Language and Theory of Mind in Autism Spectrum Disorder: The Relationship Between Complement Syntax and False Belief Task Performance

  • Sophie E. Lind
  • Dermot M. Bowler
Original Paper


This study aimed to test the hypothesis that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) use their knowledge of complement syntax as a means of “hacking out” solutions to false belief tasks, despite lacking a representational theory of mind (ToM). Participants completed a “memory for complements” task, a measure of receptive vocabulary, and traditional location change and unexpected contents false belief tasks. Consistent with predictions, the correlation between complement syntax score and location change task performance was significantly stronger within the ASD group than within the comparison group. However, contrary to predictions, complement syntax score was not significantly correlated with unexpected contents task performance within either group. Possible explanations for this pattern of results are considered.


Autism spectrum disorder Complement syntax False belief Language Theory of mind 



Firstly, we would like to acknowledge Jill de Villiers who kindly provided the experimental materials for the complement syntax task. This research was supported by a City University Ph.D. Studentship awarded to the first author. This manuscript was prepared during a Postdoctoral Fellowship awarded to the first author by autism speaks. We would like to thank the following schools for their participation in this research: Bensham Manor, Brent Knoll, Hillingdon Manor, Kilmorie, Linden Bridge, Southmead, Pendragon, St. Winifred’s, The Park, and West Wimbledon. We are extremely grateful to Daniel Heussen, James Hampton and Silvio Aldrovandi for their advice on data analysis, and to David Williams and Sebastian Gaigg for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. Finally, we wish to thank the anonymous reviewers of this manuscript for their helpful comments and Tony Charman for his editorial assistance.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual (4th ed.). New York: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (1989). The autistic child’s theory of mind. A case of specific developmental delay. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 30, 285–297. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1989.tb00241.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a theory of mind? Cognition, 21, 37–46. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(85)90022-8.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bowler, D. M. (1992). “Theory of mind” in Asperger’s syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 33, 877–893. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1992.tb01962.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin, 112, 155–159. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.112.1.155.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. De Villiers, J.G. (1995). Questioning minds and answering machines. In D. MacLaughlin & S. McEwen (Eds.), Proceedings of the 19th Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 20–36). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla.Google Scholar
  7. De Villiers, J. G., & Pyers, J. (2002). Complements to cognition: A longitudinal study of the relationship between complex syntax and false belief understanding. Cognitive Development, 17, 1037–1060. doi: 10.1016/S0885-2014(02)00073-4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Dennett, D. C. (1978). Beliefs about beliefs. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1, 568–570.Google Scholar
  9. Dunn, L. M., Dunn, L. M., Whetton, C., & Burley, L. (1997). British picture vocabulary scale (2nd ed.). Windson, UK: NFER-Nelson.Google Scholar
  10. Fisher, N., Happé, F., & Dunn, J. (2005). The relationship between vocabulary, grammar, and false belief task performance in children with autistic spectrum disorders and children with moderate learning difficulties. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 46, 409–419. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00371.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  12. Hale, C. M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2003). The influence of language on theory of mind: A training study. Developmental Science, 6, 346–359. doi: 10.1111/1467-7687.00289.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Happé, F. (1995). The role of age and verbal ability in the theory of mind task performance of subjects with autism. Child Development, 66, 843–855. doi: 10.2307/1131954.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Leslie, A. M. (1987). Pretense and representation: The origins of “theory of mind”. Psychological Review, 94, 412–426. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.94.4.412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Leslie, A. M., & Roth, D. (1993). What autism teaches us about metarepresentation. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from autism (pp. 83–111). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  16. Lohmann, H., & Tomasello, M. (2003). The role of language in the development of false belief understanding: A training study. Child Development, 74, 1130–1141. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00597.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Milligan, K., Astington, J. W., & Dack, L. A. (2007). Language and theory of mind: Meta-analysis of the relation between language ability and false belief understanding. Child Development, 78, 622–646. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01018.x.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Perner, J., Leekam, S., & Wimmer, H. (1987). Three-year-olds’ difficulty with false belief: The case for a conceptual deficit. The British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 5, 125–137.Google Scholar
  19. Premack, D., & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 4, 515–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Ruffman, T., Slade, L., Rowlandson, K., Rumsey, C., & Garnham, A. (2003). How language relates to belief, desire, and emotion understanding. Cognitive Development, 18, 139–158.Google Scholar
  21. Tager-Flusberg, H. (2000). Language and understanding minds: Connections in autism. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience (2nd ed., pp. 124–149). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Tager-Flusberg, H., & Joseph, R. M. (2005). How language facilitates the acquisition of false beliefs in children with autism. In J. W. Astington & J. A. Baird (Eds.), Why language matters for theory of mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Wellman, H., Cross, D., & Watson, J. (2001). Meta-analysis of theory of mind development: The truth about false belief. Child Development, 72, 655–684. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00304.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wimmer, H., & Perner, J. (1983). Beliefs about beliefs: Representation and constraining function of wrong beliefs in young children’s understanding of deception. Cognition, 13, 103–128. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(83)90004-5.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. World Heath Organisation. (1993). International classification of mental and behavioural disorders: Clinical descriptions and diagnostic guidelines (10th ed.). Geneva, Switzerland: World Heath Organisation.Google Scholar
  26. Yirmiya, N., Erel, O., Shaked, M., & Solomonica-Levi, D. (1998). Meta-analysis comparing theory of mind abilities in individuals with autism, individuals with mental retardation, and normally developing individuals. Psychological Bulletin, 124, 283–307. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.124.3.283.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCity UniversityLondonUK

Personalised recommendations