Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 26, 1889 in Vienna, Austria to an affluent family. Three of his brothers committed suicide and Wittgenstein himself considered the same. He gave away his family fortune and pursued several professions (e.g., gardener, teacher) in Vienna until emigrating to England in 1929. From 1939 to 1947 Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge working in widely different areas of philosophy: logic, mathematics, mind, and language. Many consider him the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.
Wittgenstein studied the use of language and the actions into which words were woven. One of his famous thought experiments was that of a beetle in a box. Imagine a group of people each having an object (e.g., beetle) in a box but lacking the ability to show each other the content of the box. If somebody said that his or her beetle was red we could only accept that fact based on what that person said. They could also say that their beetle’s behavior was “cariki”. You may say that your beetle’s behavior was not “cariki” but rather “bottingo”. Words based on subjective experience may be meaningless to others. Words acquire meaning in this regard by sharing what we have learned through public experience.
Wittgenstein parable of the beetle in the box debunks Theory of Mind in autism. The singular meaning that we ascribe to our beetles would be meaningless if we lacked the ability to share the same. In essence we are taught the meaning of language terms from other people. Whenever an autistic individual properly uses and displays shared understanding of language terms involving emotions and beliefs, as examples, he/she has gained access to the inner realm of others’ experiences.
Theory of Mind is something learned by observing the behaviors of others. It is not the result of telepathy. We learn about “love” by how others behave when they are in love. Although behaviors can be reinterpreted and have limitations they tend to dictate when love happens and when it doesn’t. The problem is that no behavioral description of actions will ever be complete. Being fidgety may be a sign somebody is in love, but another person may be anxious, frustrated, or even angry. We can add or reinterpret actions. This is why psychoanalysis, for me, is seriously flawed. Psychoanalysis usually reflects the world point of view of the psychiatrist rather than the patient.
The concept of Theory of Mind is functionally defined. Theory of Mind is triggered and currently tested by behaviors (see the Sally-Anne test, http://bit.ly/1tpyiLM). A prominent researcher once said that Temple Grandin was not autistic because she lacked Theory of Mind. She based this fact on an autobiographical account of Temple, who claimed, in one of her books, having been proficient at playing hide and seek with her friends. The real problem was that the researcher was trying to encase a definition of autism into her preconceived notions.
Theory of Mind proponents have used the Sally-Anne test to prove their ideas. They have used other control groups (i.e., Down syndrome) to claim that results in their series of autistic individuals are not due to cognitive impairment. Unfortunately the tests have not controlled for language impairment or problems related to how we bind together different features of cognition (see http://bit.ly/1pkw1SA). In those cases where autistic individuals are proven to understand quite well what is required of them, they will show proper Theory of Mind.
I will end by repeating my own opinion about Theory of Mind and other psychological theories of autism: “Without hard evidence in terms of neuropathology psychological theories are too malleable, confluent, and easy to paint themselves into a corner. Most psychological theories offer nothing more than common sense. It has been the failure of psychologists not to pursue their theories with neurobiological techniques. Thus far they all remain unidimensional and only offer the perspective of the people that developed them” (see http://bit.ly/1gLrrDD).