Autism and theory of mind in everyday life

by Uta Frith and Francesca Happé



The article explores how autistic people understand the mental states of others, such as beliefs, desires, and intentions. This ability is often referred to as theory of mind (ToM), and it is crucial for social interaction and communication. The authors review the evidence from cognitive and developmental psychology, neuroscience, and clinical studies, and propose a framework for understanding how ToM works in autistic and non-autistic people.


Autism as a developmental disorder

The authors begin by defining autism as a developmental disorder characterized by impairments in social communication and interaction, and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. They note that autism is a spectrum condition, meaning that there is a wide range of severity and symptoms among autistic individuals. They also acknowledge that autism is not a unitary phenomenon, but rather a complex and heterogeneous condition that may have multiple causes and manifestations.


Concept of theory of mind (ToM)

The authors then discuss the concept of theory of mind (ToM), which they define as the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others, and to use this information to explain and predict behavior. They explain that ToM involves two components: a cognitive component, which is the ability to represent mental states, and an affective component, which is the ability to empathize with the emotions of others. They argue that ToM is a domain-specific skill that develops in stages during childhood, and that it is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors.



The authors review the evidence from various methods and paradigms that have been used to test ToM in autistic and non-autistic people. They focus on three main types of tasks: false belief tasks, which measure the ability to understand that others may have different beliefs from oneself; eye gaze tasks, which measure the ability to follow and interpret the direction of eye gaze; and irony and metaphor tasks, which measure the ability to understand non-literal language. They summarize the findings from these tasks, and highlight the consistent pattern that autistic people perform worse than non-autistic people on ToM tasks, especially those that involve cognitive ToM. They also point out some limitations and challenges of these tasks, such as the difficulty of controlling for other factors that may affect performance, such as language, memory, executive function, and motivation.


How theory of mind (ToM) works

The authors then present their framework for understanding how ToM works in autistic and non-autistic people. They propose that theory of mind (ToM) relies on two types of processes: implicit and explicit. Implicit processes are fast, automatic, and intuitive, and they operate on a subconscious level. Explicit processes are slow, deliberate, and reflective, and they require conscious effort and reasoning. The authors suggest that autistic people have a deficit in implicit ToM, but not in explicit ToM. They argue that this explains why autistic people can sometimes pass ToM tasks that involve explicit reasoning, but not those that involve implicit cues. They also suggest that implicit ToM is more important for everyday social interaction and communication, and that the lack of implicit ToM leads to the social difficulties that autistic people face.



The authors conclude by discussing the implications of their framework for the diagnosis, intervention, and education of autistic people. They emphasize the need for more research on the neural and cognitive mechanisms of implicit and explicit ToM, and the factors that modulate them. They also advocate for more ecological validity and individual differences in ToM research, and for more awareness and acceptance of the diversity and strengths of autistic people.



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