Autistic people’s ability to understand another person’s thinking does not diminish with age, as it does for non-autistic people, a new study shows.
Researchers evaluated ‘theory of mind’— or the ability to infer someone’s mental state — in autistic and non-autistic adults. Many autistic people struggle with this cognitive skill, research has shown.
In the new study, younger non-autistic people demonstrated greater theory of mind than both younger autistic people and older autistic and non-autistic people. Older and younger autistic people, though, were largely similar.
“Our results show that there seems to be no significant decline in understanding others’ minds with age in autism,” says study investigator Esra Zıvralı Yarar, assistant professor of psychology at the Social Sciences University of Ankara in Turkey.
The findings also suggest that the brains of autistic people do not age in the same way as those of non-autistic people, she says, at least with regard to some functions.
“This paper is a well-designed experimental investigation,” says Uta Frith, emeritus professor of cognitive development at University College London in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work. “Any paper that reports on older people with autism is welcome, because we are so ignorant about cognitive changes that come with age.”
Yarar and her colleagues recruited four groups: 29 autistic and 20 non-autistic people aged 18 to 50, and 29 autistic and 19 non-autistic people older than 50.
Participants completed a 20-item questionnaire to assess their ability to identify their own emotions, as well as a 28-item questionnaire to assess their powers of empathy.
Four additional tests explored different aspects of theory of mind. Participants were asked to identify another person’s thoughts or feelings by looking at a photograph of the person’s eyes; to explain interactions between animated triangles in videos; to explain the motivations of two characters in a video and what they themselves might do in that same situation; and to put five pictures in order to tell a coherent story and then explain the story.
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