Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith. Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?

Analytical summary of an article from my Ling 8920 class, which focuses on cognition and language, particularly on language deficiencies.

Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind” ? Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.

The authors note that mental retardation cannot be the cause of autistic subjects’ inability to form normal social relations because (a) there are autistic persons with normal IQs and (b) “mentally retarded non-autistic children, such as Down’s syndrome, are socially competent relative to their mental age” (p. 38).

The authors define theory of mind (after Premack and Woodruff) as “the ability to impute mental states to oneself and to others. The ability to make inferences about what other people believe to be the case in a given situation allows one to predict what they will do” (p. 39).

The authors describe the false belief test (after Wimmer and Perner). They subjected three cohorts, ‘normal’ children, those with autism, and retarded children to the test. Note that their mental ages where all above 4. The questions they ask of the children do not include propositional complements.

Autistic children consistently failed, while normal and retarded children consistently succeed in the false belief test. They conclude that “autistic children as a group fail to employ a theory of mind” (p. 43).

BNL questions/comments:

  • I’m not comfortable with “mentally retarded” here, but I expect it reflects the terminology of the day.
  • Does it matter that this experiment is done with dolls rather than people?

Interesting concepts/terms/oppositions that are defined or explored in this text:

  • Conceptual perspective-taking skill vs. perceptual perspective taking (p. 43).
  • Islets of ability (p. 38)
  • Quasi-computational terms (p. 38). Does this refer to Marr’s three levels: computation, algorithm, and implementation?
  • Wimmer and Perner’s puppet play paradigm (a.k.a., false belief test or Sally-Anne test).

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