Theory of Mind and Social Informant Discrepancy in Autism




The world of social interaction can be a complex and nuanced one, even for neurotypical individuals. For those on the autism spectrum, navigating social cues, understanding unspoken emotions, and interpreting intentions can present significant challenges. This is further amplified by a potential disconnect between how autistic individuals perceive their own social skills and how others, particularly close caregivers, view them. This gap is known as social informant discrepancy.


A recent study published in March 2024 tackles this intriguing topic, exploring the potential link between social informant discrepancy and “Theory of Mind” in autism. But before we delve into the research, let’s unpack these key concepts.


Demystifying Theory of Mind: The Power of Perspective-Taking


Theory of Mind (ToM) is a cognitive ability that allows us to understand that others have distinct mental states – thoughts, feelings, and intentions – different from our own. It’s like having a mental superpower that lets us see the world through someone else’s eyes. With ToM, we can predict how someone might react in a situation, explain their behavior based on their internal world, and ultimately, build stronger social connections.


The Discrepancy Unveiled: Self-Perception vs. Parental Evaluation


The March 2024 study investigated social informant discrepancy in autistic adolescents aged 11-17. Researchers compared how these adolescents perceived their social skills with how their parents evaluated them. The findings revealed an interesting pattern: autistic individuals generally rated their social abilities more positively compared to their parents’ assessment. This highlights a significant discrepancy, where self-perception diverges from the perspective of a close informant.


Theory of Mind as a Missing Puzzle Piece?


The study then explored the possibility that difficulties with Theory of Mind might contribute to the observed social informant discrepancy. Since ToM allows us to understand how others might perceive us, deficits in this area could lead to an inflated or inaccurate self-assessment of social skills in autistic individuals.


The research suggests a negative correlation between parent-reported Theory of Mind scores and the magnitude of the social informant discrepancy. In other words, autistic adolescents with lower ToM scores, as reported by parents, exhibited a larger gap between their own perception and their parents’ judgement of their social skills.


Beyond the Study: Implications for Understanding and Intervention


This research offers valuable insights into the social cognition of autistic individuals. By acknowledging the potential role of Theory of Mind in social informant discrepancy, we can move towards more targeted interventions. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Importance of Multifaceted Assessment: When evaluating social skills in autism, considering both self-perception and external perspectives (parents, teachers) is crucial for a comprehensive understanding.
  • Bridging the Gap: Interventions that address both social skills development and self-awareness training, potentially incorporating exercises that enhance Theory of Mind abilities, could be beneficial for autistic individuals.
  • Individualized Approach: Autism manifests differently in each person. Future research with larger and more diverse samples can further solidify these findings and explore the specific aspects of Theory of Mind that contribute to the social informant discrepancy for different autistic profiles.


This study sheds light on the complexities of social interaction in autism. It highlights the importance of considering multiple perspectives and provides a foundation for developing more effective support strategies. Ultimately, by understanding the challenges faced by autistic individuals in navigating the social world, we can work towards fostering greater social inclusion and improving their quality of life.



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