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Journal Article

Exploration of the Autistic Child's Theory of Mind: Knowledge, Belief, and Communication

Josef Perner, Uta Frith, Alan M. Leslie and Susan R. Leekam
Child Development
Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jun., 1989), pp. 689-700
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
DOI: 10.2307/1130734
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1130734
Page Count: 12
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Exploration of the Autistic Child's Theory of Mind: Knowledge, Belief, and Communication
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Abstract

26 autistic children with mental ages of 3-13 years were tested on 3 tasks that are within the capability of 3- or 4-year-old normal children. The first task tested understanding of a mistaken belief. Children were shown a typical box of a certain brand of sweets, and they all thought that it contained that kind of sweet. To their surprise, however, the box contained something else. Yet, only 4 out of the 26 autistic children were able to anticipate that another child in the same situation would make the same mistake. In contrast, all but 1 of 12 children with specific language impairment, matched for mental age, understood that others would be as misled as they had been themselves. The autistic children were also tested for their ability to infer knowledge about the content of a container from having or not having looked inside. All 4 children who had passed the belief task and an additional 4 performed perfectly, but most failed. The third task assessed children's pragmatic ability to adjust their answers to provide new rather than repeat old information. Here, too, most autistic children seemed unable to reliably make the correct adjustment. These results confirm the hypothesis that autistic children have profound difficulty in taking account of mental states.

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