The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice
The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

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The autistic spectrum: From theory to practice

4.3 A distinctive sub-group?

The fact that around 20 per cent of children with autistic spectrum disorders regularly pass tasks such as the Sally-Anne test fits well with the notion of an autistic spectrum including different profiles of skills and deficits. But it questions the idea of a core ToM deficit that all people with ASDs share. So is the theory inadequate, given that its predictions are not always supported?

Francesca Happé (Happé, 1994) suggests that some of those passing tests such as the Sally-Anne test may have relied upon simple ‘problem solving’ strategies that avoid the need for genuine mind-reading. Many of these individuals fail more complex false belief tasks, in which participants have to show understanding of one character's false belief about a second character's belief about a situation. As an illustration, suppose that, in the car parking example in Section 4.1 , unbeknown to you, your friend saw you re-parking the car in Park Street. You would then believe (falsely) that your friend believed that you were parked in Mount Street. Understanding this kind of situation involves understanding second order false belief. Failures on such second-order false belief tasks suggest that most people with autistic spectrum disorders have some degree of ToM difficulty.

On the other hand, some intellectually able individuals with ASDs also pass these second order tasks. The fact that these individuals remain socially disabled questions whether the somewhat contrived experimental tests of ToM are really a good guide to the presence or absence of everyday mind-reading skills. Happé (1994) devised a more naturalistic and subtle probe for everyday mind-reading skills, described in Box 6 .

Box 6: The ‘Strange Stories’ task

Participants were presented with stories such as the following:


Ann's mother has spent a long time cooking Ann's favourite meal: fish and chips. But when she brings it in, Ann is watching TV, and she doesn't even look up or say thank you. Ann's mother is cross and says ‘Well that's very nice, isn't it! That's what I call politeness!’

The participants were asked:

  1. Is it true what Ann's mother says?

  2. Why does Ann's mother say this?

Ann and her mother
Happé, F. (1994) Autism: An Introduction to Psychological Theory , Psychology Press Ltd ©
Happé, F. (1994) Autism: An Introduction to Psychological Theory , Psychology Press Ltd
Figure 6 : Ann and her mother

Similar stories were presented for situations requiring an understanding of underlying intentions, such as a white lie, a deliberate lie, persuasion.

Happé tested three groups of autistic participants:

  • Those failing ‘first order’ ToM tasks

  • Those passing ‘first order’ ToM tasks

  • Those passing ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ ToM tasks

There were marked differences between the three groups in accuracy on Question 1 and in the justifications given on Question 2. The third, most able, group performed quite well, yet less accurately than an appropriately matched control group. Their attributions of mental states to the story characters were often wrong. For example, one participant said that Ann's mother said what she said ‘not to shock her daughter’.

(Happé, 1994)

Happé offers an explanation of why the third group of individuals – who are both intellectually able and have substantial ToM skills – remain disabled nonetheless. She argues that people in this sub-group have come by their social and mind-reading skills after a delay, such that the normal developmental context in which these skills are embedded is absent. As a result their skills are somewhat atypical and do not serve the individuals well in all situations. Yet the development of even moderate ToM skills may bring about another striking change, as we will consider next.


Second-order false belief : One person's false belief about another persons's belief about a situation.


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