Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 11, pp 3945–3957 | Cite as

Measuring Individual Differences in Cognitive, Affective, and Spontaneous Theory of Mind Among School-Aged Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Melody Altschuler
  • Georgios Sideridis
  • Shashwat Kala
  • Megan Warshawsky
  • Rachel Gilbert
  • Devon Carroll
  • Rebecca Burger-Caplan
  • Susan FajaEmail author
Original Paper


The present study examined individual differences in theory of mind (ToM) among a group of 60 children (7–11 years-old) with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and average intelligence. Using open-ended and structured tasks to measure affective ToM, cognitive ToM, and spontaneous social attribution, we explored the nature of ToM and assessed whether ToM predicts the phenotypic heterogeneity in ASD through structural equation modeling. Affective ToM uniquely predicted social symptom severity, whereas no ToM types predicted parent reported social functioning. Our findings suggest that differentiating among theoretical components is crucial for future ToM research in ASD, and ToM challenges related to reasoning about others’ emotions may be particularly useful in distinguishing children with worse social symptoms of ASD.


Theory of mind Affective functioning Social cognition Autism spectrum disorder Symptom severity 



Research reported in this publication was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number K99/R00HD071966. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The authors would like to thank Dr. Ami Klin for helping us learn the SAT coding scheme, Dr. Kate White for her comments and advice on previous drafts of the manuscript, the staff and students who assisted with collecting and scoring these measures, and to particularly thank the children and families who participated in this study. This work represents the honors thesis of the first author, which was conducted at Bates College and supported by the Bates Student Research Fund, Summer Research Fellowship, and Hoffman Research Support Grant. Preliminary results were first presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Francisco, CA in May 2017.

Author Contributions

MA contributed to the design of the study, contributed to the analyses and interpretation of results, participated in the acquisition and coding of the data, helped to develop the SAT coding manual, and drafted the manuscript; GS conducted the analyses and contributed to interpretation of results; SK and MW participated in the acquisition and coding of the data; RG participated in the design and coordination of the study and acquisition of the data; DC and RB helped to develop the SAT coding manual and provided consultation to clarify coding issues; SF conceived of the study, participated in its design and coordination, contributed to data acquisition and analysis, helped to develop the SAT coding manual, and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read, reviewed, and approved the final manuscript.


This study was funded by K99/R00HD071966, Bates Student Research Fund, Bates Summer Research Fellowship, and Bates Hoffman Research Support Grant.

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 parents of all individual participants included in the study and all children provided their assent.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Yale School of MedicineYale Child Study CenterNew HavenUSA
  2. 2.Division of Developmental MedicineBoston Children’s HospitalBostonUSA
  3. 3.Harvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  4. 4.Dartmouth CollegeHanoverUSA
  5. 5.Tufts UniversityMedfordUSA
  6. 6.Department of PsychiatryBoston Children’s HospitalBostonUSA
  7. 7.Laboratories of Cognitive NeuroscienceBoston Children’s HospitalBostonUSA

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