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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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1.2 False belief

The task, developed by Baron-Cohen and his colleagues and used frequently in subsequent studies, is known as the Sally–Anne false belief task. Before watching the animation illustrating the task (Activity 1), consider the following imaginary scenario, an everyday example of the kind of skill that Baron-Cohen was exploring.

You and a friend, Kelly, drive to the shops in your car. You park in a particular street (Mount Street) and as you both have different shops to visit, you arrange to meet back at the car in an hour’s time. Shortly after parting from your friend, you realise that you have left your wallet at home, so you drive home to fetch it. When you get back to where you parked before, the parking spaces are full, so you have to park in a different street (Park Street). You know that when Kelly goes to meet you she will have the false belief that the car is where you originally parked it. Unless you can contact her first, she will go to meet you in Mount Street, not in Park Street.

Of course these days, mobile phones offer a ready solution to problems like this. The point is to illustrate what neurotypical people routinely understand or figure out about what another person is thinking. Without an understanding that Kelly would hold a false belief about your meeting place, you would not even realise that it was necessary to redirect her! So the ability to understand false belief is an important aspect of understanding other people’s thoughts and beliefs – that is, theory of mind.