Monday, November 20, 2006

The Sneaky Bear - Another Example of 'Theory of Mind'?

As I wrote in a previous post, I would suggest that the Bear is at least occasionally demonstrating Theory of Mind, despite some expert opinions that ToM in autistics is impaired, deficient, or non-existent (especially at such a young age). Recently we had another interesting (to me at least) potential example.

From Wikipedia, Theory of Mind is generally described as:

“a specific cognitive capacity: the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own.”


“This theory of mind covers two separate concepts:

1. Gaining the understanding that others also have minds, with different and separate beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions

2. Being able to form operational hypotheses (theories), or mental models, with a degree of accuracy, as to what those beliefs, desires, mental states, and intentions are.“

Based on the the Sally-Ann test, 'normal' children below the age of four and most autistic children (of all ages) do not demonstrate this capability. (The link and also a comment by Camille on the previous ToM post discuss some of the issues with this test.)

A week or so ago, the Bear (who is 3 yrs, 5 mos old) was working with her IBI instructor, and her snack (chopped up pear chunks) was sitting in her bowl, nearby but out of immediate reach. At one point the instructor had to leave the room for a moment. While she was gone, the Bear reached over into the bowl to grab and eat some pear chunks, something that she would never have done while the instructor was present. What was more interesting though is that as the Bear realized that the instructor was returning, she quickly sat back and put her hands down in front of her with a 'butter wouldn't melt in her mouth' look, hiding the fact that she had been reaching into the bowl. It was the gestural equivalent of "I didn't do nuthin'!" To be clear, she didn't merely stop when she sensed that the instructor was returning, but acted in such a way to actually hide her previous actions.

Given the two conditions above, the implication is that:

a) the Bear understood (albeit incorrectly) that the instructor did not know that she had taken some of her snack (i.e. different and separate beliefs and intentions), and

b) that she formed an operational hypothesis that concealment of her actions was a possibility, i.e. that she had knowledge that her instructor might not have and that she might be able to maintain this state of differential knowledge.

As in the previous ToM post, I would suggest - if my interpretation of the Bear's actions is correct - that she is demonstrating that a child diagnostically labeled as ‘autism, at the severe end of the spectrum’ is capable of Theory of Mind, and at a young age. Again, maybe the 'experts' aren't totally correct on this one?


kyra said...

yes yes! it sounds like ToM to me!! the experts don't know what they are talking about truly. not ALL of them, of course, but i'd venture to say, most. especially when they talk about what ASD kids CAN'T do. bear was also doing something naughty! a huge milestones! she was SNEAKING pear! many parents of ASD kids i know of have little celebrations the first time they realize their child told a fib! rah rah for the bear!

Kristina Chew said...

I'm picturing the look on her face because I've seen it with Charlie's----also telling me "Mommy stairs" meaning I'm supposed to go downstairs so he check what's in the refrigerator.

Ian Parker said...

Hi Kyra and Kristina,

Thanks for stopping by.

Re: doing something naughty, I was grinning from ear to ear when I heard the story, as was the instructor.

Re: "Mommy stairs", I think that is hilarious!

So how come we as parents know this and the 'experts' don't?

Wade Rankin said...

We've all seen this kind of thing too often to put any trust in the "experts."

Anonymous said...

Sounds like she's a sneaky one, that bear! Good for her :0)

Little Frog gave me a simmilar example last week. He took a cup of water into the livingroom. I thought I heard spitting, so I poked my head around the corner in time to see him spit a mouthful of water onto his bare feet. I asked him what he was doing. He looked at me, took a drink, and walked five forward five steps so he would be hidden behind the sofa before spitting the water again.

btw - when I checked the disk I made for you I found that it didn't copy - tried several times but got the same result. I am experimenting with google to see if I can send you some video via e-mail. Sorry it has taken so long -life got a little out of control :0)

Ian Parker said...

Hi Wade,

I totally agree. I'm regularly amazed at the difference between what I see in the Bear vs. what I've been led to expect. Sometimes I think the experts must be studying that 'other' autism.

Hi Frog's Mom,

That's hilarious (from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have to clean your floor). It just goes to show again that our kids are capable of much more than they’re given credit for (including but not limited to ToM). Re: the disk, I’ll follow up elsewhere. Thanks.

Both, thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

I like nothing better than taking pot shots at the theory of mind, but I have to admit that the way it manifests itself is open to interpretation.

Ian Parker said...

Hi McEwen,

I also like taking shots at ToM. I wouldn't suggest that ToM in autistics - at the level of an ability to intuit the thoughts and feelings of others - is working at an NT level (or that ToM in NTs is always working at an NT level), or that autistics don't have difficulty with ToM. But I do have issues with the idea that autistics do not have ToM or that they cannot develop it to varying degrees of competence.

FWIW, my ToM - in terms of the ability to read the feelings of others - isn't working at 100% either. I tend to read others more 'cognitively' than 'intuitively', but I think I eventually 'get it' most of the time, and I'm VERY aware that others do not see the world the same way that I do.