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Social Abilities in High-Functioning Autism: A Comparison of Theory of Mind in Testing and in Natural Social Settings

Faculty Supervisor:
Paul Lewis
Year of Project Completion:
Sierra Pryce


Much research has been conducted in assessing theory of mind (the ability to understand other's mental states such as desires, intentions, and wants) within developmental stages of human life. But how is ability interrupted or changed when a disorder like Autism comes into play? This study aimed to assess theory of mind abilities in high functioning autistic individuals. Participants included individuals from the Wichita and Kansas City metropolitan areas who have been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, Asperger's Syndrome, and/or considered as having High-Functioning Autism. A first and second-order theory of mind test and advanced theory of mind test was administered to participants. A debriefing inquiring about various socio-demographics was then given to a person able to complete it (either teacher or parent of the student). Finally, participants were observed in a natural setting (like at school) and rated using various behavior scales. Results indicated that ratings of theory of mind ability on standardized tests are strongly positively correlated with ratings of social behavior when assessing overall scores, but not when assessing specific facets of the standardized test and behavioral observations. In addition, theory of mind group levels had an effect on the amount of correctly used mental state talk. Finally, some exploratory analyses revealed that theory of mind scores were indicative of currents diagnostic criteria. These results have implications for validity assessment as well as future educational and therapeutic intervention.

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.