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Autism is a cognitive development deficiency distinguished by patterns of social and communicative impairment. The typical behaviour of an autistic person relates to their social and communicative ineptitude, and is exemplified by a lack of meaningful emotional relationships within society and indifference to the mental states of others. Autistic persons also exhibit patterns of behaviour that are socially stigmatizing, such as repetitive head-nodding or body-rocking, obsessive-compulsive stacking or lining up of items, speech and language impediments, and eating disorders. There are many theories of causes autism, but none have been completely successful.


Folk-psychology is a relevant dimension in which to judge the impairment of the autistic individual. Social and communicative impairment of the autistic individual is said to be a result of the inability to initially attribute mental states to beings other than themselves, thus being unable to recognize others as having similar minds. This is a deficiency, sometimes called ‘mind-blindness’, in the development of a THEORY OF MIND (ToM). Mind-blindness entails that an individual cannot adopt, imitate, or understand a rational perspective other than their own. The ability to relate to and imitate the feelings and language of others, as well as the development of a ToM, may be due to the function of mirror neurons in the premotor cortex and inferior parietal cortex of the human brain. Studies suggest a connection between a mirror neuron deficiency and the severity of autistic symptoms.

A crucial function of a ToM is recognizing that other agents can have false beliefs about what is true in reality. The lack of a ToM can be distinguished through the False Belief Task, the “Sally-Anne Test”.


The test begins with the child being introduced to two characters, Sally and Anne. Sally and Anne are playing with a ball. Sally puts the ball in her box and leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne removes the ball from Sally’s box, plays with the ball, and puts it away in her own box when she is done. Sally returns, and the child is asked, “Where will Sally look for the ball?” The child passes the False Belief Task if he or she recognizes that Sally will look in Sally’s box, because that is where Sally left the ball. The child understood and imagined Sally’s false belief about the ball being in Sally’s box even though the child knows it is in reality in Anne’s box. The child fails the test if he or she thinks that Sally will look in Anne’s box. This child cannot attribute false belief to Sally; the child assumes that because he or she has seen what has happened and knows that the ball is in Anne’s box, that Sally also holds this belief. The autistic child cannot relate to Sally because he or she is unable to simulate Sally’s perspective on the scenario.


Experiments show that children under the age of four and most autistic children fail the test; however, between four and five years of age, most non-autistic children develop the capacity for attributing false belief. Understanding of false belief entails that the child has attributed beliefs and desires to a being other than him or herself. Studies show that failure to develop an understanding of false belief is not necessarily a deficiency in recognizing the mental states of others, but this is the case only with non-autistic children, because while they may fail the test, they exhibit empathy. Empathy is a process of simulation in which one rational agent is able to adopt the perspective of another based on attribution of mental states; non-autistic persons can effectively do so, and this plays a significant role in the forming of social bonds.




See also:


Empathy, basic and reenactive


Mirror neurons

Simulation Theory






  • Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A.M., Frith, U.(1985) “Does the Autistic Child Have a Theory of Mind?” Cognition 21 (1) 37-46
  • Baron-Cohen, S. (1992) Mindblindness MIT Press: Cambridge
  • Ramachandran, V.S. “Mirror Neurons and Imitation Learning as the Driving Force Behind Human Evolution” Edge Foundation, retrieved April 1, 2008.
  • Stueber, K.R. (2006) Rediscovering Empathy: Agency, Folk Psychology and the Human
  • Sciences. MIT Press: Cambridge


- Genna Gingerich, University of Toronto

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