Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences


Valerie L. Shafer


autism; eye gaze; false belief; gesture; speech-language pathology; theory of mind


Theory of mind (ToM) is the cognitive mechanism that allows a person to make inferences about other person's beliefs/knowledge. To date, a sizable portion of the research in ToM skills has involved assessment using false-belief tasks (FBT). FBT tasks are designed to examine people's actions in order to determine whether their beliefs/knowledge take into account other person's beliefs/knowledge. The current study used an alternative behavioral task to FBT with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and young typically developing (TD) children. To date, a simple ToM task that has minimal linguistic and memory requirements has not been used with young children with ASD. The current task is based on a procedure introduced by O'Neill (1996), which previously demonstrated the presence of ToM in children with TD. Specifically, preschoolers in O'Neill's study made inferences about adult knowledge and altered their communicative acts accordingly. The current study presents the familiar social situation of requesting toys and minimizes the linguistic and cognitive demands of FBT while parents knowledge state fluctuate as they are asked to close their eyes for a portion of select trials. Ten 2-3 year old children with ASD and ten 2-3 year olds with TD completed this study. The results of this study did not replicate O'Neill's findings, but did reveal that the TD participants produced significantly more communication bids in terms of frequency and complexity than the ASD group. The participants with ASD generally provided non- responses more often. Manipulating the caregivers' knowledge state did not significantly affect the children's communicative behavior in both groups in a way that suggests the presence of immature ToM. In addition, this study showed that ASD participants attended visually to their caregivers at a frequency approaching that of to the TD group. A subset of children with ASD followed gaze during the experimenter's instructions less frequently, but used notably more eye gaze without gesture to initiate communicative exchanges. By examining both the presence of ToM and the precursors of ToM, the current study identifies potentially unique group patterns in the development and use of communicative acts, such as, gaze and gesture that support the development of ToM. Overall, this study indicates that examining precursors to ToM may be a viable method for examining theory of mind in young children with and without ASD and potentially more appropriate method than the typical FBT.