Background: In the context of the established finding that theory-of-mind (ToM) growth is seriously delayed in late-signing deaf children, and some evidence of equivalent delays in those learning speech with conventional hearing aids, this study's novel contribution was to explore ToM development in deaf children with cochlear implants. Implants can substantially boost auditory acuity and rates of language growth. Despite the implant, there are often problems socialising with hearing peers and some language difficulties, lending special theoretical interest to the present comparative design.
Methods: A total of 52 children aged 4 to 12 years took a battery of false belief tests of ToM. There were 26 oral deaf children, half with implants and half with hearing aids, evenly divided between oral-only versus sign-plus-oral schools. Comparison groups of age-matched high-functioning children with autism and younger hearing children were also included.
Results: No significant ToM differences emerged between deaf children with implants and those with hearing aids, nor between those in oral-only versus sign-plus-oral schools. Nor did the deaf children perform any better on the ToM tasks than their age peers with autism. Hearing preschoolers scored significantly higher than all other groups. For the deaf and the autistic children, as well as the preschoolers, rate of language development and verbal maturity significantly predicted variability in ToM, over and above chronological age.
Conclusions: The finding that deaf children with cochlear implants are as delayed in ToM development as children with autism and their deaf peers with hearing aids or late sign language highlights the likely significance of peer interaction and early fluent communication with peers and family, whether in sign or in speech, in order to optimally facilitate the growth of social cognition and language.