What is Mindblindness?
Empathizing; Mentalizing; Mindreading; Perspective taking; Theory of mind
The inability to attribute mental states such as thoughts, desires, knowledge, and intentions to self and others, and to make sense of and predict another person’s behavior.
Mindblindness theory proposes that children and adults with autism spectrum disorders are delayed in the development of what is termed “theory of mind” (ToM). ToM is a cognitive (attribution) component of empathy; the ability to identify cues that indicate the thoughts and feelings of others and “to put oneself into another person’s shoes.” It is also referred to as “mentalizing,” “mindreading,” and “perspective taking.” The ability to reflect on one’s own and other people’s minds (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination and emotions) allows us to interact effectively with others in the social world. Typical individuals are able to mindread relatively easily and intuitively. For example, we can read a person’s facial expression and body language, and tone of voice and recognize his or her thoughts and feelings, and the likely course of behavior. In other words, we interpret, predict, and participate in social interaction automatically, and for the most part, instinctively. This attribution of mental states is a fundamental component of social interaction and communication. An impairment in ToM results in an inability to appreciate other people’s emotions and thoughts, and to make sense of or predict another’s actions. As a consequence, the person with impaired ToM is said to have a form of “mindblindness” or a deficit in “empathizing” ability.
Relevance to Autism:
The concept of ToM and mindblindness has been widely studied over the past two decades and used to explain the development of social cognition and the core social deficits of developmental disorders such as autism. The understanding of other people’s mental states develops early in life and becomes more complex with advancing age. Research suggests that typically developing children, in contrast to those with autism, are born with a set of skills which enable them to comprehend and respond to other people’s mental states and feelings. For example, children can understand relationships between mental states by 3 years of age. By age four, they can understand that people can hold false beliefs (deception). Typical children at age seven begin to understand what not to say to avoid offending others. A typical 9 year old can interpret another person’s facial expressions and figure out what they are thinking or feeling. It is a deficit in this normal process of ToM or empathizing that has the potential to explain the lack of pretend play and the core social and communication problems diagnostic of children with autism. Children with autism are said to lack an effective ToM and thus, have a form of mindblindness. The mindblindness theory has been broadened to include an affective component (emotional reactivity) and a second factor termed systemizing to explain the non-social areas of strength often demonstrated by individuals with autism spectrum conditions. Children with ToM impairment frequently experience academic, behavioral, and emotional problems related to their social skills deficits. Indeed, impairments in social reciprocity are one of the defining characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Consequently, interventions focusing on social adaptive skills are critically important to the treatment of this group of children. While the research on the effectiveness of social skills intervention is still in the formative stage, several programs have been developed to promote prosocial behavior and expand ToM abilities among children with autism spectrum disorders. They include: social stories, computer programs such as Mind Reading: The Interactive Guide to Emotions and The Transporters; ToM teaching programs; and social skills programming.
Wilkinson, L. A. (2011). Mindblindness in Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development, Part 13, 955-956, DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_1795
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a new Volume in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools.