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Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith


The aim of Baron-Cohen et al was to find ‘Does the autistic child have theory of
“To investigate the differences between those with autism and those with other
learning difficulties, or none at all.”


There were three groups of children used within Baron-Cohen’s study.

1. 20 autistic children with a mean chronological age of 11years and 11months

and a mean verbal mental age of 5 years and 5 months.
2. 14 Down’s-syndrome children with a mean chronological age of 10 years and
11 months and a mean verbal mental age of 2 years and 11 months.
3. 27 ‘normal’ children who had a mean chronological age of 4 years and five
months, with equal verbal mental ages.

Make sure you note that the mean verbal mental age of the autistic children is higher
than that of the Down’s-syndrome.


Info: it is believed that sufferers of autism find it hard to function fully in social
situations because they lack ‘theory of mind’ (TOM)

TOM: Theory of mind is the ability to understand that others have minds (thoughts,
feelings, knowledge, emotions). It is the ability to understand others reactions and
know that they are different to our own. If you have theory of mind, you can put
yourself in another person’s shoes.

Before conducting the study, the children were tested in order to obtain their mental
ages in verbal and non-verbal tasks (e.g. special awareness and logic).

Each of the 61 children were tested individually. They were seated at a desk in front
of the experimenter were they were then introduced to two dolls, named Sally and

Sally, the first which had a basket in front of her, and the second, Anne, had a box.

After being introduced to the dolls, the child’s ability to name them was then tested –
‘The naming Question’. This question was asked to ensure that the child knew which
doll was which for the next questions. (if the child didn’t recognise each doll they
wouldn’t be able to complete the next task).

The child is then told the following scenario:

“Sally takes a marble, hides it in her basket and then leaves the room to go for a walk.
Whilst Sally is away, Anne takes the marble from Sally’s basket and puts it in her own
box. Sally then comes back in the room.”

The child is then asked: “Where will Sally look for her marble?” (this is the believe

Info: This question is asked to test whether the child has the ability to put themselves
in Sally’s shoes and say where SALLY would look for her marble – NOT where the
marble actually is. This is a test of theory of mind. Those who cannot answer it
correctly with “Sally will look in her basket”, have a lack of TOM.

This question was asked to see if it was a difference between groups, not a lack of

Following this question, two control questions were asked.

1. Where is the marble really? (reality question)

2. Where was the marble to begin with? (memory question)

These two control questions were asked to check that they understood the situation
and that the experiment was testing their TOM and that they weren’t answering
incorrectly due to a lack of understanding.


For the children to succeed in the task, they had to show that they had put themselves
in Sally’s position and give the answer to where Sally would look. This is a
demonstration of theory of mind.


Question/Group Autistic Down’s-Syndrome Normal

Naming 100% 100% 100%
Reality 100% 100% 100%
Memory 100% 100% 100%
Belief 20% 86% 85%

Table to show percentage of CORRECT answers.

The Naming, Reality and Memory questions were answered correctly by all of the
children tested. It was only the belief question that was answered incorrectly.

From the table of results we can see that significantly more of the children suffering
from autism could not answer the belief question correctly, thus showing that they
have a lack of TOM.

From this experiment we can conclude that sufferers of Autism have a lack of theory
of mind. This lack of theory of mind could very well be reason why Autism sufferers
find it hard to socialise and also have a lack of communication and interaction skills.

However, the results prove to us that Autism does not affect memory, naming and
realisation of reality. We know this because all of the children who were tested
achieved a full 100% correct answers to the Naming, reality and Memory questions.

Info: This study was repeated in 1988. Instead of using dolls, real people were used.
This was to make the experiment more ecologically valid. Similar results were gained,
showing the reliability of this experiment to be high.