Note: Most Internet Explorer 8 users encounter issues playing the presentation videos. Please update your browser or use a different one if available.

How Do Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders Solve False Belief Tasks? Insights from an EEG Study

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
A. S. Li, M. A. Sabbagh and E. A. Kelley, Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada
Background: Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have been said to have a ‘deficit in theory of mind’; that is, they have difficulty reasoning about mental states and typically do poorly on false belief tasks. However, some studies have found that a proportion of children with ASD do succeed on false belief tasks (e.g., Happé, 1994). Researchers have suggested that these individuals may have arrived at the correct answers through cognitive processes that are different from those used by typically developing children (e.g., Frith, Morton, & Leslie, 1991; Happé, 1995). What exactly are these processes? Measuring electroencephalogram (EEG) alpha activity—a reliable measure of children’s neurocognitive development (Thatcher, 1992)—and false belief understanding in children with ASD may provide insights into how they succeed on these tasks. Sabbagh, Bowman, Evraire, and Ito (2009) found that individual differences in EEG alpha activity localized to the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and right temporal-parietal juncture were positively associated with performance on theory of mind tasks in typically developing children. Thus, if children with ASD succeed on false belief tasks by using theory of mind, we expect task performance to be associated with maturation of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and right temporal-parietal juncture. However, if children with ASD succeed on false belief tasks by following behavioural rules, we expect task performance to be associated with maturation of areas implicated in executive functioning (e.g., medial frontal regions).

Objectives: To investigate the processes by which children with ASD solve false belief tasks.

Methods: Participants are school-age boys with and without ASD matched using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test–Fourth Edition (Dunn & Dunn, 2007). Data collection is ongoing—we have full datasets from 15 children with ASD thus far.
     Brain activity. Resting EEG alpha activity is measured using a 128-channel Geodesic Sensor Net while participants fixate on a still picture.
     Theory of mind. Theory of mind is assessed using two false belief tasks: contents change (Gopnik & Astington, 1988) and location change (Wimmer & Perner, 1983).
     Executive functioning. It is important to statistically control for executive functioning as performance on response-conflict executive functioning tasks seems to be associated with theory of mind development (Perner et al., 2002). The executive functioning battery includes the grass-snow stroop (Carlson & Moses, 2001), bear-dragon (Reed et al., 1984), dimensional-change card sort (Zelazo, 2006), and less is more (Carlson et al., 2005) tasks.

Results: Preliminary results are based on 12 high-functioning boys with ASD. Performance on false belief tasks was significantly related to EEG alpha activity localized to the cingulate cortex, precentral gyrus, and precuneous. Furthermore, the executive functioning battery was associated with false belief tasks, r(10) = .713, p< .01.

Conclusions: Development of areas typically related to executive functioning in typically developing children appear to play an important role in false belief task performance in children with ASD. Our preliminary findings support the hypothesis that children with ASD differ from typically developing children in the way they solve false belief tasks (i.e., rule-following rather than intuitive understanding).

See more of: Neurophysiology 2
See more of: Neurophysiology
See more of: Brain Structure & Function
| More