Theory of Mind (ToM) and Social Communication

Theory of Mind (ToM) is defined as “one’s ability to attribute mental states to others, which is necessary to take the perspective of another” ( Pence Turnbull & Justice, 2012, pp. 129). In other words, ToM is the ability to recognize and understand that other people have independent thoughts and feelings that may differ from your own. Individuals with ASD lack typical ToM skills. The lack of ToM may become evident in group play activities, or even class lessons.

ToM is what helps us share and participate in recreational activities with others. Focusing on another person’s wants and needs, and following instructions from another person also involve ToM. Since ToM encompasses all these different aspects of social relationships, it should no longer come to your surprise why a student or community member with ASD has trouble interacting with you or following directions. Take ToM, or the lack thereof, into consideration as you learn about social communication deficits.

Social Communication

ToM is a key piece in the ability to successfully communicate, learn, and interact with others. Social communication encompasses play activities, classroom learning, and even interaction with strangers in the community. Due to deficits in social communication, individuals with ASD often have fewer friendships and play opportunities then their typical peers. Classroom learning can also be challenging in the way of group activities or making inferences. Problem behaviors that function to resolve sensory processing issues or special interest areas can further hurt an individual’s social communication abilities and opportunities among peers.

Joint attention also falls under the umbrella of social communication. You may notice some individuals with ASD avoid eye contact, or avoid participation in the same activity with you. This lack of joint attention can make group activities and classroom lessons difficult for both teacher and student.


Scripting, Social Skills Training, and Technology-aided instruction and intervention are a few evidence-based practices that can aid in improving social communication. Other tools include the Friend 2 Friend and Integrated Play Groups models (Wolfberg et. al., 2014, pp. 180-190). For more information check the evidence-based practice section on this site, as well as the references listed.


Wolfberg, P., McCracken, H., & Tuchel, T. (2014). Fostering play, imagination and friendships with peers: creating a culture of social inclusion. In K. D. Buron & P. Wolfberg,Learners on the Autsim Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators and Related Practitioners (2nd ed., pp. 83-105). Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Winner, M. G. (2014). Social thinking: cognition to enhance communication and learning. In K. D. Buron & P. Wolfberg,Learners on the Autsim Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified Educators and Related Practitioners (2nd ed., pp. 83-105). Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Pence Turnbull, K., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Language development: from theory to practice (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Justice, L. M. (2010). Communication sciences and disorders: a contemporary perspective (2nd. ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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