There is a phenomenon that is believed to be somewhat unique to individuals with autism that is referred to as a deficit of theory of mind (ToM).

In part, ToM is our understanding that someone else can have beliefs, desires, intentions, or perspectives that are different from our own. Without ToM, individuals operate under the presumption that everyone else views and responds to experiences the same way they do.

As the founder of a startup and as a mother who has spent far too many hours researching concepts like ToM, I've come to realize that this concept and the activities used to teach it can also apply to the world of business.

When corporate culture lacks ToM, it can lead to miscalculations, faux pas and public relations nightmares.

When Pepsi was recently forced to pull an expensive ad campaign after only one day on the market, it was a result of a severe misperception by corporate leaders on how the rest of society would respond to their campaign. Instead of the massively positive response that Coca Cola enjoyed with its 1970's iconic I Want to Buy the World a Coke advertising campaign that aligned the brand with the global peace movement, Pepsi's attempt to align itself with today's socially conscious groups instead sparked anger among those same groups for what they perceived as a glib and glossy portrayal of serious social issues.

And when multiple passengers aboard a United Airlines flight shared videos that quickly went viral after a fellow passenger was knocked unconscious while being dragged from the plane, the company failed to predict the immensity of negative responses from across the globe.

After missing several early opportunities to dampen public outrage, including an initial not-so-sorry official statement, the debacle propelled United Airlines' public relations nightmare to even greater visibility. At one point, the company's stock plummeted to a $1 Billion loss in value, and when United Airlines finally offered up a carefully crafted message of regret, it was perceived by many as too little too late.

When a corporation lacks collective ToM, it can result in a disconnect between how the corporation sees itself and how society perceives the corporation.

Even Adidas recently failed to understand how their messaging might be viewed from others' perspectives when the company sent an unfortunately worded email to this year's participants of the Boston Marathon. Somehow it didn't occur to anyone that perhaps the words "Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!" might not be viewed in the same light by a city where many residents experienced first-hand the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist attack.

Several of my colleagues who run their own startups and manage their own marketing and public relations have joked that despite their own inexperience and inability to hire marketing or public relations professionals, that even they would have known better than to pull the kinds of public gaffes that have become headline fodder over the past few weeks.

But as easy as it is to sit back in the comfort of our own anonymity and question the wisdom and intelligence of those who are responsible for the maelstrom raining down on these major brands, we would be far better off to use this opportunity as a wake up call.

The truth is that any of us can make similar mistakes that can harm our own brands and land us in the middle of public relations nightmares.

If we are failing as a company to maintain ToM by questioning how our own contextual content may be perceived by demographics outside our own or by failing to put ourselves in others' shoes when responding to a public relations crisis, we can all make decisions that result in a very different public reaction than the one we may have expected or wanted.

How can a company instill ToM as part of its culture? Activities designed to teach children with autism ToM may hold the clue.

Therapists often use "social stories" to help children develop ToM. These social stories provide safe opportunities to explore scenarios while answering the same question from each viewpoint: "How would you feel if you were ...".

I have to wonder if things might have turned out differently for any of these corporations if their teams were required to ask that same question from the viewpoint of demographics very different than their own: "How would you feel if ..."

Whether we're a one person company or a global corporation, we can all benefit from trying to better understand how our marketing, messaging and decisions will be perceived by others.

Published on: Apr 19, 2017