Lying, Theory of Mind and Autism
Updated: Apr 9, 2020
Lying is difficult for many children and adults with autism to understand and to do. Many individuals with autism are known to be direct and to ‘tell things as they are’.
We all respect honest people and we generally don't encourage others to lie.
However, the lack of lying or an inability to lie is not the norm. It could be socially inappropriate in some circumstances (such as when receiving an unwanted gift).
When we don’t like a present, we usually pretend that we do. We don’t want to hurt the feelings of the person who has given us the gift. In other words we tell a white lie. In this particular situation, a person with autism might openly state that they do not like the present or ask why the other person bought it for them.
The reason why people with autism have difficulty lying is closely linked to ‘theory of mind.’ Many individuals with autism have difficulty understanding that other people have their own thoughts, feelings, opinions, plans and perspectives (that can be quite different from their own). They might also assume that the other person already knows their thoughts, feelings, plans, etc.
In order to tell a white lie in the unwanted present situation, the individual with autism would have to be aware of two different perspectives – the true perspective (e.g., “I really don’t like this present”) and the ‘false’ perspective (e.g., “I really like this present, thank you”). They would also need to understand that the person who gave the gift might be hurt or offended if they are told the true perspective. Another thing they would need to understand is that the other person does not already know what they are thinking e.g. that they do not like or want the present.
Lying is cognitively quite complex. When an individual with autism begins to start telling lies, it can lead to additional problems and worries as it does when children who do not have autism begin to do so. At the same time, when a child with autism starts telling lies (particularly little white ones), they have reached a new cognitive milestone which could be seen as a reason to celebrate!
Did you know that the apps Inference Pics and Empathy Pics have been especially designed for working on theory of mind with children and adults with autism?
Inference Pics focuses on social inferencing (finding social clues in pictures, understanding facial expressions and body language). Try it for free with Inference Pics Lite.
Empathy Pics works on the ability to take the other person’s perspective and make appropriate comments with that in mind.