To understand another person’s point of view, children with autism need to actively suppress their own, a new study suggests.
People with autism struggle with theory of mind — the ability to guess others’ thoughts and feelings. This may contribute to their social difficulties. The new work hints at the brain processes that underlie their difficulty.
The researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to monitor brain activity in autistic and typical children, aged 8 to 12 years, as they performed a version of a classic theory-of-mind test.
Typical children generally pass this test by the time they are 5. Most children with autism don’t pass until their teens, but those with high intelligence and strong language skills may figure it out sooner.
The autistic children in the new study perform the task as well as their typical peers do, but their brain activity differs: Unlike typical children, those with autism heavily recruit an area involved in inhibiting brain activity.
This finding suggests that they actively suppress their own belief about where the object is, says lead investigator Margot Taylor, director of functional neuroimaging at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. This suppression may be an adaptive response. “They are smart kids, and they have to use some other strategies to perform these types of tasks,” she says.
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