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Autism-Theory of Mind

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Autism is a rare developmental disorder that affects approximately four in every ten thousand children (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985). Employing a clinical perspective, Kanner (1943) (as cited in Sachs, 1995) was the first to provide a description on the disorder of autism. However, in the 1970s, Wing (1970) (as cited in Sachs, 1995) applied a cognitive perspective in describing the mental structure of autism. This essay will therefore argue that autism is characterised by the lack of theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978, as cited in Baron-Cohen et al., 1985), which is a cognitive mechanism. It will further outline empirical evidence derived from the review of two studies, collectively known as false belief tasks. The Sally-Anne task and the Smarties task, in particular, will be discussed and interpreted in support with the arguing thesis.

There is no true causal definition of autism at a biological level, however, autism has been recognised to be a developmental disability affecting cognitive processing (Frith, 1997). The key behavioural deficits that characterises autism are, the inability to interact in social situations, impairments with comprehending verbal and non-verbal communication and the lack of understanding pretend and imaginative play (Wing, 1970, as cited in Sachs, 1995). Other behavioural characteristics contributing to the diagnosis of autism are, engagement in repetitive automatic movements and activities, preference to be alone, displays of self-destruction and aggressive behaviour, sensitivity to external stimuli, attacks of anxiety, and some display savant abilities (Sachs, 1995; Frith, 1997).

Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) applied Wimmer and Perner's (1983) puppet play paradigm to test the hypothesis that autistic children are unable to attribute beliefs to others and are incapable of representing mental states. The participants comprised of 20 autistic children, 14 children with Down syndrome, and 27 normal preschool children. The procedure for this false belief task included setting up two doll protagonists, Sally and Anne. Initially, a naming question was asked to ensure participants could distinguish between the dolls. Sally then placed a marble in her basket. Sally exited the scene, and Anne takes the marble from Sally's basket and placed it in her box. Sally later returned, and the test question asked by the experimenter was "Where will Sally look for her marble?" (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985, p.41). The subjects also had to answer two control questions: a reality control question and a memory control question. Another trial was preformed, where conditions were changed, and included an additional location (experimenter's pocket) to where the participants could point. The outcome for this study indicated that all subjects passed the naming, reality and memory questions. For the belief question, 85% of normal preschool and 86% of Down syndrome subjects passed both trials. However, only 20% of the autistic group passed the tested question (Baron-Cohen et al. 1985).

Interpretation of these results indicates the vast majority of normal preschool and Down syndrome children could contrast between what they see to be true and what the doll sees to be false. However, the 15% of preschool and 14% of Down syndrome children who failed the belief question need to be taken into account. It may be concluded that at the time of testing, the proportion of preschool children had not yet developed the complete theory of mind, which is a mechanism required to succeed in this study. Also, it can be assumed that the proportion of Down syndrome subjects who failed, simply did not fully understand the question being asked as they have a below average IQ range. Other possible reasons for the two control groups to fail on the belief question may be that they comprehended the question as ambiguous. For example, when asked the belief question, the proportion of the control groups who failed, could have registered the question as, " If Sally looks in her basket and the marble is not there, where will she look?". In this case the correct answer would be the box. Instead, if the experimenter asked, "Where



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