Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mindblindness in Asperger's syndrome

Recent work by Senju et al. is summarized in Science:
Placement of Asperger syndrome within the family of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has always been a bit uneasy; although people with Asperger syndrome do exhibit the core impairments in social interaction and communication that are characteristic of ASD, they nevertheless perform well on tests that are thought to assess the ability to mentalize or to possess Theory of Mind skills. One of the classic tests of mentalizing ability is the false-belief task, in which subjects must be able to represent their own beliefs (true) and another's beliefs, which are false because they have not been given complete information, such as not having seen the transfer of a piece of candy from one drawer to another. People with Asperger syndrome succeed at the verbal form of the false-belief task, yet Senju et al. show that this is owing entirely to their having learned how to cope with an existing and still demonstrable deficit in an implicit version of the false-belief task. That is, the core impairment is present, but conscious and explicit learning allows them to compensate.
Here is the Senju et al. abstract:
Adults with Asperger syndrome can understand mental states such as desires and beliefs (mentalizing) when explicitly prompted to do so, despite having impairments in social communication. We directly tested the hypothesis that such individuals nevertheless fail to mentalize spontaneously. To this end, we used an eye-tracking task that has revealed the spontaneous ability to mentalize in typically developing infants. We showed that, like infants, neurotypical adults’ (n = 17 participants) eye movements anticipated an actor’s behavior on the basis of her false belief. This was not the case for individuals with Asperger syndrome (n = 19). Thus, these individuals do not attribute mental states spontaneously, but they may be able to do so in explicit tasks through compensatory learning.

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