The theory of mind is the ability to attribute other’s people beliefs, desires, intentions and feelings, and to understand that our own mental states are different from the ones from other people. Forming second-order representations is essential for developing normal social interactions and it is a capacity that appears at the age of around two years old in kids with normal development.
Autism is characterised by a lack of language skills and the incapacity to have social interactions with others. This is why it is believed that the lack of this theory of mind might be the reason why autistic kids can’t interact socially with others.
Researches have debate whether the social skills issue is due to a general cognitive impairment, or a more specific cognitive mechanism.
Baron-Cohen, L. and F. (1985) developed and experiment that showed that autistic children lack a selective impairment in mentalistic reasoning, the theory of mind, independently of general intelligence or reasoning skills. In other words, they can’s represent other’s people mind states.
In their study, they compared performance in the False Belief task between a group of autistics, normal children and children with Down’s Syndrome. This way, it was possible to see if people with intellectual disabilities and normal kids differ from autistic kids when it comes to attributing other’s people beliefs.
While the normal group and the group of Down’s Syndrome children did well in the task and were able to understand that the other person has a different mind and therefore different thoughts, most of the autistic kids failed.
The researchers concluded that the problem was not general mental retardation, as the Down’s Syndrome group didn’t have an issue doing the task, but instead, it was due to specific mentalistic reasoning. They concluded that these kids lack a theory of mind that prevents them to understand that others have a different mental representation and therefore different beliefs, thoughts, and intentions.
Failing to show a theory of mind and the ability to attribute other’s people beliefs seems to be the reason behind problems in social development, communication, empathy, imitation and pretend play.
To conclude, whereas normal children develop a theory of mind at the age of two that allows them to create second-order representations, essential for social development, autistic kids seem to fail in developing this theory of mind, and this might be the reason why they lack social skills.