12/23/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Guess What's on a Child's Mind

It's one of those things that can drive you crazy, as a parent.

"Look mommy."


"Here, I'm holding it in my hand, can't you see it?"

"Honey, I'm driving, I can't turn my head to look."

"Here, I'm holding it up high so you can see."

"But I don't have eyes in the back of my head."

When children are very young, they have a hard time seeing a different point of view than their own. Most young children seem like that for the first years of their lives. It takes a long time for them to realize their view of the world is different than others'.

It's called theory of mind, a fascinating aspect of psychology, that is well demonstrated when you ask a young child to show you a drawing, and they hold it up with the picture facing them. They see it, and so infer that you do, too. Once theory of mind (TOM) sinks in, the child will turn the picture so it faces outwards -- towards the other observer.

When your child has autistic spectrum disorder, like my six year old son, they are usually later than most children in "learning" theory of mind. In fact, it might be that some autistic people don't posses this deep understanding at all, or at least don't have the ability to show it. People often "translate" it as lack of empathy, but really, it is not.

Therapists work hard to help a child develop theory of mind. Sometimes the way there is hard.You have to struggle not to come to your child's side, stand shoulder to shoulder with them and see their point of view. You want to, so they know you understand them; to make life easy for them. But at a certain stage, you have to hold back. It's the same as with basic communication: therapists tell you not to guess what your child wants, but to wait for them to ask. The slight frustration, the conflict that might arise gives the child motivation to communicate.

When I'm driving, I have no choice but to decline to take my child's point of view. I can't leave the wheel and climb to the back sit and look at whatever my child wants to show me. That is one way of practicing TOM -- forcing it down his throat, with the justification, "safety first."

Other ways are through games, like "Guess Who?" where one player tries to guess the other player's intentions.

When you can trust your child with a camera it can also be a good tool to show them points of view. To my amusement, I discovered that the thing most common for children to snap picture of when they first get their hands on a camera is... their feet.


Another way is through imaginary or symbolic play: you take your child's favorite action figures or stuffed toys, and you act a situation through them. For me, it is one of the most involved and effective ways to go over psychological and emotional barriers like the one theory of mind presents. The inspiration for this is from the DIR/Floortime approach to therapy for autism, which emphasizes, basically,meeting the child at his developmental level, and challenging them to move up.

In my next post I will tell more of this amazing "tool", but for now, I would recommend "staging" a situation where one character has a problem seeing the other's point of view. Make a comedy of errors out of it, exaggerate as much as possible. If you have a hard time "writing a script" for the imaginary game, just re-enact the situation you found challenging with your child the last time it happened.

The other day, my son, who turned six last month, and is now integrated in a regular kindergarten, told me the children in his group don't like Diego (the TV character from Go, Diego, Go!, Dora the
Explorer's cousin).

"But I thought you liked Diego," I said to him.

He paused for a while, for what seemed like an effort to arrange the words.

"When I'm with my friends, I don't like Diego, but when I'm alone, I like him."

This stunning declaration of conformity brought a huge smile to my face, because it told me Tal has reached an important milestone in theory of mind; he could differentiate between the others' minds and his own; he realized what is considered a social norm; and he decided to adhere to the norm.

I realize this sounds like bowing down to herd mentality, but as I've written in a previous post , some things autistic children do, which otherwise would have been thought as undesirable (like lying), are welcome because they point to progress and development.

Tal hasn't noticed my smile. Sometime, when he does notice that people express something that is not consistent with his point of view, he stops them short and asks: "why are you laughing?", "mom, why did you say 'ouch'?"

He doesn't always understand or likes the answers, but at least he's asking the questions.