Since the emergence of the theory-of-mind hypothesis of autism over 15 years ago, autistic symptomatology has been considered to be the psychopathological consequence of a lack of appreciation of minds. Autism is an early-onset neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by the "presence of markedly abnormal or impaired development in social interaction and communication and a markedly restricted repertoire of activities and interests" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 68). Two to five people per 10,000 are affected, and the disorder is four to five times more prevalent in males than in females. The social impairments and the restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior must be evident prior to 3 years of age in order to meet the diagnostic criteria for autism.
Individuals with autism have been consistently reported to perform poorly on theory-of-mind tasks, yet show preserved capacities in other domains (see Baron-Cohen, 1995, for a review). For example, these individuals fail to appreciate the distinction between beliefs and reality, yet understand that photographs can misrepresent current reality (Charman & Baron-Cohen, 1995; Leekam & Perner, 1991). Autistic individuals, while insensitive to other people's beliefs, demonstrate an understanding of other people's basic emotions (e.g., happiness and sadness1; BaronCohen, 1991; Baron-Cohen, Spitz, & Cross, 1993). Finally, autistic individuals who fail to appreciate knowing nevertheless understand seeing (Baron-Cohen & Goodhart, 1994; Leslie & Frith, 1988); these individuals demonstrate an understanding that different observers see the same object in different ways, depending on how each observer is spatially located relative to the seen object (Reed, 1994; Reed & Peterson, 1990; Tan & Harris, 1991), even though they fail to appreciate that beliefs are constrained by access to knowledge in a similar way.
The fine-cut distinctions in task performances observed in autism have been attributed to mindblindness and, in particular, blindness to the existence of representational mental states. A failure in autism to develop the normal capacity to represent the mind as a representational medium has been proposed to account for this mindblindness, which, in turn, explains the core triad of autistic symptoms: lack of pretend play, autistic aloneness, and abnormal communication (Baron-Cohen et al., 1993). A selective mindblindness of this type would explain the fine-cut distinctions listed above since (1) autistic individuals understand the distinction between physical representations (photographs) and reality but not the distinction between mental representations (beliefs) and reality; (2) visual perspective taking is intact in autism, and a visual percept cannot misrepresent the seen object in the same way that a belief can misrepresent the true state of affairs; and (3) autistic individuals understand basic emotions, and basic emotions, while consequent to events in the world (e.g., happiness due to a pleasant event), do not represent events in the world in the same way that beliefs do.
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Autism is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in early childhood and affects the functioning of the brain, primarily in the areas of social interaction and communication. Children with autism look like other children but do not play or behave like other children. They must struggle daily to cope and connect with the world around them.