Autism is a rare developmental disorder that affects approximately four in every ten thousand children (Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985). Employing a clinical perspective, Kanner (1943) (as cited in Sachs, 1995) was the first to provide a description on the disorder of autism. However, in the 1970s, Wing (1970) (as cited in Sachs, 1995) applied a cognitive perspective in describing the mental structure of autism. This essay will therefore argue that autism is characterised by the lack of theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978, as cited in Baron-Cohen et al., 1985), which is a cognitive mechanism. It will further outline empirical evidence derived from the review of two studies, collectively known as false belief tasks. The Sally-Anne task and the Smarties task, in particular, will be discussed and interpreted in support with the arguing thesis.
There is no true causal definition of autism at a biological level, however, autism has been recognised to be a developmental disability affecting cognitive processing (Frith, 1997). The key behavioural deficits that characterises autism are, the inability to interact in social situations, impairments with comprehending verbal and non-verbal communication and the lack of understanding pretend and imaginative play (Wing, 1970, as cited in Sachs, 1995). Other behavioural characteristics contributing to the diagnosis of autism are, engagement in repetitive automatic movements and activities, preference to be alone, displays of self-destruction and aggressive behaviour, sensitivity to external stimuli, attacks of anxiety, and some display savant abilities (Sachs, 1995; Frith, 1997).
Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) applied Wimmer and Perners (1983) puppet play paradigm to test the hypothesis that autistic children are unable to attribute beliefs to others and are incapable of representing mental states. The participants comprised of 20 autistic children, 14 children with Down syndrome, and 27 normal preschool children. The procedure for this false belief task included setting up two doll protagonists, Sally and Anne. Initially, a naming question was asked to ensure participants could distinguish between the dolls. Sally then placed a marble in her basket. Sally exited the scene, and Anne takes the marble from Sallys basket and placed it in her box. Sally later returned, and the test question asked by the experimenter was Where will Sally look for her marble? (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985, p.41). The subjects also had to answer two control questions: a reality control question and a memory control question. Another trial was preformed, where conditions were changed, and included an additional location (experimenters pocket) to where the participants could point. The outcome for this study indicated that all subjects passed the naming, reality and memory questions. For the belief question, 85% of normal preschool and 86% of Down syndrome subjects passed both trials. However, only 20% of the autistic group passed the tested question (Baron-Cohen et al. 1985).
Interpretation of these results indicates the vast majority of normal preschool and Down syndrome children could contrast between what they see to be true and what the doll sees to be false. However, the 15% of preschool and 14% of Down syndrome children who failed the belief question need to be taken into account. It may be concluded that at the time of testing, the proportion of preschool children had not yet developed the complete theory of mind, which is a mechanism required to succeed in this study. Also, it can be assumed that the proportion of Down syndrome subjects who failed, simply did not fully understand the question being asked as they have a below average IQ range. Other possible reasons for the two control groups to fail on the belief question may be that they comprehended the question as ambiguous. For example, when asked the belief question, the proportion of the control groups who failed, could have registered the question as, If Sally looks in her basket and the marble is not there, where will she look?. In this case the correct answer would be the box. Instead, if the experimenter asked, Where will Sally look first, for her marble?, then that proportion of the control group may have passed. Another inconsistency is that 20% of autistic subjects passed the test. This may be that they were incorrectly diagnosed with the disorder, or they have experienced through rote learning that others have different beliefs to them, and therefore can apply this concept without understanding it. However, the fact that the majority of autistic subjects failed the task indicates they lack the ability to distinguish between their belief and the dolls belief. Therefore, this supports the thesis that autistic children lack a theory of mind.
Perner et al. (1989) Smarties task (as cited in Happe, 1994) is another representation of a false belief task. This study involved a number of autistic and normal four-year-old children. The method involved the experimenter questioning the child to predict what was inside a closed Smartie box. The subjects would give the obvious answer, being sweets or Smarties. The box is then opened to reveal a pencil. The experimenter then closes the container, and poses the question, When the other child comes in, he will be shown this closed up Smarties box, like shown to you. What do you think he will say when I ask him what is inside? The consequence of this study showed that normal four-year-olds succeeded by answering sweets or Smarties. However, autistic subjects failed this task by answering pencil (Pern et al., 1989, as cited in Happe, 1994).
In analysing the results, it is shown that four-year-old normal children understood the concept that if a person like them, has not been exposed to the situation yet, they will give the obvious answer like them. However, autistic children, based on the fact that they lack the ability to represent mental states of others, and therefore not pose a theory of mind (Premack & Woodruff, 1978, as cited in Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) would assume that everyone else knows what they now know. The result of this study hence supports the thesis argued in this essay.
Possessing a theory of mind is fundamental for social interaction with others. For those who do not have this cognitive mechanism, it is merely impossible for them to understand other peoples beliefs, wants and desires. It has been shown that autism is characterised by the lack of this cognitive mechanism, theory of mind. In addition, research studies have supported this theory, that individuals with autism lack ability to comprehend others beliefs from their own. Future research should aim at applying a clinical perspective to help autistic individuals overcome this lack of theory of mind in order for social interaction to be less complex.