Development and Psychopathology


To what extent can children with autism understand desire?

Wendy Phillipsa1 c1, Simon Baron-Cohena1 and Michael Ruttera1

a1 MRC Child Psychiatry Unit and Department of Child Psychiatry, Institute of Psychiatry, University of London


Previous studies of theory of mind abilities in young people with autism have found that their understanding of false belief is specifically impaired, but that simple aspects of desire are understood in line with mental age. We explored the possibility that more complex aspects of desire (in which comparison of goals with outcomes is not a sufficient strategy) are not understood by children with autism. In two experiments, we found that these children were specifically impaired in understanding desire satisfaction and desire change, when compared with children with mental handicap and normal 4-6-year-olds. Although there was some evidence that understanding of desires may be easier for individuals with autism than understanding false belief, it would appear that they have difficulties in understanding both epistemic and volitional mental states.


c1 Wendy Phillips, MRC Child Psychiatry Unit, De Crespigny Park, London SE5 8AF, UK.