Mental language in children with autism
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Theory of Mind (ToM) refers to the ability to predict and explain others’ behaviour on the basis of their emotions, intentions, desires, attitudes etc. By doing this, mental states can be posited inside a person to explain behaviour that doesn’t seem logical at first. It is generally assumed that in persons with an autistic disorder ToM is impaired. The purpose of this study was to find out whether or not autistic children have problems with language that requires understanding of other people’s mental states. In this study this ‘mental language’ is divided in a lexical and a discourse part. A group of 10 autistic children and a control group of 19 typically developing children were tested with ToM tests, general language tests, Executive Function tests and mental language tests. To examine the comprehension of mental language, two types of tests were used: an indirect requests test (discourse) and a modal comprehension test (lexical). The results showed that the two groups differed only in their performance on the Theory of Mind tasks. As expected, the autistic children performed worse on these tests. Both groups did not score significantly differently on the mental language tests. However, when the children were divided differently, in a group that did pass the ToM tests and a group that did not, it was shown that the children who had passed the ToM tests scored better on the modal comprehension test than the children who had failed. The children were also divided according to their score on the general language ability tests. From this division, it was shown that whenever their general language ability score was low, their score on the indirect request test was also low in comparison to the children who had a high general language ability score. These results provide evidence for the theory that for the lexical part of mental language, a fully functioning ToM is important, whereas for the discourse part this is not the case. A possible theory could be that the discourse part of mental language is more influenced by general language abilities than by ToM abilities.