Autism as a neurodevelopmental disorder of mind-reading

by Francesca Happé

06 Apr 2016
Digital Object Identifier

Full text posted to Journal of the British Academy, volume 3, pp. 197-209.

Abstract: The everyday ability to track what others are thinking, so-called ‘theory of mind’, has been the subject of hundreds of studies in typically developing (‘neurotypical’) children and clinical groups, most notably autism. The social and communication deficits that define autism can be understood as direct signs of difficulties in theory of mind; failure to recognise communicative intentions and difficulty connecting with another’s interests or viewpoints. Much less consideration has been given to the developmental or downstream consequences of theory of mind. Here I will argue that theory of mind is a gatekeeper in neurotypical development, opening the way for a range of sophisticated abilities, and facilitating learning of new skills and information through social ‘osmosis’. In autism, where spontaneous theory of mind fails to develop, we can track downstream consequences; what happens when the gatekeeper function fails. Interestingly, since gatekeepers keep things out, as well as let things in, some of the consequences of failure of intuitive and obligatory theory of mind in autism, may be positive.

Keywords: ‘theory of mind’, autism, neurotypical development, social, communication.

Joint British Academy / British Psychological Society Lecture, read 23 September 2014 (video recording)

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