Relations Among Theory of Mind and Executive Function Abilities in Typically Developing Adolescents and Adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome and High Functioning Autism
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The aim of the current study was to bring greater clarity to our understanding of the relation between theory of mind (ToM) and executive function (EF), specifically working memory (WM) and inhibitory control (IC), during typical adolescent development and of the specific nature of impairments in ToM and EF in the cognitive profile of individuals with Asperger's Syndrome and High Functioning Autism (AS/HFA). In total, 80 participants, half typically developing (TD) and half with AS/HFA, participated in the study. TD participants were matched to the participants with AS/HFA on chronological age and gender. Participants were tested across two test sessions, approximately one year apart. For Session 1, the TD participants ranged in age from 10.1 to 17.9 years (M = 14.68, SD = 2.05), and the participants with AS/HFA ranged in age from 10.2 to 17.9 years (M = 14.64, SD = 2.19). I tested the participants on a ToM battery, consisting of an emotional perspective taking measure, the Mind in the Eyes Test, and two cognitive perspective taking measures, the Advanced ToM Vignettes, designed by the researcher, and Happé's Strange Stories. In addition, an EF battery was administered, containing a Reading Span Task, Change Detection Task, and Flanker Task, which assessed verbal WM, visual WM, and IC, respectively. Firstly, I found that older children and adolescents with AS/HFA, especially the girls with AS/HFA, performed worse on ToM measures tapping cognitive perspective taking relative to TD peers. Secondly, I observed that ToM and EF continue to develop during later childhood and adolescence as part of both typical and atypical development. Thirdly, I found that verbal WM and IC were more strongly associated with ToM in the AS/HFA group, indicating that individuals with AS/HFA may require more executive resources for ToM reasoning. Based on my results, I suggest that ToM and EF are still developing during later childhood and adolescence in both TD individuals and individuals with AS/HFA, indicating that the brain regions supporting ToM and EF processing are still plastic and can therefore be targeted for intervention.