Empathy, Theory of mind and Mind blindness in autistic kids

Autistic people have been found to lack the theory of mind. The theory of mind is the ability of one person to visualize what other people are thinking. It is putting yourself in other people’s shoes so that you empathize with them. Children with autism spectrum disorder have been found to lack this empathy. They lack the theory of mind. This lacking is called mind blindness. Mind blindness is even worse in nonverbal autistics since they will not express what they think of a situation

It is not strange to see an autistic kid retelling one story so many times to another kid because they lack this theory of mind that the other party might be getting bored by their repetitive nature. Into adulthood, autistic people might still be unable to relate with others since they lack empathy.

The Sally-Anne Test: Testing mind blindness in autistic kids

theory of mind, mind blindness

The Sally Anne Test is a classic example of an experiment that psychologists have for long used to test whether autistic kids have any empathy. Sally and Anne are two kids playing with a marble. Sally has a basket while Anne has a box.

You can proceed as follows to check for mind blindness.

  1. Ask Sally to step onto the stage where everyone can see her. She has her basket with her. Anne in the meantime should be backstage.
  2. Ask Sally to put the marble in her basket and then leave the basket on a table which everyone should be able to see.
  3. Ask her to leave the stage and instruct Anne to step in.
  4. Ask Anne to take the marble out of Sally’s basket and put it in her box.
  5. Let her leave the box on another table.
  6. Let her leave and Sally to come back.
  7. Sally wants to look for her marble.
  8. Ask the kids where they expect Sally to look for her marble


Some kids will either answer ‘the box’ or ‘the basket’.


Kids who expect Sally to look for the marble in the box are either too young, below four years or autistic.

Kids who answer that Sally that they expect to look for the marble in her basket display the theory of mind. They are putting themselves in Sally’s shoes who thinks that the marble is in the basket where she left it at.

Autistic kids, no matter the age, will display lack of the theory of mind. They expect that Sally knows that her marble is inside Anne’s box. Those who are not autistic will expect that Sally look for her marble inside her basket.

Critique of the Sally-Anne Test To Show Mind Blindness in Autism

  1. The Sally-Anne test for showing mind blindness or lack of the theory of mind in autistic kids has been criticized since children who have language impairment or intellectual disability were also shown to lack the theory of mind and would point out that Sally should look for her marble in Ann’s box. Therefore the test cannot be used to determine whether only autistic kids lack the theory of mind.

2. The theory of mind test can only be used on kids older than 4 years. Young kids, even non-autistics lack the intellectual ability to judge that Sally will look for her marble in her basket.


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