Understanding How Social Cognitive Deficits in ASD’s Masquerade as “Bad” Behavior

So, what does this mean for your child with an ASD?  It means that if they have difficulty representing others mental states, such as yours and others beliefs and desires, it will be very hard for them to predict your and other people’s behavior and react accordingly.

Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1988) go so far as to make a direct association between the triad of weaknesses in ASDs (social functioning, impaired communication and lack of imaginative play) and this single cognitive deficit called Theory of Mind.

Let’s examine how this affects our everyday life with our loved ones with ASDs.

Does your child often interrupt you to talk about what they are thinking about, failing to notice that you are involved with thinking about something else–like cooking dinner or paying the bills or talking on the phone?  As a parent, you can assume they are being rude and purposely interrupting you or you can understand that they think you are thinking about what you are thinking about!  No wonder they get confused and mad when you cut them off.

Does your child speak the same on the playground as they do in the library or church?  Is their voice too loud and are they apparently oblivious to the change of expected behaviors in different environments?  You can assume they are just lacking manners and don’t care about others or you can understand that they do not have the ability to “size-up” the requirements of different environments and think about what others expect and adjust their behavior.

Think for a moment how often we consider what others are thinking about us.  Why do we wear the clothing we wear?  Why do we style our hair the way we do?  Why do we find good hygiene important? Primarily because we think about what other people think about us.  Many of us directly consider what others think of us in choosing our clothing and hygiene habits.  We do not want others to think we are out dated or sloppy.

Now consider that our children with ASDs choose clothing based on comfort and predictability, not style.  Consider that they generally find few good reasons to remember all of their hygiene skills.  Does it make it easier for you to understand why these things aren’t as important to them?  Their primary motivation is not based on thinking about what others think about them.

So, how does ToM relate to behavior?  Many times we believe that our children are willfully displaying “bad” behavior and attribute motives we would have if we behaved that way. When, in fact, there is no willful disobedience behind a “bad” behavior because they haven’t even considered what you will think when they behave in a certain way.  It is simply the result of a ToM cognitive deficit.

Understanding how your child thinks and how efficiently and accurately they can think about others thoughts is very important when teaching appropriate behavior skills.  When we understand that ToM deficits often result in ““bad”” behavior, it makes it easier for us to teach the correct behavior rather than continue to punish the child for displaying ““bad”” behavior.

Theory of Mind skills can be taught in children with ASDs, but individual concepts must be broken down and taught as they are not likely to acquire these skills from tuning in to those around them and learning in ways typically developing children learn.

Next week’s blog will discuss various interventions that have shown promise in teaching ToM to children with ASDs.

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