Articles on Autism, Theory of Mind, and Story Comprehension

Denes, Gianfranco, Shirin Sarkari, Arlene A. Tan, Dennis L. Molfese, and Francesca Happe.
Language and communication in developmental disorders.
Handbook of Neurolinguistics. Ed. Brigitte Stemmer, Harry A. Whitaker, et al.
San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998 (pp. 507-534).

Fletcher, P. C., F. Happe, F. Frith, U. Baker, S. C. et al.
Other minds in the brain: A functional imaging study of "theory of mind" in story comprehension.
Cognition 57. 2 (Nov 1995), 109-128.

Abstract: Studied brain activity in six males (aged 24-65 yrs) using positron emission tomography during story comprehension necessitating the attribution of mental states. Brain activity was compared with that measured in two control tasks: physical stories not requiring mental attribution, and passages of unlinked sentences. Both story conditions, when compared to the unlinked sentences, showed significantly increased cerebral blood flow in the temporal poles bilaterally, the left superior temporal gyrus, and the posterior cingulate cortex. Comparison of the "theory of mind" stories with "physical" stories revealed activation associated with mental state attribution; it was only this task that produced activation in the medial frontal gyrus on the left (Brodmann's Area 8). The localization of brain regions involved in normal attribution of mental states and contextual problem solving is feasible and may have implications for the neural basis of autism.

Happe, Francesca G.
Understanding minds and metaphors: Insights from the study of figurative language in autism. Metaphor & Symbol 10. 4 (1995): 275-295.

Abstract: Tested the proposal that if people with autism are impaired in their communication due to problems with thinking about thoughts (relevance theory of D. Sperber and D. Wilson, 1986), then level of theory of mind (which posits a cognitive deficit in the ability to attribute mental states) performance should relate closely to the ability to understand 3 types of communication. Subjects with autism (six 10-28-yr-olds who failed 1st and 2nd-order theory of mind tasks, six 9-25-yr-olds who passed only 1st-order tasks, and six 11-26-yr-olds who passed both 1st- and 2nd-order tasks) and fourteen 12-38 yr old controls (with mental retardation but not autism) listened to five stories and participated in a sentence completion task. It was concluded that there were underlying differences in the mentalizing ability of the three autistic groups, which mediated false-belief performance and utterance comprehension.

Happe, Francesca G. E.
Communicative competence and theory of mind in autism: A test of relevance theory.
Cognition 48.2 (Aug 1993): 101-119.

Abstract: Two experiments combined theory of mind (TOM) explanations of autism and relevance theory as a framework for understanding features of autistic communication. Relevance theory (D. Sperber and D. Wilson, 1986) allows precise predictions about the levels of communicative competence that should be possible with either no, 1st-order only, or 2nd-order TOM ability. Exp 1 tested understanding of simile vs metaphor in 12 autistic Ss (aged 9-28 yrs). Exp 2 tested understanding of metaphor vs irony in 12 autistic subjects (aged 9-26 yrs) and in 14 control subjects (aged 12-38 yrs) with mild learning disabilities. Relevance theory's predictions about the degree of mind necessary for understanding simile, metaphor, and irony were confirmed. It is suggested that whatever distinguished the autistic subjects in the 3 TOM groups has a direct and particular association with the comprehension of figurative language.

Happe, Francesca G. E.
The autobiographical writings of three Asperger syndrome adults:
Problems of interpretation and implications for theory.
Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Ed. Uta Frith et al.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 (pp. 207-242).

Abstract: those autistic adults who manage to produce autobiographical works are among the most successful cases--in terms both of their degree of social adjustment and of their intellect. These writings, then, present a challenge to our theories of autism in so far as they represent and bring home to us the very real and striking range of abilities shown within the group of people [with Asperger syndrome]. A new theory of communication presented by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson (1986) may hold the key to understanding the vast spectrum of autistic communication problems. This theory will be discussed ... and the claim made that in its light the writings of these able autistic adults have much to tell us about autism in general and the nature of autistic communication in particular. Relevance theory and the breakdown of communication in autism. The possible points of breakdown in autistic relevance.

DSM-IV's definition of autism
(slightly abridged)

  1. A total of six or more items from (1), (2), and (3), with at least two from (1) and one each from (2) and (3):
  2. (1) qualitative impairment in social interaction as manifested by:

    (a) marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction

    (b) failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level

    (c) a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people (e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest)

    (d) lack of social or emotional reciprocity

    (2) qualitative impairments in communication as manifested by:

    (a) delay in or total lack of the development of language

    (b) marked impairment in the ability to initiate or sustain conversation

    (c) stereotyped and repetitive use of language or idiosyncratic language

    (d) lack of varied, spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play appropriate to developmental level

    (3) restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities as manifested by:

    (a) encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus

    (b) inflexible adherence to specific nonfunctional routines or rituals

    (c) stereotyped and repetitive motor mannerisms

    (d) persistent preoccupation with parts of objects

  3. Delays or abnormal functionoing in at least one of the following areas with onset prior to age 3 years:
  4. (1) social interaction

    (2) language as used in social communication

    (3) symbolic or imaginative play

  5. The disturbance is not better accounted for by Rett's Disorder or Childhood Disintegrative Disorder



Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles