Game tests theory of mind in autism, intellectual disability

Children with autism often have difficulty understanding the beliefs of others. Traditional tests of this ability, called theory of mind, require children to have good enough language skills to understand what they’re being asked to do.

That means the tests can’t reliably assess theory of mind in children with language impairments or intellectual disability, both of which are common among individuals with autism. A new study, published 24 September inAutism Research, suggests that swapping these language-based tasks for a ‘penny-hiding game’ can help researchers assess theory of mind in these children.

The traditional test for theory of mindis a ‘false-belief task.’ This task often involves telling a child a story about two characters named Sally and Ann who put a toy into a basket. When Sally leaves the room, Ann hides the toy in a box. The child passes the test by reasoning that Sally will look for the toy in the basket when she returns.

Most typically developing children pass this test by age 5. Children with autism, however, fail the test into adolescence. Those with language impairment or intellectual disability also perform poorly on the task. Many children who have severe intellectual disability simply cannot participate at all, and are thus excluded from experimental studies.

Child’s play:

In the new study, the researchers played the penny-hiding game with 132 children who have moderate to severe intellectual disability, including 56 who also have a diagnosis of autism. All of the participants, who ranged in age from 5 to 19 years, have language impairments.


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