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What Do Executive Factors Contribute to the Failure on False Belief Tasks by Children with Autism?

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As children with autism have pervasive executive difficulties it is necessary to determine whether these contribute to their often-reported failure on the false belief task. Failure on this task is frequently taken to diagnose the lack of a “theory of mind”. We report two studies using two tasks that make similar executive demands to the false belief task. The first experiment showed that children with autism are significantly challenged by a “conflicting desire ” task, which suggests that their difficulty with the false belief task is not rooted in difficulty with grasping the representational nature of belief. In the second study children with autism were also found to be impaired on a novel version of the “ false photograph task”. A parsimonious reading of these data is that their difficulty with all three tasks is due to commonalities in the tasks' executive structure.
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Keywords: Autism; cognition; conflicting desires; diagnostic tests; executive functions; false belief task; false photograph task

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Cambridge University, U.K.

Publication date: September 1, 1999

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