International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): Theory of Mind Precursor Deficit in Young Children with Autism

Theory of Mind Precursor Deficit in Young Children with Autism

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
D. Rakison , Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
C. Johnson , Pediatrics, Psychiatry, & Education, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
J. Cicchino , Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA
K. Sacco , Child Development Unit, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA
Background: According to one well-known perspective, the characteristic social and communication deficits in autism result from a lack of theory of mind (Baron-Cohen, 1995). This deficit means that individuals with autism cannot make inferences about what others know, believe, think, and feel. However, it remains to be seen whether this inability to mentalize results from a more basic deficit in interpreting action as goal-directed. That is, if an individual cannot understand that objects’ motion is targeted at another referent they will not be able to understand that intentions and desires are also directed at a referent.

Objectives:   The objective of our work is to examine whether young children with autism (AD) interpret the actions of animals and vehicles as goal-directed and compared this behavior to typically developing (TD) infants and young children

Methods: We used a version of Woodward’s (1998) task. Participants were shown a toy animal or a toy vehicle moving to one of two objects (e.g., food, toys) on the left or right side of a board. The locations of the two objects were then switched, and participants were encouraged to imitate the action they observed with the same toy used by the experimenter. If participants interpret the action as goal-directed they should move animals – but not vehicles – to the old object in the new location

Results: Current data with children with AD (N = 14, mean age 38 months) suggests that they may not generalize goal-directed action appropriately to animals; in other words, they do not move animals to the same object to which the experimenter did. This pattern of behavior differs from younger TD children who generalize goal-directed action to animals by 22 months of age. Conclusions: The data will be discussed in regard to cognitive deficits in autism and the ability of AD children to imitate.

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