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5618 Tune In with Books: Developing An Understanding of the Mind Through Reading [ASHA Session]

Friday, July 8, 2011: 3:15 PM-4:30 PM
Miami 1 (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)
Children with ASD have both strengths and challenges in the area of literacy. They may know the alphabet and/or be able to read some words while still having difficulty in understanding the story. These comprehension challenges lie in a specific weakness in children with ASD - i.e. the development of a theory-of-mind, which gives children the ability to understand other peoples’ points of view. This presentation describes how to help children develop a theory of mind through interactive book reading. Most high-functioning people with autism have social difficulties that are related to their challenges in understanding how other people think. Having the ability to tune in to what other people are thinking (often referred to as having a “theory-of-mind,”) is central to a child’s ability to have successful interpersonal relationships because it enables him to adjust his behavior based on how he thinks others will feel about what he does and says. 

This difficulty in taking another person’s point of into consideration also manifests itself in the reading comprehension difficulties many children on the spectrum experience. Studies have demonstrated a paradoxical combination of good word identification with poor comprehension in these children.  Understanding stories requires children to think along with the character and predict what the character will feel and do based on his situation. In other words, making sense of books requires a well-developed theory of mind.

Despite the abundance of research that clearly shows that theory of mind (ToM) ─the ability to “tune in” to the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others ─ is one ofthe core deficits in individuals with ASD “experience suggests that theory of mind is rarely considered in decision making processes surrounding the healthand education of individuals with ASD (e.g.,when developing goals for therapy, drafting individual education plans, or selecting measurable outcomes (Hutchins & Prelock, 2008). To meet this need, I developed TalkAbility a parent program designed to teach parents how they can promote theory-of-mind development in their young children aged 3-7 years. Like all Hanen programs, TalkAbilityTM is based on principles that are consistent with best practice recommendations: involving parents as early as possible in their child's intervention program and facilitating communication in naturalistic contexts.  And, like all Hanen Programs, TalkAbility’s content draws from the most up-to-date research on what helps these children develop their social skills, especially in the area of empathy and perspective-taking.

This presentation will focus on how parents in the Hanen Centre’s TalkAbility Program learn to use book reading to facilitate the development of a theory of mind and in so doing help children’s understanding of the book.  The attendees will hear about the wide body of research which shows there are two major factors influencing the development of a theory-of-mind or “tuning-in” skills, as they are called in the TalkAbility Program.. The first factor is parental input. Parents who talk about the desires and beliefs of others (i.e., use mental state utterances) encourage their children to think in this way. The second factor is related to the child’s expressive language – i.e. the acquisition of the necessary grammatical structures for talking about the mind drives children’s ability to think about the mind (de Villiers , J., 2000). To put it simply, children who have grammatical structures such as “he thinks that…”, “he knows that” or “he remembers” have the tools to talk about what’s going on in the minds of others). Although people sometimes think that language maps onto non-linguistic concepts (such as the thoughts and feelings of others), research shows that children with autism often need language to develop those concepts (De Villiers, J., 2000).

While the presentation will focus on children on the autism spectrum aged 3 -7 years of age, the information will be applicable to all individuals on the spectrum. The presentation will include:

  • A description of the strengths and challenges in reading that children on the autism spectrum have
  • A description of the developmental stages of “tuning in” to the thoughts of others
  • A discussion of the kinds of books that facilitate the acquisition of a theory of mind in young children
  • Videotaped examples to illustrate the conversational strategies that parents/caregivers/educators can use to help a child move through the stages of “tuning in” while involved in interactive reading books together.


De Villiers, J. (2000). Language and theory of mind: What are the developmental relationships? In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg & D.J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (pp. 83–123). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hutchins, T. & Prelock, P. (2008). Supporting Theory of Mind Development: Considerations and Recommendations for Professionals Providing Services to Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder; Topics in Language Disorders Vol. 28, No. 4, pp. 340–364.

Learning Objectives:

  • Attendees will be able to describe how the development of theory of mind is related to comprehension and social skills
  • Attendees will be able to identify the order in which young children develop a theory of mind
  • Attendees will be able to use books to foster the development of theory of mind n children with ASD

Content Area: Social Skills


Fern Sussman, B.A., DSPA
Director of Hanen Parent Programs for Families with Children with ASD
The Hanen Centre

Fern Sussman is a speech-language pathologist with over 30 years of clinical expertise in supporting children with social communication disorders. She developed two programs for the Hanen Centre in Toronto to meet the needs of children with ASD. Fern is the author of the More Than Words and TalkAbility guidebooks.