Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

December 15, 2015

What is Theory of Mind?

By: Lauren Foster, MS, OTD, OTR/L
  • Theory of Mind is the ability to understand another person’s thoughts, plans, perceptions and feelings.
  • People with autism often struggle with understanding what another person is thinking.
  • When people struggle with Theory of Mind they may have challenges understanding social nuances, situations, and relating to others.

Autism is on a spectrum with a wide range of characteristics that vary from person to person. According to the American Psychiatric Association (2013), autism is characterized by deficits in social communication, restricted/repetitive behaviors, interests, or activities.

Some children with autism may also struggle with what’s called, “Theory of Mind,” or the ability to take another person’s perspective. Researchers suggest that Theory of Mind develops within the first five years of life. From a very early age, children learn to think about what others are feeling by watching facial expressions, engaging in back and forth play, and listening to the words they hear.

People with autism can learn to understand what others are thinking if they are provided with enriching and focused activities to work on this skills.  One specific intervention is “social stories.”  Social Stories (developed by Carol Gray) help children with autism understand their social world. Social stories are stories that describe social situations using visuals and words. The stories aim to describe a specific situation and provide clear directions to children, so they can understand what is expected of them.

Parents can also use strategies in their daily activities to foster Theory of Mind development for their children.  Strategies include: 1) talking about what you are feeling, 2) talking about what others may be thinking and 3) providing “rich” environments to foster pretend play.

Other activities for young children include:

  1. Playing “hiding” games (hide-and-seek or peek-a-boo)
  2. Sing songs that include imitation and copying
  3. When creating Social Stories or Social Narratives, make “thought bubbles” that show what the people are doing and thinking.
  4. Play games that require turn-taking
  5. Read books and tell stories – talk about how the characters in the story are feeling
  6. Use language such as, “I have a thought; You have a thought; I feel; etc.”

For specific suggestions for different age levels, check out a great resource HERE.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author. Association, A. P. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

Astington, J.W. & Edward, J. (2010). The development of theory of mind in young children. Retrieved from:

Autism Speaks (2015). Executive Function and Theory of Mind. Retrieved from:


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