Understanding Perspective with ASD: The Sally Anne Test

Suppose there are two women, one named Sally and one named Anne. Sally puts a rock in a basket of hers and goes off somewhere else, leaving the basket. While she’s gone, Anne opens her basket, takes the rock out and puts it in her own box. In this presentation, it’s very clear Sally did not see Anne move the rock.

Understanding Perspective with ASD

So when Sally returns, there are two questions. Where is the rock now? And where will Sally look for the rock? The first question is easily answered correctly by anyone who was watching. But the second question is one most autistic children get wrong. It’s a question I would have gotten wrong.

If I saw Anne put the rock in her box, I would have said that’s where Sally would look for it. If your autistic child fails this test, it means he or she doesn’t understand Sally’s point of view. So this brings up a third question. What else does your autistic child not understand?

The Sally Anne Test is well known in the autistic community because it reveals how misunderstanding we can be. There is a colossal number of symptoms of autism. Some symptoms cannot be cured and are better left accepted, but some can be overcome. Which one is this? I don’t have a simple answer for you.

The fact I can pass the Sally Anne Test doesn’t mean I understand other peoples’ perspectives. For instance, one time I put my girlfriend’s coffee mugs on the top shelf of the cabinets, even though she’s almost a foot shorter than me. She asked me to bring them down, I laughed because I had forgotten I was dating a female Frodo Baggins, she laughed too, and then told me to shut up. While putting the dishes away, I hadn’t put myself in her shoes. And this is an issue not just for those of us who have autism.

Sometimes, even neurotypical people cannot understand another person’s point of view. For instance, politics, but let’s not spend much time on that. Because we in the autistic community don’t understand other people as well as we should, we can come across as uncaring or even rude. One time in school, I was giving a speech and I was asked to slow down because the other students had to write down all of the information I was providing. There will be times when your autistic child will accidentally be rude with something that he or she says as well.

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So what’s the solution to this? I think your autistic child can understand people better by reading books and watching movies and tv shows. A tv show can work very well because there’s far more time for character development that can be analyzed than in a movie. I don’t have a list of which shows your family should watch.

But if you just talk to your autistic child when he/she doesn’t understand why one person said this and another did that, then I think that’s time well spent.

Let me repeat, every person in the world fails to understand another person’s perspective from time to time. But for those of us with autism, it is more of an issue that needs to be addressed. By being open and honest, you can teach your son or daughter how to relate to other people better, which is imperative to having a happy and successful life.

And if your autistic child isn’t there yet, I guarantee you that one day he or she will understand that Sally will look for the rock in her own basket.

This article was featured in Issue 95 – Managing Autism Together

Ryan Larson

Ryan Larson

Ryan Larson lives in the Des Moines area. He graduated from Iowa State University in Chemical Engineering and works at Wells Fargo, helping customers over the phone. In his spare time, he loves to read, write, put jigsaw puzzles together, exercise, and spend time with friends and family.