Very frequently, effort is focused on teaching autistic and other neurodivergent people to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling. For instance, we show them pictures of faces and ask them to identify how someone feels. Training their Theory of Mind may have a certain benefit, but shouldn’t we rather start helping them to understand their own mental and emotional life first?
Research indicates that in order to understand the inner life of other people, including their thoughts, their emotions, their intentions, you need to understand your own inner experience first. This Theory of Own Mind is very important yet is rarely emphasized in the supports provided. How much sense does it make to teach a child to say ‘happy’ when we present them with a happy face, if that child does not concretely understand what ‘happy’ means and how it feels? Or is it really fair to emphasize the impact neurodivergents have on the feelings of others, when they don’t have the underlying understanding of their own emotions first.
Interoception lies at the base of understanding our own body and mind, so becomes an important consideration in the development of Theory of Own Mind.
Because of the different way autistic brains process information, even the own body becomes unpredictable and difficult to read for autistic and neurodivergent brains. Having a body that produces a lot of prediction errors interferes with the development of a Theory of Own Mind (I you want to learn more about predictions and prediction errors in autism, see my brand new webinar on autism and the predictive mind). People on the autism spectrum are often strongly focused on their inner body and can sometimes even be overwhelmed by bodily signals, but their interoceptive accuracy is lower compared to neurotypical people. This means they have difficulties understanding their own bodily signals. And some signals are not even picked up, leading – amongst other things – to issues with eating or toileting. But having a low accuracy combined with an intense focus, known as an interoceptive error (Garfinkel et al., 2016) also leads to anxiety…
Helping autistic and other neurodivergent people to better understand their inner life does not only reduce anxiety, it is also beneficial for developing a positive self-esteem and it is necessary if you we want them to understand and navigate the complex world of emotions.
Together with my good friend Kelly Mahler, I will explore the challenges for children and young people on the autism spectrum in developing a Theory of Own Mind in a new webinar. We’ll present several concrete, evidence-based strategies to support them in learning to read their own minds and ultimately increasing a stronger level of self-understanding and self-appreciation. If you are ready to enhance your ability to better support the needs of the learners you serve, register here today. If you have never met Kelly, you will be blown away. She’s a world expert when it comes to teaching children and youngsters about their own body and she developed an amazing interoception curriculum. Kelly and I are looking forward to seeing you in the course!