The Right Incentive Can Erase an Autism Deficit

Posted on July 6, 2013

With the right incentive, such as winning a prize, children with autism do fairly well at inferring the thoughts and beliefs of others, according to a study published in the May issue of Developmental Science.

Research has shown that children with autism usually struggle with a widely used test designed to gauge this ability, called theory of mind. The new study suggests that they are able to grasp theory of mind, but don’t have a strong motivation to give the correct answer when taking the classic test.

The particulars of the test vary, but children are generally told a story in which two characters (often called Sally and Ann) place an object in a basket. After Sally leaves the room, Ann moves the item into a box. The child passes the test if he or she knows that Sally will look for the item in the basket and not the box.

In the new study, the researchers revised the Sally-Ann test into a game. For typically developing children, the motivation to answer a question correctly may be tied to a desire for social interactions. In contrast, children with autism may use theory of mind when they want something concrete, for example when competing for things with a sibling, the researchers say.

In the new test, the children think they’re competing with two people — named Dot and Midge — for a toy car or ball: Whoever finds the toy first can keep it.


Category(s):Autism spectrum disorders

Source material from Scientific American


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