Theory of Mind in Autism Spectrum Disorders: A Case Study Describing an Intervention to Teach ToM Concepts

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Vieira, Michelle C. L.
Autism , Theory of Mind , Applied Behavior Analysis , Education
Individuals with autism have been shown to have specific delays in the development of a theory of mind (ToM), which refers to the process of attributing mental states to self and to others in order to explain and predict behaviour. The overall purpose of this project is to provide an accessible account of a multi-year intervention, based on strategies consistent with applied behavior analysis (ABA), designed to improve the social development and theory of mind functioning of an 11-year old male student with autism spectrum disorder. An ethnographic account introduces readers to Kenny, a boy diagnosed with autism, and provides the context for understanding how the intervention was individualized to both consider his strengths and to address his needs. Based on the analysis of interview, questionnaire, and direct observational data obtained during a three week study period, four themes emerged as significant for reporting on the participant’s development. First, findings support the conclusion that it is critical for ToM interventions to be tailored to individuals in order to maintain motivation and ensure participation. Second, data supports that through the use of ABA techniques, the participant was able to develop social language skills, such as asking Wh- questions. Third, data supports the finding that Kenny’s peers enjoyed participating in the intervention activities, and that in many ways, they became his social teachers. Fourth, data supports that Kenny displayed meaningful improvements in his social development, and theory of mind functioning, after participating in the intervention. Specifically, interviewees observed dramatic increases in (a) his level of social awareness, and (b) the frequency of his social interactions with peers. Recommendations are made for educators who may be considering incorporating ToM programming for their students with ASD.
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