Individual differences in theory of mind ability in middle childhood and links with verbal ability and autistic traits: A twin study

Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, London, UK.
Social neuroscience (Impact Factor: 2.66). 09/2006; 1(3-4):412-25. DOI: 10.1080/17470910601068088
Source: PubMed


Identifying the causal processes involved in theory of mind (ToM) development during childhood is an important goal for social neuroscience. This study aimed to investigate, for the first time, the extent to which individual differences in ToM are influenced by genes and environment in middle childhood, and to assess how ToM is linked to autistic-like behaviors and verbal ability. Over 600 9-year-old twin pairs from a subsample of the Twins Early Development Study were assessed on an advanced test of ToM and on verbal ability. Parents, teachers, and the children themselves provided ratings of the twins' autistic traits (social impairments, communication impairments, and restricted repetitive behaviors and interests), using an abbreviated version of the Childhood Asperger Syndrome Test. Autistic traits, particularly communication impairments, significantly predicted ToM performance. Verbal ability showed the strongest phenotypic association with ToM. Twin model-fitting was employed to investigate the causes of this association. Much of the variation in ToM ability and in verbal ability was explained by environmental influences, with modest heritabilities for each, but their association was almost fully explained by shared genetic effects. The possible neural basis underlying this association is discussed.

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    • "Humans often use un-observable variables like beliefs, desires, and intentions to disambiguate agents’ behavior, attributing mental states to other people and to oneself [1], [2]. These mentalizing abilities emerge during early childhood [3] and variations in mentalizing skills appear to be related to social environmental factors [4]. Among these factors, collaborative experiences of a child with adult group members might play a crucial role [5], [6]. "
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    ABSTRACT: A large body of work has focused on children's ability to attribute mental states to other people, and whether these abilities are influenced by the extent and nature of children's social interactions. However, it remains largely unknown which developmental factors shape children's ability to influence the mental states of others. Building on the suggestion that collaborative experiences early in life might be crucial for the emergence of mental coordination abilities, here we assess the relative contribution of social exposure to familial and non-familial agents on children's communicative adjustments to their mental model of an addressee ('audience design'). During an online interactive game, five-year-olds spontaneously organized their non-verbal communicative behaviors according to their beliefs about an interlocutor. The magnitude of these communicative adjustments was predicted by the time spent at daycare, from birth until four years of age, over and above effects of familial social environment. These results suggest that the degree of non-familial social interaction early in life modulates the influence that children's beliefs have on their referential communicative behavior.
    PLoS ONE 08/2013; 8(8):e72667. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0072667 · 3.23 Impact Factor
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    • "This study also allowed us to examine how maturation (i.e., chronological age), verbal ability, and general reasoning abilities (i.e., physical state inferences ) are related to advanced ToM in HFASD across a broad age range. While verbal ability, in particular, has been shown to correlate strongly with ToM understanding in TD children and children with moderate learning difficulties (Fisher et al., 2005; Milligan, Astington, & Dack, 2007; Ronald, Viding, Happé, & Plomin, 2006), children with HFASD have been shown to need disproportionately advanced linguistic maturity before they can pass standard ToM tasks (Bauminger & Kasari, 1999; Happé, 1995). It is important to establish, therefore, whether relations between verbal ability and advanced ToM are similarly manifest in both groups. "
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    ABSTRACT: Background: The sociocommunicative problems in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are traditionally linked to impairments in Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to ascribe mental states to others. Although ToM impairments are consistently reported in young children with ASD, findings on more advanced ToM understanding in older individuals with high-functioning ASD (HFASD) are less straightforward. Therefore, we assessed the advanced ToM abilities of a large sample of school-aged children and adolescents with HFASD (n = 194; 6–20 years) and compared them to a typically developing (TD) comparison group (n = 60). Methods: Participants’ advanced ToM was assessed with five social stories containing second-order false beliefs, display rules, double bluff, faux pas, and sarcasm. Results: Participants with HFASD performed equally well on each of the ToM stories as their TD peers. Consistent age effects were noticed with adolescents outperforming the children. Furthermore, advanced ToM was positively associated with participants’ age, verbal abilities, and general reasoning abilities. Conclusions: Counter to what the ToM theory of ASD would predict, school-aged children and adolescents with HFASD seem to be able to master the theoretical principles of advanced mental state reasoning. However, they may still fail to apply these theoretical principles during everyday social interactions.
    Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 10/2012; 54(6). DOI:10.1111/jcpp.12007 · 6.46 Impact Factor
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    • "children who display subclinical traits associated with ASD (Ronald et al. 2006). The current study utilizes a candidate endophenotype measure that takes advantage of modern eye-tracking technology to evaluate how individuals allocate their attention when viewing social video clips that elicit the coordination of attention with another person. "
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    ABSTRACT: We examined visual attention allocation during a set of social videos that are intended to elicit the coordination of attention with another person, compared to a control condition. Deficits in joint attention are a characteristic of young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Participants included a diverse sample of 50 typically developing school-aged children between 3 and 9 years of age (M = 6:3, SD = 1:8). Results demonstrated that gaze allocation differed significantly between the experimental and control condition. Further, individual differences in gaze allocation were significantly predicted by a parent-report measure evaluating features of the broad autism phenotype. This study contributes to a research program that aims to develop and validate an endophenotype measure of ASD.
    Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 07/2012; 43(3). DOI:10.1007/s10803-012-1616-7 · 3.06 Impact Factor
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