Understanding Others’ Minds: Social Inference in Preschool Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Peng ZhouEmail author
  • Likan Zhan
  • Huimin Ma
Original Paper


The study used an eye-tracking task to investigate whether preschool children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are able to make inferences about others’ behavior in terms of their mental states in a social setting. Fifty typically developing (TD) 4- and 5-year-olds and 22 5-year-olds with ASD participated in the study, where their eye-movements were recorded as automatic responses to given situations. The results show that unlike their TD peers, children with ASD failed to exhibit eye gaze patterns that reflect their ability to infer about others’ behavior by spontaneously encoding socially relevant information and attributing mental states to others. Implications of the findings were discussed in relation to the proposal that implicit/spontaneous Theory of Mind is persistently impaired in ASD.


Social inference Theory of mind Autism spectrum disorder Eye-tracking Preschool children 



This work was supported by the National Social Science Foundation of China [Grant No. 16BYY076] to Peng Zhou. The authors would like to thank the children, the parents and the teachers at the Enqi Autism Platform and at the Taolifangyuan Kindergarten, Beijing, China, for their assistance and support in running the study.

Author Contributions

PZ conceived of the study, designed and implemented the study, performed the statistical analysis and the interpretation of the data, and drafted and revised the manuscript; LZ participated in designing and implementing the study, performing the statistical analysis and interpreting the data; HM participated in designing the study and interpreting the data.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Tsinghua UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Beijing Language and Culture UniversityBeijingChina
  3. 3.Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Child Cognition LabTsinghua UniversityBeijingChina

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