Problems with Object Permanence: Rethinking Traditional Beliefs Associated with Poor Theory of Mind in Autism


  • Wenn B. Lawson ACRC, The University of Queensland, C/O PO Box 5033, Warrnambool, Vic. 3280, Australia
  • Brynn A. Dombroski University of Louisville, College of Education and Human Development, 1905 South 1st Street, Louisville, KY, 40292, USA



Autism, Object Permanence, Theory of Mind, Single Attention, Interest.


Poor Theory of Mind (ToM) (or difficulties imputing mental states to self and others) [1], (See also [2-5]) is often blamed for certain responses and behaviour in autism. However, the Theory of Mind Task Battery requires an understanding of language, the use of cognitive skills, as well as the child’s motivation and attention to complete. All of these factors are either weak or under-developed in individuals with autism suggesting that this is not the best means to measure one’s understanding that other people have their own thoughts, plans, beliefs, or point of view. Behaviours like strong defiance, insistence on sameness, fear associated with sudden change and severe anxiety may be related to difficulties seeing beyond the ‘now’ [6]. This paper suggests that some of the stress and anxiety in the autism population may actually be due to delayed object permanence (OP) (knowing something may still exist even if it is out of sight), which can appear as poor ToM. This delay in establishing OP is governed by single focused attention. For more information on this concept see: Lawson, W. (2011) The passionate mind, JKP:London. Although ToM and OP are defined differently, this paper aims to show the relationship between them and how one concept can influence the other using examples in everyday life to illustrate how poor OP is associated with single focused attention, which detracts from the bigger picture.


Premack D, Woodruff G. Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1978 1; 1(04): 515-26. DOI:

Baron-Cohen S. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. MIT press 1997.

Baron-Cohen S. The empathizing system. Origins of the social mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development 2005; 468-92.

Baron-Cohen S, Leslie AM, Frith U. Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”? Cognition 1985; 21(1): 37-46. DOI:

Leslie AM. Pretense and representation: The origins of" theory of mind." Psychological Review 1987; 94(4): 412. DOI:

Lawson WB, Dombroski BA. Might we be Calling Problems Seen in Autism Spectrum Conditions: ‘Poor Theory of Mind,’ when actually they are related to non-Generalised ‘Object Permanence’? Journal of Intellectual Disability-Diagnosis and Treatment 2015; 3(1): 43-8. DOI:

Grandin T. Thinking in pictures: My life with autism (expanded edition). Vintage Anchor Publishing 2006.

Lawson W. Life behind glass. New South Wales, Australia: Southern Cross University Press 1998.

Belmonte MK, Allen G, Beckel-Mitchener A, Boulanger LM, Carper RA, Webb SJ. Autism and abnormal development of brain connectivity. The Journal of Neuroscience 2004; 24(42): 9228-31. DOI:

Belmonte MK, Cook EH, Anderson GM, Rubenstein JL, Greenough WT, Beckel-Mitchener A, Courchesne E, Boulanger LM, Powell SB, Levitt PR, Perry EK. Autism as a disorder of neural information processing: directions for research and targets for therapy. Molecular Psychiatry 2004; 9(7): 646-63. DOI:

Bertone A, Mottron L, Jelenic P, Faubert J. Enhanced and diminished visuo-spatial information processing in autism depends on stimulus complexity. Brain 2005; 128(10): 2430-41. DOI:

Lawson, W. Autism taking over, (Published thesis) Germany: Lambert 2011.

Murray DKC. Attention tunneling and autism. Shattock P, Linfoot G, Eds. Living with autism: the individual, the family and the professional, Autism Research Unit, University of Sunderland, Sunderland 1992; pp. 89-97.

Lawson W. The passionate mind: how individuals with autism learn 2011.

Happé F, Frith U. The weak coherence account: detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2006; 36(1): 5-25. DOI:

Brandwein AB, Foxe JJ, Butler JS, Russo NN, Altschuler TS, Gomes H, Molholm S. The development of multisensory integration in high-functioning autism: high-density electrical mapping and psychophysical measures reveal impairments in the processing of audiovisual inputs. Cerebral Cortex 2012; bhs109. DOI:

Miller LJ, Schoen SA, Brett-Green B, Reale M, Coll J. Quantitative psychophysiologic evaluation of sensory processing in children with autism spectrum disorders. A final report for cure autism now. Manuscript in Preparation 2005.

Goldstein G, Johnson CR, Minshew NJ. Attentional processes in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 2001; 31(4): 433-40. DOI:

Lawson W. Sensory connection, interest/attention and gamma synchrony in autism or autism, brain connections and preoccupation. Medical Hypotheses 2013; 80(3): 284-8. DOI:

Begeer S, Banerjee R, Rieffe C, Terwogt MM, Potharst E, Stegge H, Koot HM. The understanding and self-reported use of emotional display rules in children with autism spectrum disorders. Cognition & Emotion 2011; 25(5): 947-56. DOI:

Willey LH. Pretending to be Normal: Living with Asperger's Syndrome (Autism Spectrum Disorder) Expanded Edition. Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2014.

Murray D, Lesser M, Lawson W. Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism 2005; 9(2): 139-56. DOI:

Parker E. Inside the Autism Experience 2012.

Purkis J, Williams D. Finding a different kind of normal: Misadventures with Asperger syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2006.

Williams D. Nobody nowhere. Doubleday 1992.

Blackburn R. personal story, Autism Master’s Course, distance education students: Residential weekend talk, University of Birmingham, UK 2011.

Gomot M, Belmonte MK, Bullmore ET, Bernard FA, Baron-Cohen S. Brain hyper-reactivity to auditory novel targets in children with high-functioning autism. Brain 2008; 131(9): 2479-88.

American Psychiatric Association. DSM 5. American Psychiatric Association 2013. DOI:




How to Cite

Lawson, W. B., & Dombroski, B. A. (2017). Problems with Object Permanence: Rethinking Traditional Beliefs Associated with Poor Theory of Mind in Autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability - Diagnosis and Treatment, 5(1), 1–6.



General Articles