British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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Volume 17 Issue 1 (March 1999), Pages 1-166

Competence and performance in false belief understanding: A comparison of autistic and normal 3‐year‐old children (pages 141-155)

Using a standard prediction of action task, we find that normally developing 3‐yearold children successfully take into account a protagonist's false belief when asked a ‘look first’ question. When asked this same question in a true belief scenario, 3‐yearolds also correctly predict a protagonist's action even though in this case the correct answer is the second (full) location rather than the first (empty) location. This rules out the use of a low‐level response strategy. In a second experiment, children aged 3.5 years who failed a standard ‘think’ question passed a ‘look first’ question. A control group of older children with autism, who performed at the 3.5‐year‐old level on the ‘think’ question, showed no improvement in performance on the ‘look first’ question. Taken together, the two studies confirm that a minimal modification to the standard false belief task helps normally developing preschoolers to calculate the content of a false belief. Current neuropsychological models of ‘theory of mind’ development typically contrast autistic children with normally developing 4‐year‐olds who pass standard false belief tasks. Our present results extend current models by comparing autistic children with 3‐year‐olds who also fail standard tasks. Apparently, the two groups do not fail for the same reasons. Whereas 3‐year‐olds’ difficulties on theory of mind tasks appear to be due to performance factors, autistic children's difficulties appear to be caused by a deeper metarepresentational impairment.

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