In a lab game that requires a child to compete with two adults for a prize, many children with autism show insight into how other people’s thoughts influence their behavior. The finding, from a Brisbane, Australia based psychologist, suggests that previous research measuring this ability, called theory of mind, did not do justice to how well children with autism can interpret other people’s actions and behavior. The key to exhibiting this awareness, according to the new study published in Developmental Science, is to motivate these young people to demonstrate what they know.
Prior studies found that most high-functioning individuals with autism fail a basic theory of mind test at least through adolescence, whereas typically functioning youth pass the test by age 5. In the standard test, called the Sally-Anne test, children watch an experimenter play with a doll named Sally, who has a covered basket, and a doll named Anne, who has a box. Sally puts a marble in her basket and leaves, and Anne moves Sally’s marble to the box. Children with autism usually indicate that, when Sally returns, she will look for her marble in the box, failing to recognize that Sally falsely believes the marble remains in her basket. Socially withdrawn children with developmental delays have no motivation to consider what Sally believes simply because an experimenter has encouraged them to do so.
The new lab game provides incentive for children to weigh others’ thoughts. A child first picks a prize from several choices, then two adults, Dot and Midge, enter the room and converse about wanting the same prize. The child and an experimenter hide the prize in one of three boxes as the women watch. Dot then leaves the room, and Midge and the child observe the experimenter move the prize to another box. Midge departs and returns with Dot. The child then picks Dot or Midge to open a box first. If the adult opens an empty container, the child can retrieve the toy.
On two trials, 17 of 23 high-functioning kids with autism, ages 7 to 13, gave Dot the first shot both times, earning themselves a prize. So did 20 of 26 typically developing 4½- to 5-year-olds. That figure fell to 13 of 24 typically developing youngsters who had just turned 4 and to four of 23 typically developing 3 year olds.
Despite the success of children with autism zeroing in on Dot’s incorrect belief, it’s easier to act on knowledge about other’s minds in a game with rules, as opposed to real-life scenarios with other individuals. Staples of social interaction, such as understanding irony, making small talk, and perceiving what a peer knows during a conversation can still pose challenges.