What does the study of autism tell us about the craft of folk psychology?

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction (APA, 2000). Successful social interaction relies, in part, on determining the thoughts and feelings of others, an ability commonly attributed to our faculty of folk or common-sense psychology. Because the symptoms of autism should be present by around the second birthday, it follows that the study of autism should tell us something about the early emerging mechanisms necessary for the development of an intact faculty of folk psychology. Our aims in this chapter are threefold; (1) to examine the literature on "socialunderstanding" mechanisms in autism, particularly those assumed to develop in the first years of life; (2) to examine the related literature on typically developing infants and toddlers, and (3) to examine the theoretical approaches that attempt to characterize the early stages and development of this impressive skill. In doing so, we hope to help resolve some of the disagreements and sticking points that riddle the topic. In particular we will attempt to shift the focus from whether children have this or that specific mental-state concept (which they use to predict behavior of others) to a more developmentally friendly approach centered around the notion of reasons, recognizing that they may well exist before they are represented, and hence before they can be appreciated, or expressed. The peer commentary in Behavioral and Brain Sciences following Premack and Woodruff (1978) - "Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind'" - not only introduced the "falsebelief' task (Dennett, 1978; Wimmer & Perner, 1983), but addressed a host of issues surrounding the characterization of second-order intentional systems, systems that may (or must) be interpreted as having beliefs about beliefs (or desires or intentions ....
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