For the three of you who haven’t seen this dress doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, it’s a dress that the brain appears to see as either blue and black or white and gold.

The AuKids co-editors had a right row about this dress. Tori was convinced it was gold and white (on the left and middle) whereas Debby saw it as blue and black, with the left hand picture just being a faded out version of the photograph on the right.

We were each convinced of our own perspective. What caused puzzlement was to be told that others could see it differently. We each assumed that the other saw it in the same way.

We had to be told that there was a different view. Even then we had trouble believing it.

In a concrete way, this dress has shown us non-autistics what it’s like to lack Theory of Mind.

Being able to interpret how others think and feel - or what they know - is called Theory of Mind and it requires flexibility of thought. In our mind’s eye, we are able to jump into someone else’s shoes. People with autism have trouble imagining others’ perspectives. But whereas there are only two ways of seeing this dress, there are countless interpretations of human behaviour.

If we didn’t know that this dress could be seen in different ways, we’d make false assumptions. We’d talk at cross-purposes, Tori would possibly be matching the dress with white shoes and Debby would be assuming she’d had a taste bypass. The key piece of information – the fact that we have different perspectives – would be missing.

This is what often happens with autistic people when they assume that you already know what’s in their own mind and act accordingly. It may look like they aren’t curious to find out more about you. It may seem as if they aren’t interested in why you act the way you do. But it’s because this requires a leap inside the brain that is too hard to make. This is why empathy is difficult for them to show. It doesn’t mean, however, that they lack feeling.

Some researchers point out three distinct abilities within Theory of Mind:

  • · Knowing what someone is seeing

  • · Understanding how they are feeling

  • · Knowing what someone thinks (the most difficult of the three)

Why do people with autism lack Theory of Mind?

Prof Uta Frith

Prof Uta Frith

In her research, Uta Frith found that in autism there is less co-operation between the visual areas of the brain and those areas that process social-emotional information. They just don’t ‘talk to each other’ quite as well as in neuro-typical brains.

That doesn’t mean that autistic people don’t have the same feelings as anyone else or cannot recognise feelings in others. Where they struggle is connecting feelings to causes. Compensating for a lack of Theory of Mind can be really draining as it takes an effort of will to try and understand others’ perspectives.

In fact, as Alis Rowe (aka The Girl with the Curly Hair) puts it ‘We might have less empathy initially than neurotypicals. But this disadvantage actually causes us to work even harder to understand all the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that come intuitively to neurotypicals. Consequently, our capacity for empathy may be much greater than theirs’.

We take for granted our ‘empathic switch’ – the ability to relate to someone else’s state of mind at any moment. We automatically click into that ‘mode’ when we need to. Autistic people need to be given better prompts before they are able to realise how to respond.

Prof Simon Baron-Cohen

Prof Simon Baron-Cohen

A Lack of Theory of Mind is the reason why people with autism are usually better at systems (the ‘systemising’ brain as Simon Baron-Cohen calls it) and tend to be more interested in things or animals than people (unless it’s facts about people). Systems are definite, predictable and structured. Human behaviour is open ended and has almost endless variations.

If you ask someone a question, how do you know what they’ll say back? And if you don’t know, how can you be confident that you’ll respond appropriately? Social situations are overloading and demanding. People aren’t comforting to be around, they’re frightening.

In order to develop your 3D imagination, you firstly have to know that other people think differently to you. Once you’ve realised that, you need to be curious enough to ask what they see and feel.

Reading someone else’s thoughts is far more difficult to learn. If children aren’t taught to assess a situation for themselves and to spot clues in a social context, it can mean that they apply rather rigid conversation rules to situations they recognise.

They might feel the need for a definite script that they can apply, a set of regulations for each situation.

If only life could be scripted...

If only life could be scripted...

But unfortunately, life isn’t a call handling centre. You’d need a million scripts and even then your interaction wouldn’t exactly flow.

As parents, we have a role to play in helping our kids to develop skills where Theory of Mind is lacking.

We need to be crystal clear in our own communications and recognise the mental jumps that might be difficult, putting little conversational bridges down along the way to help them fill in gaps. E.g. “I’m angry right now, and I’m feeling that way because you didn’t do what I asked you to do ten minutes ago”.

Let’s not get too above ourselves, either. If we neurotypicals were so very successful with Theory of Mind, we wouldn’t have any conflict at all. We often do. We don’t always see things from another’s perspective. We don’t always choose to.

Many people don’t use Theory of Mind with autistic people, because what they perceive as lack of empathy or awareness makes them into less sympathetic creatures themselves. This is a sad state of affairs which leaves autistic people more isolated and less understood than ever.

In fact we need to be MORE empathic than people with autism, not less, to allow for social difficulties caused by a Lack of Theory of mind, predict them and be clearer.

Parents tend to use double their empathy skills with their autistic children. It’s high time the rest of the world understood and followed suit.

Further reading:

Groundbreaking : Peter Vermeulen's book explains Theory of Mind in a depth you've never seen before

Groundbreaking: Peter Vermeulen's book explains Theory of Mind in a depth you've never seen before

Peter Vermeulen: Autism Context Blindness (AAPC) – see Review Page 5.

The Autistic Child's Guide: Presenting spark* (Self-regulation Program of Awareness & Resilience in Kids) – Dr Heather MacKenzie (Wired Fox Publications)

Theory of Mind and the Triad of Perspectives on Autism and Asperger Syndrome: A View from the Bridge – Olga Bogdashina (Jessica Kingsley Publishers)

Mindblindness: Essay on Autism and the Theory of Mind (Bradford Books) Simon Baron-Cohen


The Sally-Anne Test

The Sally-Ann Test

The Sally-Ann Test

Researcher Simon Baron-Cohen argues that impairments in the development of a theory of mind may underlie the social, communicative, and imaginative impairments of people with autism since a theory of mind is necessary for normal development in each of these three areas.

In this famous test the child is presented with two dolls (Sally and Anne) a marble, a box and a basket. Sally puts her marble in her basket and leaves the room. Anne then moves the marble from the basket to her box. Sally returns and the child is asked “Where will Sally look for the marble?”

Baron Cohen and his research team found that non-autistic four year-old children could correctly state that Sally would look in her own basket whereas children with autism would point to Anne’s box, suggesting difficulty with theory of mind

The Frith-Happe Animations

These depict two triangles, one large and red and the other small and blue, interacting with one another in increasingly complex ways.

In the most complex animations, they convey social actions - they appear to be fighting, dancing or mocking one another through their motions.

Researchers found that people with autism could recognize and focus on social triangles to the same degree as non-autistic people could and were are even able to adopt the triangles’ perspectives. It’s only at the final stage — correctly interpreting the social interactions — that they falter.