Richard Howlin PhD

Using the Foundations of Mindfulness & Neuropsychology in Supporting Individuals of all ages.


Theory of Mind in the Classroom

Richard Howlin


A typical school environment poses many confusing social challenges for the student with Asperger Syndrome (AS).  It is a familiar picture, where social processing difficulties leaves the AS student’s ability to comprehend and respond to social situations fragile and inconsistent.  In parenting a student with AS, it becomes painfully apparent just how much of a typical school day is embedded in social exchanges and unspoken meanings, often leaving their young child perplexed and guessing.

 In a typical picture of Asperger syndrome, a child’s social behavior and thinking idiosyncrasies can be dramatically apparent by age six or seven. In my clinical practice, I have also come to recognize groups of children and adults that represent more socially adept subsets of the AS spectrum. In such “shadow” variations of Asperger Syndrome, atypical social behavior is less pronounced and the young child may be particularly pleasing to adults. Yet parents often recognize some perplexing difficulties in the peer relations and sensory reactions of their child. AS children often thrive on adult company and may at first glance appear socially well integrated. However, closer analysis reveals a dependency on adult compensation and for many AS students, existing as a precocious “small adult” forms a central part of their access to the social world.

A key underlying foundation of this social ability to empathize and interpret non-verbal cues is referred to as “Theory of Mind” (ToM) and is acquired early in development by most children. Typically developing children are, so to speak, “born mind readers”: without apparent effort they learn to observe and predict the behaviors of others within an ongoing shared social experience. For students with AS, this relationship is fragmented. The complex neural networks that facilitate the flow of social assimilation are poorly integrated resulting in a tenuous and often conflicted experience of the social world. The result can be a pattern of awkward gestures, poor eye contact and other non-verbal deficits. Problems in mind reading can be apparent in moments of apparent callousness or rudeness towards other children and parents. During interviews one can be struck by a subtle obliviousness to the emotional dimension of human interactions and an apparent ignorance toward common social conventions. To make matters worse, students with AS have (initially) no real awareness of their social learning disability and this can result in a confused social experiences and a preference for isolated activity.

Problems in theory of mind can also directly affect critical functions in the developing identity of the child such as confidence and motivation (Howlin, 2004). Many of these areas do not lend themselves easily to psychometric assessment and yet their impact on the quality of life can be profound.  It is not hard to imagine the potential ramifications of these difficulties in school adaptation. In the following, I will briefly describe some areas that are common challenges for high functioning autistic children in school settings.

It will become evident that they each represent some manifestation of a basic struggle in grasping the perspective of another’s mind.     


   Social Behavior

Difficulty in play activity is perhaps the most expected and common indicator of poor ToM. Problems in perspective-taking can impact the very core of social experience. The acquisition of social landmarks such as sharing and turn-taking skills and other aspects of cooperation are difficult milestones for the AS child to master. In the world of peers, AS students are usually far from integrated and sometimes struggle to even tolerate peer interactions, waiting for more predictable and calmer situations.  Physical systems such as computers and Lego’s and areas of factual information are preferred. Such activities represent constants, objects that can be manipulated and respond predictably. In contrast, shared experience is a confusing and even threatening endeavor for the AS child and the spontaneous pleasure derived from mutual play experiences is seldom appreciated.

Social isolation can be observed stemming from the AS child’s repeated rejection at their attempts at play. Not understanding the “rules of the game”; the AS child may become bossy or excessively controlling resulting in a predictably rejecting response from peers. Poor mind reading skills leaves the AS child with no interior models with which to develop sharing behavior and typical social etiquette. These are the same neural networks that facilitate self monitoring and modulating of loudness of voice, gestures etc. Thus socially, theory of mind deficits represent a significant obstacle in almost every conceivable aspect of social behavior and social success.

As one might expect, ToM difficulties in older students manifest themselves in the failure to internalize typical social norms and standards common to most adolescents. This can reveal itself in a lack of concern for personal hygiene and grooming. Poor eating behavior can be a common occurrence, as the student seems to lack any “sense’ or value in how they might be perceived. Embarrassment is fundamentally a product of ToM.  As peer social sophistication increases, AS students may find that their blunt comments and conversational awkwardness are less tolerated. Social faux pas such as openly correcting another student can result in rejection, ridicule and bullying. 

This is how diagnosis and identification as a young “Aspie” can form the basis of a constructive narrative for students. Following this juncture, I have found that AS students benefit from supportive “maps” and guide rules in order to negotiate social paths throughout their school career.


   Reading Comprehension:

It should be clear that Theory of Mind is a concept rooted in a dynamic feedback network of social perception, understanding and expressive behavior. It follows that autistic impairments may affect various and less obvious aspects of social engagement that most of us take for granted. The areas of reading comprehension and story assignments are good illustrations. School curriculum is inundated from the early grades onwards in story assignments involving questions such as “Mary asked Robert to change his hat, why did he refuse?”  This taps directly into reading a characters mind, no matter how elementary the task may appear. As reading comprehension tasks become more embedded in inference verses detail analysis, the difficulties for the AS child can significantly increase.  


    Teacher Interactions

Another symptom of ToM issue can reveal itself in rudeness toward the teacher. The AS student has typically only a tenuous internal model of teacher pleasing behavior and respect.  At stressful moments a shocking or obnoxious comment to the teacher can be observed, revealing both poor coping skills and a poorly internalized model of social norms. In the typical aforementioned reading comprehension assignments, when asked to interpret why a character acted in a certain way, it is not unusual for the Asperger student to become infuriated and respond earnestly with a with blunt “How should I know? I am not Robert!” statement.  For most of us, our interior social models mediate such reactions and we are much less vulnerable toward such outbursts. Slowly helping the AS student understand their behavior within the context of Theory of Mind can be an important investment in their social development. This is where a gradual map of autism can be introduced; explaining to the student why this task is so challenging and yet so important.


A similar failure in accessing internalized social scripts can be found on occasions where the AS student is found doggedly and outspokenly holding onto an opinion regardless of whether it may be out of context (while factually correct),  too extreme or unrelated to the general discussion. 



Homework is a less obvious arena impacted by Theory of Mind problems. It provides an illuminating example of how everyday conventions are anchored in shared social meaning and context: the very domains that are not easily understood by the literal, left dominant mind of the AS student. Doing “school work” at home, seems simply illogical and unfair to many AS children. Frustration and obstinacy can quickly enter the situation, resulting in work refusal and power struggles. In this way, ToM can indirectly impact homework completion from the basis of a purely rigid and concrete thinking style.  This notion may appear “far fetched” to some who might react (understandably) from a position of neurotypicality. I have found that for the AS student this issue is invariably legitimate. This does not imply that the AS students should be simply absolved from homework obligations. In fact, the majority of AS students and their parents battle through without any accommodation whatsoever. The autistic perspective is again key towards avoiding that the child be regarded as lazy or manipulative. Helping adults understand how ToM problems can provide insights into work refusal and apparent rigidity can make a profound impact on school work habits

            In some situations I have suggested reduced homework amounts. Perhaps the most successful intervention is to adjust the students schedule so as to allow homework to be completed at school. This is usually productive even if the student has to miss certain break times or stay for a period longer after the day has ended.



          These are some examples of how the struggle with aspects of ToM can affect many important areas of school adaptation.  Problems usually begin early in development and often become more apparent with approaching adolescence. During the emerging teen years, the social world of peers takes its expected dominance and parents become characteristically less involved.  Supporting the AS student’s ability in social understanding  prior to this period may provide the  best possible antidote  to later struggles in understanding age appropriate social gestures and meanings. In sum: a continuing dialogue around social processing, learning styles and brain development, can be a potent force in lessening more troubling adolescent symptoms of ToM deficiencies.