Development and Psychopathology

Regular Articles

Absence of spontaneous action anticipation by false belief attribution in children with autism spectrum disorder

Atsushi Senjua1 c1, Victoria Southgatea1, Yui Miuraa2, Tomoko Matsuia2, Toshikazu Hasegawaa3, Yoshikuni Tojoa4, Hiroo Osanaia5 and Gergely Csibraa1a6

a1 University of London

a2 Kyoto University

a3 University of Tokyo

a4 Ibaraki University

a5 Musashino Higashi Gakuen

a6 Central European University, Budapest


Recently, a series of studies demonstrated false belief understanding in young children through completely nonverbal measures. These studies have revealed that children younger than 3 years of age, who consistently fail the standard verbal false belief test, can anticipate others' actions based on their attributed false beliefs. The current study examined whether children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are known to have difficulties in the verbal false belief test, may also show such action anticipation in a nonverbal false belief test. We presented video stimuli of an actor watching an object being hidden in a box. The object was then displaced while the actor was looking away. We recorded children's eye movements and coded whether they spontaneously anticipated the actor's subsequent behavior, which could only have been predicted if they had attributed a false belief to her. Although typically developing children correctly anticipated the action, children with ASD failed to show such action anticipation. The results suggest that children with ASD have an impairment in false belief attribution, which is independent of their verbal ability.


c1 Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Atsushi Senju, Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development, School of Psychology, Birkbeck, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HX, UK; E-mail:


We thank all the participants and parents who supported our study. We acknowledge Coralie Chevallier and John Swettenham for their input. This study was supported by Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, 21st Century COE Program J05 Center for Evolutionary Cognitive Sciences at the University of Tokyo and by ESRC Research Fellowship RES-063-27-0207 (to A.S.).