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Home > About Autism > Thinking Styles > Impaired Theory of Mind

Impaired Theory of Mind



Simply put, this theory suggests that individuals on the spectrum have difficulty in appreciating that others have thoughts, feelings, beliefs and mental states that are unique to them. In individuals who are typically developing this cognitive mechanism begins to develop around 4 years of age. The now seminal research of Baron-Cohen, Frith and Leslie (1985) focused attention on the relevance of this mechanism. It has been influential in developing our understanding of individuals on the autism spectrum (Roth, 2010)


Susan is 7 and has autism. She is doing well in school but will, periodically become very upset and rips up her school work. Her teacher has worked out that this usually happens when she is stuck and needs help. Susan does not know that she needs to indicate to the teacher that she needs help. Her distress is born of frustration as she does not know that the teacher will not appreciate she needs help unless she asks for it and she becomes anxious upset when it is not forthcoming.

James is 11 and has Asperger’s syndrome. He has a strong interest in Dr Who and consequently has a vast knowledge related to it. Often he will ask others detailed questions about Dr Who. James sometimes gets frustrated and exasperated if others do not know the answers. He often responds by telling them that the answers are “obvious” and that they are “idiots”.