Saturday, May 18, 2013

Autism, Empathy and the Sally-Anne Test

Mid-tantrum, my 17-year-old son, Danny, will often turn to me, look right into my eyes, say, "I'm sorry, Mom," and then go right back to his tantrum.

Danny was diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder/Not Otherwise Specified (PDD/NOS),
a form of mild autism, when he was three. One of the many horrifying facts I was told when he was given the diagnosis was that people with autism lack empathy. That is because, apparently, they lack what is called "Theory of Mind," the ability to understand that other people think and see things differently from the way they do.

This so-called "Mind Blindness" is usually diagnosed by a test similar to the one that Rebecca Saxe shows in her fascinating TEDTalk. The test given to people with autism is generally called the Sally-Anne Test. Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre, did a famous study in which this test was used. A child is told the following story:

Sally puts a marble in a basket and leaves the room. While she is gone, Anne removes the marble from the basket and puts it in a box. Sally comes back into the room.
Then the child is asked, "Where will Sally look for her marble?"

People with autism, I am told, generally say or indicate, "In the box," because they don't realize that Sally does not know the marble has been moved.

I say, "I am told," because my son, like an enormous number of people with autism, does not have the attention span to pay attention to this story. He is extremely hyperactive, and would have a very difficult time concentrating on this exercise. However, if someone were to make him sit through it somehow, I have no doubt that he would answer, as most people with autism do, "In the box."
Read the whole story at

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