THEORY OF MIND IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM: IS THERE A NEED FOR BETTER TESTS OF WHAT THEY KNOW?
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This research looked at the ability of children with autism to understand theory of mind. This is the ability to attribute mental states (e.g. believing, thinking, knowing etc.) to oneself and to others. The main aim of the study was to provide evidence, contrary to a large body of previous research, that individuals with autism can exhibit a theory of mind, when the standard tests used in the past are simplified for this population. A further aim of the study was to show that language ability is significant in terms of theory of mind task performance. It was hypothesised, because of the nature of the theory of mind tasks, that matching participants in terms of their understanding of grammar, rather than single word understanding (as in past research), would be more appropriate. Three groups took part in the study; autistic, learning disabled and normally developing children. The learning disabled and normally developing participants were selected to match the subjects with autism, in terms of receptive verbal age, on either the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) or the Test for Reception of Grammar (TROG) or both. All the participants were given two first order theory of mind tasks; the standard 'Sally-Anne' task, which has been used in past research, and a simplified cartoon version of this task designed by the author. These first order tasks test the ability to consider another person's thoughts about an objective event. Those participants who passed one of the first order tasks were then given three second order theory of mind tasks. These test the ability to consider another person's thoughts about a third person's thoughts regarding an objective event. The second order tasks consisted of the standard 'Ice-Cream Man task' (used in past research), Sullivan, Zaitchik and Tager-Flusberg's (1994) simplified 'Puppy task' and a simplified cartoon version of the task designed by the author. A significant difference in performance was found between the three participant groups (matched on the BPVS) on the standard first order task, but not on the simplified first order task. A significant difference in performance was found between the participant groups on the standard Ice-Cream Man task and the Puppy task, when matched on the BPVS, but not when matched on the TROG. In addition no significant difference in performance was found between the autistic and learning disabled participants on any of the theory of mind tasks. These findings are discussed in relation to other explanations of autism such as the salient object hypothesis and executive function.
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