Do adults with Asperger syndrome really have ToM?

People with autism are known to lack the ability to automatically attribute mental states to self and others also known as "mindblindness". A result of this impairment is failure on verbally instructed false-belief tasks.

However, people with Asperger syndrome, a milder form of autism, seem to pass with flying colors. This presents a problem for the "mindblindness" theory. Do people with Asperger syndrome really have a theory of mind (ToM) contrary to popular theory?

Senju, Southgate, White, and Frith decided to take it upon themselves to sort out this confusion. Instead of using verbal instructions, they had adults with Asperger syndrome perform an eye-tracking task that measured the spontaneous ability to mentalize. This entailed subjects viewing a scene of an actor first placing a ball into one of two boxes, then having a puppet move the ball to the alternative box unbeknownst to the distracted actor, thus causing a false belief in the actor about the location of the ball.

Results showed that the Asperger group had significantly less looking bias toward the correct window compared to a control group indicating the Asperger group's inability to spontaneously anticipate others' actions in a nonverbal task. It seems that to a certain extent they do lack a ToM. But then how are they able to pass the verbally instructed false-belief task? The authors suggest that because they are higher functioning compensatory learning is involved.

Senju A, Southgate V, White S, & Frith U (2009). Mindblind Eyes: An Absence of Spontaneous Theory of Mind in Asperger Syndrome. Science (New York, N.Y.) PMID: 19608858


  1. Excellent!
    It's noteworthy that Simon Baron-Cohen as early as 1989 said that ToM difficulties in ASD could be explained as a delay rather than a disorder, thus they could develop a ToM possibly through other mechanisms than the typical development does

  2. Asperger syndrome is also known as pervasive developmental disorder. It deemed as a highly functioning type of autism. Some of the symptoms are, difficulty in making eye contact, body stance or gesticulation and facial expressions. Person suffering from it might show extreme aggressiveness. There are some medications and some adopts autism therapy. For more details on asperger syndrome, refer Asperger syndrome

  3. I don't get what the real theoretical difficulty is here. If there can be a "spectrum" of autism, why not a "spectrum" of sophistication when it comes to an individual's "Theory of mind"?


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