What's the Story behind 'Theory of Mind' and Autism?

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Complex, mature cognition is the endpoint of a develop-mental process in which elementary capacities interact with the environment and with each other in predictable ways that depend on appropriate inputs. 'Theory of mind', the capacity to attribute thoughts and beliefs to other persons, is characterised by the Narrative Practice Hypothesis as emerging from the interactive experience of stories about people acting for reasons. The case of autism has been cited in support of the contrary view, that 'theory of mind' is an innately specified cognitive module, because the surface characteristics of autistic behaviour seem explicable as a circumscribed failure of such a module. So if one accepts the Narrative Practice Hypothesis, is one then robbed of an explanation for autism? The answer is an emphatic no: 'theory of mind' dysfunction is not universal in autism, and is developmentally preceded and predicted by abnormalities of attention, executive function and language consonant with the Narrative Practice Hypothesis.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Human Development, Cornell University, G77 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Ithaca, New York 14853- 4401., Email: belmonte@mit.edu

Publication date: January 1, 2009

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