A few months ago our staff attended The Annual Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, DC. While there, a speaker named Diana Tamir presented her research on theory of mind in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).
Tamir says, “theory of mind — the capacity to infer others’ mental states — is crucial for the development of social communication.” She showed that when reading fiction, people can experience what others are feeling beyond their own emotional state. Research done by Atsushi Senju supported her idea, demonstrating that the lack of theory of mind in children with ASDs may “relate to impairment in social interaction and communication found in ASD.” 
So what does this mean?
Individuals who may not have strong theory of mind (capacity to understand or predict another’s emotions or actions) may be more apt to have an autism diagnosis.
Tamir points out that reading fiction has been shown to increase a child’s theory of mind because it can draw out emotions from the reader through characters and events. Picking up a great book is an indirect way to stimulate social interaction: it can help develop larger imaginations and, over time, teach individuals how to predict social cues without immersing them in what could be an uncomfortable face-to-face situation.
Tamir’s research focused on two things: the extent to which vivid physical scenes are pictured while reading, and the mental content of the reader. Her results showed that the participants who read the most fiction demonstrated the most enhanced theory of mind. So, if reading can stimulate emotions and help improve the ability to understand another’s perspective, this is a great tool for children and adults with ASD to improve their social perception.
Just watching a narrative on television or at the movies won’t cut it: videos allow the audience to focus their attention on whatever he or she likes, but books require the audience to focus on precisely what the author is trying to convey.
Luckily for parents and educators, books are available on intermediate tools like iPads and Kindles. We don’t have to pry our kids from the stimulating TV screen; we can transition them to another media app. (Did you catch my last blog post on apps?)
While there isn’t a ton of completed research out there about reading and theory of mind, we can say this: it is important to read for any child, more than many may have ever thought before.
We will keep you updated on Tamir’s fascinating reading research as it develops. In the meantime, start turning some pages!
Not sure what books to pick up? Here are a few great links to other blogs and websites that describe books their children enjoyed reading and were a fun and exciting read.
– Taylor Platt
For Kids: http://www.beagooddad.com/237/good-books-for-children-with-autism/
For Special Needs: http://www.bookskidslove.com/specialneeds.htm
For Adults and Young Adults: http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6642883.html
Find anything at Amazon: http://tinyurl.com/6wczzdh
1. Senju A. Spontaneous Theory of Mind and Its Absence in Autism Spectrum Disorders [Internet]. The Neuroscientist: A Review Journal Bringing Neurobiology, Neurology and Psychiatry 2011 May;[cited 2011 Dec 2] Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21609942
2. Mar RA, Oatley K, Djikic M, Mullin J. Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cogn Emot 2011 Aug;25(5):818-833.[cited 2011 Dec 2 ]
3. D.I Tamir, A.B Bricker, J.P Mitchell. Reading fiction improves reading minds: The role of the default network .Program No. 430.05 2011 Neuroscience Meeting Planner. Washington, DC: Society for Neuroscience, 2011. Online.