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This study is an attempt to analyse whether there may be separable components to the human ability to perceive people aspeople who engage in actions and who have attitudes. We adopted the approach of developmental psychopathology. Matched groups of typically developing, autistic and non-autistic retarded (MR) children and adolescents were tested for the ability to recognize videotaped representations of ‘a person’, a person's actions and a person's emotion-related attitudes and allied subjective states as manifest in moving point-light images of people. Autistic and non-autistic MR participants did not differ in the ability to recognize that a person was represented in very brief exposures of a walking point-light display; autistic, MR and typically developing participants were equally able to recognize a person's actions. Non-autistic MR and typically developing participants were also similar in their propensity to notice a person's attitudes vis-à-vis the person's actions, and in their abilities to recognize actions and attitudes when specifically asked to do so. By comparison, however, autistic participants were specifically impaired in attending to and discriminating people's attitudes and states. The results are discussed in relation to current debates on the nature of basic person-perceptual abilities that may underpin typically developing children's understanding of persons with minds ('theory of mind'). We also consider their relevance for controversies over the primary deficits in autism.