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Autism and epistemology IV: Does autism need a theory of mind?


  • Gene S. Fisch

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion, NYU Colleges of Dentistry and Nursing, New York, New York
    • Correspondence to:

      Gene S. Fisch, Ph.D., Department of Epidemiology and Health Promotion, NYU Colleges of Dentistry and Nursing, 250 Park Ave. S., 6th fl., New York, NY 10003.


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  • Conflict of interest: none.


In their article, “Does the autistic child have a ‘theory of mind’?,” Baron-Cohen et al. [1985] proposed a novel paradigm to explain social impairment in children diagnosed as autistic (AD). Much research has been undertaken since their article went to print. The purpose of this commentary is to gauge whether Theory of Mind (ToM)—or lack thereof—is a valid model for explaining abnormal social behavior in children with AD. ToM is defined as “the ability to impute mental states to oneself and to others” and “the ability to make inferences about what other people believe to be the case.” The source for their model was provided by an article published earlier by Premack and Woodruff, “Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?” Later research in chimpanzees did not support a ToM in primates. From the outset, ToM as a neurocognitive model of autism has had many shortcomings—methodological, logical, and empirical. Other ToM assumptions, for example, its universality in all children in all cultures and socioeconomic conditions, are not supported by data. The age at which a ToM emerges, or events that presage a ToM, are too often not corroborated. Recent studies of mirror neurons, their location and interconnections in brain, their relationship to social behavior and language, and the effect of lesions there on speech, language and social behavior, strongly suggests that a neurobiological as opposed to neurocognitive model of autism is a more parsimonious explanation for the social and behavioral phenotypes observed in autism. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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