Autistic people are often described as being impaired with regard to theory of mind, though more recent literature finds flaws in the theory of mind deficit paradigm. In addition, the predominant methods for examining theory of mind often rely on "observational" modes of assessment and do not adequately reflect the dynamic process of real-life perspective taking. Thus, it is imperative that researchers continue to test the autistic theory of mind deficit paradigm and explore theory of mind experiences through more naturalistic approaches. This study qualitatively examined theory of mind in 12 autistic adolescents through a series of semi-structured interviews. Interpretive phenomenological analysis of the data revealed four core themes in participants' theory of mind experiences and strategies, all of which highlighted how a more accurate representation of autistic theory of mind is one of difference rather than deficit. For instance, data showed that autistic heightened perceptual abilities may contribute to mentalizing strengths and that honesty in autism may be less dependent on systemizing rather than personal experience and choice. Such findings suggest that future research should reexamine autistic characteristics in light of their ability to enhance theory of mind processing. Understanding how an autistic theory of mind is uniquely functional is an imperative step toward both destigmatizing the condition and advocating for neurodiversity.
Keywords: anthropomorphism; autism spectrum disorder; honesty; humor; interpretative phenomenological analysis; mentalizing; neurodiversity; qualitative; strange stories; theory of mind; visualization.