Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

1.3 The Sally–Anne false belief task

Activity 1 Try out the Sally–Anne false belief task

Allow about 10 minutes

Simon Baron-Cohen used the Sally–Anne task to investigate whether autistic children could understand false belief. The following download contains an animation that illustrates this test and his results. After watching the animation, answer the three questions that follow it, and pay careful attention to the feedback.

You can find the downloadable Sally–Anne task at this link [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

You can find instructions for downloading and using the Sally–Anne task at this link.

If you can't use this download, or prefer not to, here is an image showing the key contents of the animation:

Described image
Figure 1 The Sally–Anne false belief task.

When this task is used with typically developing children, it is found that over the age of 4–5 years, most are able to correctly identify that Sally has a false belief about the location of the marble.

Activity 2 Children taking the Sally–Anne task

Allow about 10 minutes

Now watch a short video, in which Baron-Cohen first tested two children with autism and then a younger neurotypical child on the task. Notice that most children with autism (around 80%) fail on the ‘belief’ question ‘Where will Sally look for her marble?’, while children in the two control groups mostly pass. What does failure on the belief question suggest? Note down your explanation.

Download this video clip.Video player: aut_1_wk04_sally-anne-task_combined.mp4
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Transcript

SIMON BARON-COHEN:
Her name is Sally.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
All right? When Sally stands over there, then we've got another doll. And this one is called Anne.
BOY 1:
Yeah.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
Anne's over there. Now which one is Anne? Good. And which one is Sally? Good.
Now look at this. Sally's got a yellow box.
This is a test of whether the child can appreciate that someone else might have a different belief about a situation to the child's own belief.
Sally has also got a little marble.
BOY 1:
Yeah.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
And she puts it inside her yellow box. And now she goes for a walk. Off she goes.
BOY 1:
Yeah.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
She's gone for a walk. Anne goes over to Sally's box, takes out the marble, and puts it into her blue box.
The child knows that the marble has been moved. The child has also seen that Sally has gone out of the room or left the scene when that transition occurred. So she shouldn't know that the objects now are being moved.
So when asked the question where will Sally look, to pass this test, the child should point to where Sally thinks it is rather than to where the marble really is.
Here comes Sally back from her walk.
BOY1:
Yeah.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
Where will Sally look for her marble?

[TAP]

SIMON BARON-COHEN:
Right. And where was the marble in the beginning?

[TAP]

SIMON BARON-COHEN:
And where is the marble really?

[TAP]

SIMON BARON-COHEN:
Very good.
What we've seen with this autistic child and indeed with the majority that we've tested is that the child actually points to where the marble really is rather than to where Sally thinks it is and in this case demonstrates no ability to distinguish between their own belief and that of someone else's.
Here she is. Where will she look for her marble?
BOY 2:
Yellow box.
SIMON BARON-COHEN:
It's very important to actually rule out that maybe other non-autistic children might also have the same difficulty. So what we've done is to do exactly the same test with a group of non-autistic, what we could call normal kids of about four years old, and find the majority have no trouble at all with this task they can easily distinguish between where they know the object to be and where Sally falsely believes it to be.
Where will she look for her marble? Right. Now where is the marble really? That's right. Where was the marble in the beginning? Very good.
End transcript
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Discussion

Baron-Cohen and his colleagues argued that instead of 'putting themselves in Sally's shoes', the autistic children assume that Sally’s belief about where she will find her marble is the same as their own knowledge of where the marble really is. In short, the study suggests that children with autism have difficulty understanding another person's thoughts, which in this case are different from their own.

The basic finding of the Sally–Anne task has been replicated (repeated with the same outcome) many times, with numerous variants of the task. However, the number of autistic children failing the Sally–Anne task does vary from one study to another.

Note that the task does not offer a way of diagnosing autism. Not all autistic people fail it, and some neurotypical people may also find it difficult.

Over the decades since the Sally-Anne false belief task findings were first reported, their implications have been widely questioned and qualified. However, a quite common occurrence in autism is that a person fails to give some crucial information to another person. This could well reflect a problem in understanding other people's knowledge of a situation.

Activity 3 A real-life ToM problem?

Allow about 5 minutes

Read the following extract, and explain how it fits with the idea that ToM is a challenge for autistic people:

One of the most recurrent problems throughout middle childhood was my constant failure to distinguish between my knowledge and that of others. Very often my parents would miss deadlines or appointments because I failed to tell them of these matters. For instance, my parents missed the school’s Open House in my fifth grade and my mom asked me afterward ‘why didn’t you tell us about it?’ ‘I thought you knew it’, I replied.

Sarah quoted in Sainsbury, 2000, p. 60
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Discussion

Sarah seems not to understand that her parents don’t have exactly the same thoughts as she does. Because she has not told them about the Open House at school, they have no knowledge that it is due to happen.

AUT_1

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