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Editorial

  • Jim Stevenson

Abstract

In this issue there are a number of papers that signal the need for greater clarity in the way in which the basic psychopathology for autism is framed. The paper by Russell et al. raises the question of the extent to which the problems faced by such children arise purely from the lack of a theory of mind. Performance on the false belief task—first used by Wimmer and Perner in 1983—is frequently treated as an indicator of whether a child has or does not have a theory of mind. In autism research it is indeed common to separate children into those with a theory of mind and those without. While not questioning that children with autism find it difficult to think about their own and other people's thoughts, the paper by Russell et al. encourages scepticism about whether this task is an index of theory of mind and of nothing more. They demonstrate that whatever else the task requires in the way of mentalising ability, it also makes substantial executive demands. This ambiguity over precisely what is required in order to complete this task successfully should lead clinicians to be cautious about claiming that failure on such a task demonstrates the lack of a theory of mind.

Reappraisal of another aspect of the autistic child's disabilities is suggested by the paper by Buitelaar et al. It is usually expected that social and emotional understanding is associated with verbal cognitive skills. In this paper this belief is challenged in a study of mentalising an emotional recognition ability in children with autistic spectrum disorders. It was found that verbal memory rather than other aspects of verbal competence was relevant and that, in addition, visuospatial skills emerged as an important predictor of social and emotional understanding. The authors suggest that this result may explain why children with poor visuospatial skills often have serious problems in social and emotional adaptation.

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