Can children with autism develop a theory of mind (ToM)?

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A Theory of Mind (ToM) can be defined as the way in which children aged 3-to-4 years begin to develop a theory about their own and other people’s mental states, which include beliefs, intentions, knowledge and desires (Baron-Cohen, 1995). It is argued that humans have an innate predisposition to make inferences about their own and other people’s behaviour in order to predict and understand behaviour and that these mental processes have evolved because of the generally social and co-operative nature of life (Baron-Cohen, 1995). Mitchell and Lewis (1994) further argue that humans frequently attempt to manipulate the behaviour of others and one way of achieving this to instil a false belief, which can be achieved through the use of deception.

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The false belief task has become the classic test of determining whether young children have developed a ToM. However, research suggests that children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) are unable to develop a ToM as they have difficulty understanding the concept of a false belief. The following essay will explore research that has investigated children with ASD and the question of whether they are able to develop a ToM is supported or refuted.

Methodology for Determining a ToM

The methodology used to establish whether a ToM has developed during early childhood is known as a false belief task (FBT). To pass a FBT, children are required to give the correct answer about a belief held by another individual and the ability to do this occurs in typically developing children at about the age of 4 years. There have been a number of variations of the FBT which follow a similar format involving young children demonstrating an understanding that another person can have an incorrect belief in comparison to their own belief. Wimmer and Perner (1983) developed the classic FBT, the unexpected transfer task, in which children are asked to infer the beliefs of Maxi regarding his chocolate bar. Maxi (a doll or puppet) puts his chocolate in one cupboard and then goes out of the room. While he is away his mother moves the chocolate bar to a different cupboard and the children are asked which cupboard Maxi will go to for his chocolate when he returns.  The results showed that older children (92% aged 6- to 7-years) said that Maxi would look in the cupboard where he left his chocolate bar, whereas 58% of children aged 4- to 5-years said he would look in the cupboard that his mother had moved the chocolate bar to (Wimmer and Perner, 1983). Variations on the task include the Sally-Anne task developed by Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith (1985) in which Sally hides her ball and, when she is not looking, Anne moves the ball to a basket.

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