Is ‘theory of mind’ impaired in autism?

sean_ballpool.jpgThe claim that people with autism have an impaired ‘theory of mind‘ (that is, they are supposedly not able to imagine what other people are thinking) is one of the most commonly repeated ‘facts’ about the condition.

This typically infuriates people with autism, especially when it gets translated into the more everyday, and, perhaps, even less accurate claim, that autism involves a ‘lack of empathy’.

It is now being challenged by researchers, such as Professor Morton Gernsbacher, who are comparing the performance of participants with autism on experimental tests of ‘theory of mind’ with individuals who do not have autism but do have similar problems in understanding language.

Gernsbacher is interviewed in a short section on BBC Radio 4’s science programme Leading Edge (starts 15 minutes into the realaudio stream) where she explains that apparent ‘theory of mind’ problems may be due to participants with autism not always understanding the complexity of the verbal instructions in tests such as the ‘Sally-Anne’ task.

Gernsbacher claims that in ‘theory of mind’ tests that use drawing, rather than verbal interaction, autistic children actually do better than non-autistic children.

This echoes findings from studies on non-autistic deaf children (pdf) who seem to show ‘theory of mind’ impairments if they suffer problems with language development, but not if they become fluent in sign-language.

Link to description of ‘theory of mind’.
Link to Leading Edge webpage for 23rd Feb edition (via Autism Diva).
Realaudio of programme (section starts 15 minutes in).
Link to flash heavy website of Morton Gernsbacher’s lab.
PDF of ‘Insights into theory of mind from autism and deafness’ by Peterson and Siegal.

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