therefore look in her own box for her marble, and discover it missing. But a child lacking in Theory of Mind will only see the situation from her own point of view, and suggest that Sally look for the marble where it actually is: in Ann's box.

Very small children will not be able to guess correctly in this test, since Theory of Mind takes time to develop, but most children should be able to do the test by 6 or 7 years old at the latest and some as young as three years old can. However, it is thought that most children with ASDs will not be able to complete the test, and many AC adults cannot.

But, this test should not be taken as an infallible test for ASDs. Some intelligent ACs can do the test simply by logical deduction, without truly having this mysterious ability of "Theory of Mind". Most people of low intelligence will not be able to do the test, even though they may be otherwise very sociable, such as people with Down's Syndrome. People with another disability, William's Syndrome are exceptional in their ability to do this test, despite apparently low, functional intelligence.

So, whilst this test may be interesting, it doesn't necessarily tell us anything we couldn't tell by observation. But you are welcome to your own opinions - this discussion is one which will run and run!

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