British Journal of Developmental Psychology

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Volume 13 Issue 4 (November 1995), Pages 321-432

Are children with autism blind to the mentalistic significance of the eyes? (pages 379-398)

Previous work shows that children with autism manifest abnormalities in the use of gaze. They also have difficulties in the comprehension of mental states. The present paper explores whether these two abnormalities might be related. We report four experiments that test whether normal children ‘read’ the eyes, particularly eye‐direction, as conveying information about a person's mental states, and whether subjects with autism are specifically ‘blind’ to such information. The mental states assessed were desire, goal, refer, and think.

The results confirm that normal children do use eye‐direction as a cue for reading these mental states, as do subjects with mental handicap (including those with William's Syndrome). In contrast, subjects with autism failed to use eye‐direction to infer the mental states. In addition, whilst normal children and children with mental handicap showed a preference for eye‐direction over an unnatural cue when inferring these mental states, children with autism did not. These findings suggest that part of the explanation for the gaze abnormalities in autism may be a failure to comprehend that the eyes convey information about a person's mental states.

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