Future Thinking, Theory of Mind, and Executive Function in Children with Autism

Friday, May 18, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
1:00 PM
L. K. Hanson and C. M. Atance, Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Thinking about the future is an integral aspect of human cognition that drives a significant portion of our behaviour. Future-directed processes, such as anticipation and prospection, and future-directed behaviours, such as planning and delay of gratification allow us to act in the present in anticipation of a need or state that will only be experienced in the future. Future thinking (FT) is a component of human cognition that allows us to anticipate possibilities, plan ahead, and control aspects of our environments and our relationships with others (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). Recently, researchers have proposed that FT may also be related to theory of mind (ToM) and executive function (EF) (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007). ToM is the ability to understand and attribute mental states to self and others, and EF includes inhibition, working memory, and generativity, skills that allow an individual to solve a problem or accomplish a goal (Premack & Woodruff, 1978; Welsh & Pennington, 1988). FT, ToM, and EF all undergo significant development during the preschool years and past research has found that EF and ToM are closely related in typically-developing children. (Carlson & Moses, 2001). Past research has also found that EF and ToM are frequently impaired in autism. Thus, it is important to investigate FT, a potentially related cognitive skill, in a group of children with autism. Research into FT is still in its infancy, and the exact structure of FT is unknown, although several tasks have been developed that are thought to measure FT in preschool children. 


The current study has two objectives: (1) to investigate FT in children with autism by examining whether they demonstrate a deficit in this area, similar to the deficits found in other cognitive skill domains, including ToM and EF, and (2) to determine the relation between FT, ToM, and EF skills in children with autism. 


English-speaking children with autism between the ages of 3 and 7 have been recruited to participate in this study. Children with autism are matched using raw scores on the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence - Third Edition (WPPSI-III) to a group of typically-developing children between the ages of 3 and 5. All participants complete two testing sessions. During the first session, children complete selected subtests of the WPPSI-III, and the Childhood Autism Rating Scale - Second Edition is completed based on behavioural observations and information obtained on a parent questionnaire. During the second session, children complete a series of FT, ToM, and EF tasks in a counterbalanced order. 


Data collection for this study is ongoing, but initial results suggest that children with autism have more difficulty on future thinking tasks than typically-developing children, matched on verbal ability. 


It is critical to understand the precise cognitive domains impacted by autism because this research will increase knowledge of how children with autism understand and plan for the future, in turn, helping us to target interventions appropriately.  

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