The theory of mind deficit hypothesis (Baron-Cohen, 2001) postulated that social communicative deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are the result of the inability to infer the mental states of others. Although reduced performance in a range of theory of mind tasks has been shown empirically in the ASD population, there are processing differences in other cognitive domains that are not accounted for. Minshew and Goldstein (1998) proposed that ASD is the result of disordered complex information processing across cognitive domains.
The current study was set up to investigate: a) if individuals with ASD were able to take on the psychological perspective of others during scene viewing, and b) if there were any subtle processing differences between TD individuals and ASD individuals that could be inferred form a range of eye movement measures.
We recorded the eye movements of typically developed adults (TD, n= 15) and adults with ASD (ASD, n =15) while they inspected household scenes with two simple non-perspective taking instructions (e.g., look for valuable objects/features of the house that need fixing) and two complex perspective-taking instructions (e.g., imagine that you are a burglar/repairman).
Like the TD group, the ASD group modulated what they looked at and for how long depending on the perspective that they had in mind whilst performing the task. There were no differences in almost all eye movement measures between the two groups for the simple non-perspective taking instructions, and also the complex burglar perspective. However, there was a reduced or absent perspective effect for the ASD group for the repairman perspective in several eye movements measures. Specifically, the eye movement measures for the repairman perspective-taking task revealed subtle processing differences between the groups that were related both to initial orienting, and to the overall processing of perspective relevant items. The data suggest that the ASD group found the task more ambiguous when trying to identify relevant targets from irrelevant targets for the repairman perspective.
In contrast to the traditional theory of mind view of ASD (Baron-Cohen, 2001), participants with ASD in the current study were able to take on the perspective of others. However, the perspective effects for several eye movement measures were weaker in ASD compared to TD for the repairman, but not the burglar perspective. The present results together with our previous findings (Benson, Castelhano, Au-Yeung, & Rayner, 2012) suggest that that resolving ambiguity is a defining feature of deficits in complex information processing in ASD (Minshew & Goldstein, 1998).
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