4 Problems with Theory of Mind Assessment for Children with Autism

Traditional Theory of Mind measures often present a series of assessment dilemmas for clinicians. However, through an innovative and updated approach to this tool we can overcome these limitations. Below are a few examples of common problems you may encounter along with their solutions as presented in our course, Theory of Mind for Children with Autism.

Real World Application

“A Theory of Mind test is just another standardized test: It doesn’t tell me what the kiddo knows about Theory of Mind in the real world!”

This hits the nail on the head! We hear this a lot! Usually the concern goes something like this: You work with a child with ASD with high verbal and intellectual skills and she sails through all your tests of Theory of Mind (or social communication or pragmatic inferencing) but all the while you know this child doesn’t ‘get’ Theory of Mind in real life settings and situations. This is known as a problem with ‘social’ or ‘ecological’ validity and it is a legitimate concern with all existing measures of Theory of Mind. However, a new Theory of Mind assessment tool is available which addresses this age-old problem. To understand and apply it in everyday practice, jump into our course series on Theory of Mind.

Questionable Results

“I gave a test but I don’t trust the results!”

You are right to have doubts! Sometimes we worry that the child gives incorrect answers on a test even though they ‘really know this stuff’. Maybe we chalk it up to fatigue, test anxiety, or lack of attention, motivation, or language and intellectual skills. At any rate, there is an easy way around this: choose a method of assessment that does not rely on child performance!

Nonverbal Children

“I can’t find a Theory of Mind test to use with a nonverbal child!”

That’s because there weren’t any – until now! It’s pretty astonishing that nothing existed for nonverbal children, especially considering:

  1. Theory of mind is considered central to the condition of autism spectrum disorder, and;
  2. In ‘classic autism’, more than half of those affected develop no appreciable productive language.

Putting these together it, “…means that theory of mind deficits in autism have only been examined in a fraction of sufferers.”1

Pediatric Courses

Limited Measurement

“I gave a Theory of Mind test but I don’t think it measured the right things!”

That’s because (until now) all existing Theory of Mind assessments measured a limited number of Theory of Mind concepts. Some assessments focused on emotion recognition, others focused on false beliefs, and still others focused on pragmatic language. But, there is a LOT MORE to Theory of Mind!

A comprehensive assessment that would allow you to see exactly what a child’s Theory of Mind strengths and challenges are would be ideal. In part 2 of our Theory of Mind series we offer case examples and a deeper look at the clinical application of our innovative approach to Theory of Mind. These concepts may help overcome the limitations of measurement.

Individualized Care

We don’t have the answers to all your burning questions about Theory of Mind, but our course series will find answers to some of your most pressing questions about what to assess and how to get meaningful information to guide your intervention. In the series you will discover new ways to assess Theory of Mind, to create profiles of strength and challenge areas, and to zero in on the most developmentally-appropriate treatment targets for each individual child!

  1. Doherty, M. (2009). Theory of mind: How children understand others’ thoughts and feelings. New York: Psychology Press.