Central coherence and theory of mind in autism: Reading homographs in context


MRC Cognitive Development Unit, 4 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BT, UK


The hypothesis that people with autism have a specific deficit in ‘theory of mind’ has been successful in explaining the characteristic triad of social, communication and imagination impairments. It cannot, however, explain the non-social impairments and skills shown by people with autism. Frith (1989) and Frith & Happé (1994a) have suggested that these aspects of autism can, instead, be understood as manifestations of a characteristic of general information processing in autism: ‘weak central coherence’. The relationship between theory of mind deficits and weak coherence is examined in the present paper. Sixteen relatively able participants with autism, who differed in their theory of mind task performance, were tested with a homograph reading task, in which pronunciation of target words is determined by integration of whole sentence context (e.g. pronouncing tear in ‘In her eye/dress there was a big tear’). The results suggest that people with autism at all levels of theory of mind performance show a relative failure to process information for context-dependent meaning in this task. The implications of these findings for current theories of autism are discussed.