10 Tips for HFA

Developing Theory of mind and problem solving skills can be a challenge for kids with High Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome: These skills impact on social interactions, friendships and behaviour but kids can be supported to develop their skills in these areas.

Theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have different knowledge, thoughts and feelings to our own. Theory of mind is important for communicating effectively, developing social skills and empathy. Children develop theory of mind over time and this can be particularly difficult for children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome.

What is theory of mind?

Research done in the 1980's tested children’s theory of mind by showing children some pencils and then placing the pencils in an empty Smartie packet. Another person would then enter the room and the child would be asked what the visitor thought was in the box. Children who had developed theory of mind would know that the new person would think the box had Smarties inside, because they had not seen the pencils.

Children who had not yet developed theory of mind would say the person thought there were pencils in the box because that was what they, themselves knew. Typically developing children could see the other person's perspective by 4 years of age, while children on the autism spectrum were around 6 years of age before they understood this task.

More recent studies used more complex tasks to assess older children and adults and found that all people on the autism spectrum found these tasks difficult even those with very high intelligence.

Understanding theory of mind requires a number of skills:

  • understanding facial expressions and emotions

  • relating what is seen or said to the context in which it happens

  • relating previous experience to what is happening

  • taking into account what you know about the other person and their knowledge and life experience

Even with all this information there is an element of "filling in the gaps", inferring information that is not known as a fact that typically developing children do with little effort but those on the autism spectrum find very difficult.

Some behaviours you may see in children who have not yet developed theory of mind may include:

  • A child who cries but does not try to tell you what they want because they think you know

  • A child who does not tell the teacher that the other child hit them first because they do not realise that the teacher did not see it happen

  • A child who has difficulty telling about what they did at school because they think the parent has the same knowledge of what happened that they do

  • A child (or adult) who talks endlessly about dinosaurs because they find them interesting and do not realise that others are not so interested

  • A child who laughs when another child falls over because it looks funny and they do not understand that the other child is hurt

  • A child who is blunt and direct to others, not realising that what they say may hurt another's feelings

  • A child who is set up by others that they think are their friend because they cannot read the child's intentions

To help your child develop theory of mind you can try:

1. Teaching your child to understand emotions and facial expressions.

2. Using barrier games to help your child develop an understanding that other people's knowledge is different to theirs and that they need to take this into account when giving information to others.

3. Talking aloud to your child about your thoughts and feelings and comparing it with theirs. "I am feeling hungry because I did not have a snack. You had a snack, are you hungry?"

4. Using lots of "cognitive verbs" when talking to your child, watching movies or reading stories together. These are words that describe what is happening in your head, like think, feel, wonder, decide, imagine.

5. Talk to your child about how different people have different thoughts, feelings and interests. "You like trains so you are having fun, but your sister does not like trains so much so she is a bit bored with this long trip". You can use social stories and visuals to reinforce these ideas.

6. You can draw faces and thought bubbles with older children to show that people have different thoughts about the same thing.

7. You can draw a face with a thought and speech bubble to show your child that people can think and say different things, such as you may say "I like your hat grandma" while thinking "Grandma will feel hurt if I say I do not like her new hat".

Problem solving is important for daily living and social situations too and it can also be difficult for children with ASD. Solving problems requires higher level thinking and language skills. We need to solve problems as we deal with learning, daily life and social situations.

Children may have difficulties if:

  • The problem is new or unique

  • The child has difficulties with understanding meaning, vocabulary or concepts associated with the problem.

  • The child has difficulty with higher level or abstract thinking

  • The child has difficulty understanding the perspective of others (theory of mind).

Problem solving skills include:

  • Predicting “What will happen…?”

  • Stating opinions “I think…….”

  • Formulating conclusions “What happened is….”

  • Questioning “What, where, who?”

  • Making inferences “I think this ….”

  • Determining causes “Why?”

  • Sequencing “This happened, then…..”

  • Comprehending negative questions “Why didn’t….?”

To help children develop their problem solving skills you can work through problems with them using these questions as a framework for each step along the way. Some kids may need some help to answer abstract questions.

Define the problem

  • What happened?

  • How does each person feel?

  • What does each person want?

Analyse the problem

  • How do we know that…?

  • What happened first, next, last?

  • Why did this happen?

  • What did each person want or need?

  • What did each person do?

  • What did each person say?

  • How did each person feel?

Generate solutions

  • What could we/he/they do?

  • What could we/he/they say?

  • What things could meet these needs/wants?

  • What things would help these feelings?

Analyse solutions

  • What might happen?

  • What would come next?

  • What could happen if?

  • How would he/you feel if?

Choose a solution

  • Why could/should we….?

  • Why could/couldn’t we…..?

  • What would happen if….?

Plan the solution

  • What do we do?

  • What should we do next?

Evaluate the solution

  • What happened?

  • How does each person feel?

  • What does each person want?

  • How do we know that…?

  • How are things different?

  • What could we do differently next time?

To practice using this model you can:

8. Apply the problem solving model to situations in books. This works well if your child has a strong interest in a certain book series or character, such as Harry Potter or Captain Underpants. Some pictures books work well for younger children, for example the books by Patricia Allen such as "Who sank the boat" and "Alexander's outing" work well.

9. Apply the model to situations in movies. Again you will get the best response if your choose movies or characters that your child loves and knows really well. Talk though the model and for older kids make a chart and write down some key points.

10. Apply the model in real life situations. If you child has a real life dilemma try to work through the model together to come up with a solution.

This will be easier if you have practiced using some book or movie scenarios first. It 's always harder to think objectively when there are emotions involved. If you child has had practice thinking through how Batman solved a problem he may be more willing to work through what to do about his little sister wanting to play on the X box at the same time as he does.

When kids are involved in the problem solving process they are more likely to want to follow though with the solution. If the solution works they are more likely to respond more calmly and in a more thoughtful win-win way the next time a problem comes up (hopefully).

If you are concerned about your child's communication skills, social skills or learning check our website to see how Talking Matters may be able to help. For more ideas and resources for developing children's speech, language, learning and social skills check the resources section on our website and our extensive pintrest page. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter so you don't miss out on what's happening.

For more information about autism and Asperger's check Our website. If you are concerned about your child's skills Talking Matters provides assessment for autism spectrum disorders as well as speech pathology, occupational therapy, psychology and has an autism consultant to support parents with day to day challenges.

Jo Brenecki

Speech Pathologist

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