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Austyn Tempesta
University of Pennsylvania
Are Autism deficits an issue of Theory of Mind or Attention Allocation Deficits?
The important thing about a theory is that, no single piece of knowledge, or performance on a
single task, should be critical (Gopnik & Wellman, 1994, p. 264).
Introduction
The popular conceptualization of autism as merely a lack of socially-appropriate
processing persists despite clear evidence that pervasive developmental disorders in language
acquisition and attention allocation comprise this disorder. Theory of mind (TOM), the ability to
understand and attribute mental states to others (Premack & Woodruff, 1978), posits that autism
is a deficit in mentalizing. This is based on studies that have observed autistic children failing
certain false-belief tasks (Cohen et al, 1985). Autism is a taxonomy that is shown to have a triad
of issues dealing with language, social-cognitive processing in social situations, and repetitious
behavioral mannerisms (Frith, 1989). Autism has been observed to be a domain-specific deficit
in TOM, yet I argue in this study that it is an issue in attention-allocation and not a specific
disability in TOM.
Some researchers have been in favor of autism being an attentional instead of a sensory
deficit; generalizing knowledge from one environment to another (Lovaas et al., 1971), that it
has more to do with how certain physiological and neuro-cognitive processings mechanisms
may be compromised. In other words, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do have
theory of mind; however I argue that they may need to be cued. I posit that they may lack the
innate tendency to focus on certain social signals in the visual field such as eye gaze and
direction. Furthermore, two camps or ideological perspectives exist to explain the diagnosis of

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autism. On the one hand we have the hypothesis that children with autism lack theory of mind
skills (Baron-Cohen, 1991), but running in parallel with that theory is research that examines the
physiological and neuro-cognitive abnormalities, such as processing of environmental stimuli,
learning, and attention (Plaisted, 2000) differences that may substrate the observed behaviors we
see presently during theory of mind tasks, insofar that they may be impeding social
understanding and development in children with autism.
Evidence supporting that autism is an issue in attention allocation
There is research that shows a domain-deficit in attentional during social appropriate
processing. For example, Chawaska et al (2013) showed that when comparing 6 month old
infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), ASD patients attended less so to
the social scene. When they did attend to the social scene there was a reduction in attention to the
face in particular. Chevallier et al (2012) found that degree of social enjoyment was determined
by severity of autism. Another correlation between degree of severity and autism and nonverbal
functioning was observed, this functional relationship showing increasingly lower attention
towards social interactions (Chawaska et al, 2012) was shown in toddlers with autism (i.e. they
had decreased time spent exploring scenes associated with monitoring of the speakers face and
mouth).
Where we allocate our attention in visual space is often explicit in where our eyes orient
during various activities. Various eye-tracking research has also shown that allocation of
attention to social information by people with ASD may be in part due to a consequence in
variation of stimuli used in different studies. Hanley et al (2013) conducted a study that explored
attentional allocation of faces with individuals with Aspergers syndrome, which used a ranged

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of static stimuli where faces were viewed either in isolation or in the context of a social scene.
People with Aspergers syndrome tended to pay attention to isolated faces, but did not attend to
the eyes near as much as neuro-typical when they were matched on Verbal IQ and age and when
the faces were part of a visual social-scene. This may indicate that people with ASD are only
inhibited when the social scene is overwhelmed with stimuli but not when there are limited
stimuli present in the visual environment.
Additional evidence for a difference in visual attention during socially robust
environments comes from Klin et al (1999) who conducted studies while watching people who
viewed the film Virginia Wolf (figure 3). They were attached to an eye tracker and as to watch
the movie as normal. Neuro-typical controls tended to focus on the eyes and immediately tracked
pointing gestures to the object of the conversation and understood the gestures to be expressive.
Autism subjects focused twice as much on the mouth region of the actors as the controls did.
This might be because they are getting all the information from the words and not the eyes. This
is supported by Happes (1995) observation, that children with autism may rely more on

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(Figure 3, Virginia Woolf), the yellow viewing pattern was the


typical person, and the black viewing pattern was the person with autism.

language than normal populations to help solve false-belief and other theory of mind tasks.
Autistic patients missed many pointing gestures and some focused on certain areas like light
bulbs in robust social spaces.
Detail-Focused processing, the inability to experience wholes without full attention to the
constituent parts have been proposed to occur in individuals with autism, this is deemed Central
Coherence theory, (Frith, 1989). Additional research has shown that normal individuals respond
more rapidly to global stimulus than local (Navon, 1977). This may be due to the relationship
between language acquisition and joint-attention, which may be a precursor needed to pass
specific theory of mind tasks. Joint-attention is needed to understand facial expressions and new
words (Bloom, 2002). Learning the names of objects is related to learning the intention of the
speaker. Words need to be attended to in order to be learned, and so that children passively
connect the word to the percept through joint-attention. This is observed in an experiment by
Baldwin (1991, 1993); children were given an object to play with, while another was put into a
bucket. When the child was looking at the object in front of them, the experimenter looked at the
object, and proceeded to name the object. The child would look where the experimenter was

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looking and redirect their attention to where the experimenter was looking. The child thus
engaged in Join-Attention to learn the name of things that the speaker intended to name
(intention is a form of mentalizing). Simon-Baron Cohen et al (1997) repeated this experiment
with autistic individuals and observed that autistic children thought the experimenter applied the
word naming to what they were attending too and not what the experimenter was actually
attending to.
Early disruption in primary processing may severely impact later emergence of social
abilities, TOM develops as part of building blocks and as a result of early experiences (i.e. joint
attention, understanding syntactic complexity, learning that intention of others is relevant in their
behavior, and learning to inhibit your own response). Gillberg and Coleman (1992) found that
retro and prospective studies of autism documented abnormalities in the perception of autistic
infants. In conclusion, many studies show that attention to certain spatial stimuli in the
environment does affect children with autism in a different way than it does the typical child. It
shows that a multitude of processes may be building components that work together to solve
theory of mind tasks, and that TOM itself shouldnt stand in isolation, that it is interrelated to the
acquirement of language, attention modulation and other developmental processes.
What does the theory of mind research have to say about autism domain-specific
disabilities?
Gaze-direction, specifically the eyes, is the typical area of research that is of importance
in theory of mind research. This ability has to do with attending to visual stimuli in our world,
some questions which are generally answered are: why do people spend so much time looking at
peoples eyes? Why not the ears, chins, elbows, or other arbitrary limbs? The most intuitive

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response is that because it is what is useful to understanding what someone is thinking or
attending, although, we see children with autism having trouble making these distinctions. Why
do children with autism as previously stated, not attend to the eyes? Many papers have been
implicated in explaining this phenomenon.
Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the most prominent researchers in the paradigm of theory of
mind, (Baron-Cohen et al, 1986) first found that there was a difference in performance of autistic
children, neuro-typical children, and Down-Syndrome children on how they performed on
specific tasks, that were characterized in three broad categories: Mechanical, Behavioral, and
Intentional (figure 1).

During this experiment each child was given 3 different pictures which were meant to be
rearranged in sequential order. The results showed that autistic children performed badly in the
intentional category, even more so than the children with down-syndrome; the researchers

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explained that this was the theory of mind portion of the experiment ((p. 119) Figure 2). The
reason why this was considered the theory of mind portion of the task was because it dealt with
understanding the intentionality of the actor in the picture. As you can see in figure 2, children
with autism scored exceptionally below average on the intentional task than normal non-autistic
controls.

Most notable though, was that children with autism performed exceptionally well on the
mechanical tasks, which may show a strong correlation between reasoning and logic skills and
autism.
Frith (1989) postulated that mind blindness in autistics can be observed to permeate three
main areas of cognition (1) diminished or absent joint-attention, (2) diminished sensitivity to

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body language (behavioral mannerism detection), and (3) poor understanding of subtle and social
emotions. This expanded the understanding of the effects of not having a theory of mind. This
also helps explain why autistic individuals may have issues with other language tasks that require
social interaction, such as pragmatics. Previous studies have found that autistic children were
severely impaired in conceptual role taking, in their theory of mind. There was shown to be
abnormal differences, both in comprehension and production, relative to non-autistic controls.
That proto-declarative (directed attention to an object or action, as a communicative exchange)
pointing was impaired while proto-imperative (primitive speech act used to request objects or
actions) pointing was not. Baron-Cohen (1989) posited that proto-declarative pointing may be a
precursor in autistic childrens impaired theory of mind. This is because of languages
developmental progression from instrumental gesturing to expressive gesturing as a precursor for
language acquisition (Lifter & Bloom, 1989), which relates to languages impact on
understanding and correctly completing theory of mind tasks.
Some of the research by Baron-Cohen et al (1995) looks at the relationship between two
abnormalities in children with autism, the use of gaze, and the comprehension of mental states.
They found that normal children used eye-direction as a cue for reading mental states; however,
autistic children did not. They posited that gaze abnormalities in autism may be due to a failure
to comprehend that the eyes convey information about a persons mental state. In some studies
with Piaget ((1951), translated to English in 2013), childrens developing capacity to appreciate
the viewpoints of others in a social context is evident in the ability to recognize different points
of view in a visuospatial setting, this was deemed egocentrism. Piaget propounded this theory by
observing young children in social activity that failed to adapt their conversation to the needs of
the listener and demonstrated a lack of true cooperations in collaborative tasks and play.

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Subjects were presented with a model of three mountains and were asked to select or construct a
picture to correspond with the viewpoint of a doll that observed the scene from different
perspectives. Those younger than 7 years tended to depict their own view of the landscape,
whilst those above the age of 7 depicted the view of the landscape from the dolls perspective
(Piaget & Inhelder, 1956). Piaget posited that this was evidence that there was a preoperational
stage before the child acquires notions of conservation and classification that along with these
insights, that his own perspective changed from just his own to that which is one of many.
Hobson (1984) showed some evidence against these ideas presented by Piaget by doing
studies that looked at how autistic children make judgments about different and yet related views
of three-dimensional scenes. Autistic and normal subjects were included in the study if they met
the following criteria they were able to demonstrate an understanding of the instructions of the
first introductory task and they were equal on cognitive tests of operational thinking. There were
11 girls and 1 boy in the study, and the chronological age from matched at 9 years old, the IQs
were also matched. There were three testing sessions and each comprised of tasks, the tasks were
on operational thinking, and the other was on coordination of visual perspectives. The results
show that autistic children were no more impaired in their recognition of visuospatial
perspectives than normal children of comparable intellectual levels of operational thinking. At no
point in this study did a normal control perform better on these tasks than a child with autism.
These findings suggest it may be improbable that autistic children are more egocentric in their
visuospatial perspectives. However, it should be noted that knowing the visual perspective of
another is not the same thing as a childs awareness of the experiences of others.
This study looks to understand specifically how attention allocation issues that start from
birth affect how children with autism both develop and interact socially, specifically looking

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how information is gathered from the eyes and used in understanding of mental states. This study
posits that although, there is extensive research on TOM in autistic children that suggests that
TOM may be a domain-specific deficit (Baron-Cohen et al, 1993) , that it is indeed a neurocognitive attention disability that lends itself to poorer performance on TOM tasks than that of a
neuro-typical child of the same mental age.
Materials and Methodology
Four groups of participants will be matched based on IQ and mental age (using the
Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test), participants with ASD will also be classified using the DSM -5
criteria. The matching is needed to control for differences within population samples while
conducting the study and to construct the same baseline among participants. The groups will be
separated into a treatment group and a control group, the control groups will consist of one
neuro-typical group of children and one high-functioning autistic group of children, preferably
around the ages and mental age of five this is because this is when children succeed on the falsebelief task (Permack & Woodruff, 1978). The treatment group will consist of a neuro-typical
group of children and one high-functioning autistic group of children.
Participants will be looking at two stories in the first experiment that are acted out by
actors, and one additional scene at follow-up. Children will be given a pretest, which occurs after
the first social-visual scene and a post-test after the second social-visual scene after prompting
has occurred. Treatment group will get aid after social scene one, and control will not get aid.
Sometimes observed results dont transfer well into other domains or hold up for longer than the
experiment, so a post-study follow up will occur in which the same actors depict a different

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scene involving fear and participants are given a follow-up test, which is compared with the
initial results observed during the first iteration of the experiment.
Social-Visual Scenes
This study will use three social-visual scenes in order to recreate a normal social
interaction between two people. Each participant will watch two visual scenes in the initial
experiment, which involves social interaction; the social scene has two actors that act out a social
interaction. One scene will depict sadness and in the other story joy or happiness is depicted
within the first experiment, the third scene, at follow up has to do with fear. All conditions use
the same actors and depict the same interaction, however, in the treatment group, after the first
visual scene the experimenter comes into view and will point to one of the actors and says, You
might want to look at the persons eyes. The control group does not have the experimenter come
into view, or say anything; they see the first two scenes in subsequent order. This is because the
hypothesis is that children with autism are not attending to the right visual stimuli in the socialvisual scene (I.e. the eyes), so they need to be prompted. I propose that with aid, the autistic
participants will perform at the same level as the neuro-typical in both conditions or significantly
better than the autistics in the control conditions.
Null Hypothesis-ASD participants in Treatment condition will perform no different than ASD
participants in the Control condition.
Alternative Hypothesis-ASD participants in the treatment condition will perform significantly
different or nearly as good as neuro-typical individuals.
Implications

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If autistics improve to the level of normal controls or are significantly different than the
other autistic group it may mean autism is an attentional deficit disorder and not a domainspecific theory of mind deficit. However, if there is no difference between the autistic controls
than autism on post-test to pre-test improvement, this may indication that the deficit in autism
may be more to do with a domain-specific deficit in theory of mind. This is an important study
because it attempts to answer a debate that has gone on for thirty years, and has yet to be fully
explored or researched. If autistic children indeed have issues with attention allocation, what can
be done to fix the compromised system?

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