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Rethinking theory of mind in high-functioning autism spectrum disorder


  • Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared.


Background:  The sociocommunicative problems in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are traditionally linked to impairments in Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to ascribe mental states to others. Although ToM impairments are consistently reported in young children with ASD, findings on more advanced ToM understanding in older individuals with high-functioning ASD (HFASD) are less straightforward. Therefore, we assessed the advanced ToM abilities of a large sample of school-aged children and adolescents with HFASD (= 194; 6–20 years) and compared them to a typically developing (TD) comparison group (= 60).

Methods:  Participants’ advanced ToM was assessed with five social stories containing second-order false beliefs, display rules, double bluff, faux pas, and sarcasm.

Results:  Participants with HFASD performed equally well on each of the ToM stories as their TD peers. Consistent age effects were noticed with adolescents outperforming the children. Furthermore, advanced ToM was positively associated with participants’ age, verbal abilities, and general reasoning abilities.

Conclusions:  Counter to what the ToM theory of ASD would predict, school-aged children and adolescents with HFASD seem to be able to master the theoretical principles of advanced mental state reasoning. However, they may still fail to apply these theoretical principles during everyday social interactions.

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