Background: Traits and mental states are considered to be inter-related parts of theory of mind. Attribution research demonstrates the influential role played by traits in social cognition. However, there has been little investigation into how individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) understand traits.
Method: The ability of individuals with ASD to infer traits from descriptions of behavior was investigated by asking participants to read trait-implying sentences and then to choose one of two words that best related to the sentence.
Results: In Experiment 1, individuals with ASD performed similarly to matched controls in being faster at choosing the trait in comparison to the semantic associate of one of the words in the sentence. The results from Experiments 1 and 2 provided converging evidence in suggesting that inferring traits from textual descriptions of behavior occurs with relatively little effort. The results of Experiment 3 suggested that making trait inferences took priority over inferring actions or making semantic connections between words.
Conclusions: Individuals with ASD infer traits from descriptions of behavior effortlessly and spontaneously. The possibility of trait inference being a spared socio-cognitive function in autism is discussed.