Autism, Mentalising and the Effect of Social Presence
Recent research has shown that neurotypical participants perform significantly better on explicit mentalising tasks when a real person is present, but that participants with autism do not show the same social facilitation effect (Chevallier et al., 2014). In an earlier study we studied explicit and implicit mentalising in neurotypical adults. Our findings showed that implicit mentalising was highly sensitive to a social presence, with significantly improved accuracy when a task was completed in the presence of real people. Participants with autism have been shown to display pervasive deficits in implicit mentalising ability (Senju et al., 2009; Schuwerk et al., 2016), however, no previous studies have tested the effect of a social presence on implicit mentalising in adults with autism.
The aim of the current study was to investigate the effect of a social presence on explicit and implicit mentalising ability in adults with an autism spectrum condition.
We used a non-verbal second-order theory of mind task to study explicit and implicit mentalising in adults with autism (n=18, m= 40.83, SD= 15.89), and age, gender and non-verbal IQ matched neurotypical controls (n=18, m= 41.66, SD= 15.49). The task was completed in two conditions: A ‘live’ condition where the task was acted out in real time in front of the participant, and a ‘recorded’ condition where the participant was shown recorded videos of the same task.
A Mixed-Model ANOVA on data from the implicit task revealed a main effect of condition (F(1,35) = 6.967, p=.012, partial ɳ2= .170), as participants were significantly more accurate at the implicit task when it was completed in the live compared to the recorded condition. There was no interaction between condition and group, indicating that neurotypical participants and autistic participants showed the same improvement and performed comparably on each task. By comparison, a Mixed-Model ANOVA on data from the explicit task found that participants in both groups were as accurate in both the live and recorded conditions as there was no main effect of condition, no main effect of group and no interaction between condition and group.
Our findings showed that implicit mentalising was highly sensitive to a social presence, with significantly improved accuracy when completed in the live condition. This suggests that individuals may implicitly mentalise within real life environments when faced with powerful social cues, but that this is less apparent when in environments without the potential for a social interaction. In contrast to previous research, our results showed no difference in mentalising ability between the neurotypical and autistic participants, suggesting that implicit mentalising deficits are not as pervasive as previously assumed and that adults with autism also demonstrate a social facilitation effect.