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Theory of mind performance in younger and older adults with elevated autistic traits

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Gavin R. Stewart, Gregory L. Wallace, Martha Cottam, Rebecca A. Charlton

Original languageEnglish
JournalAutism research
Early online date14 Sep 2019
Accepted/In press22 Aug 2019
E-pub ahead of print14 Sep 2019

Bibliographical note

© 2019 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

King's Authors


Little is known about the impact of aging with Autism Spectrum Disorder on theory of mind (ToM). While ToM difficulties appear to abate with age in older autistic populations, this has yet to be explored in the Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP). The current study examined ToM performance among younger (n = 49, aged 18-46) and older adults (n = 47, aged 60-91) who were classified as on the BAP (younger n = 18; older n = 21) or not (younger n = 31; older n = 26) using the BAP Questionnaire. ToM was assessed using the ecologically valid Strange Stories Film Task (SSFT) and the dynamic Happé-Frith Triangle Animations task (TA). A 2 × 2 analysis of variance examined the effects of autistic traits (BAP vs. non-BAP) and age (young vs. old). For both SSFT and TA, results showed autistic trait main effects on task performance (non-BAP > BAP). Age main effects were observed for some but not all metrics on TA (younger better than older), with no differences in SSFT. An interaction of autistic traits and age was observed in TA Intentionality, with younger non-BAP and younger BAP performing similarly but older non-BAP performing better than older BAP. Results show that younger and older adults with elevated autistic traits show poorer ToM performance. Despite ToM difficulties being common in later life in the general population, this effect was not observed when using a ToM task designed to reflect real-world scenarios. However, results suggest that autistic traits and age could interact to increase risk for poor ToM performance in older adults who endorse elevated autistic traits. 

LAY SUMMARY: The behaviors and characteristics commonly found in autism spectrum disorders have been linked to differences in understanding social situations. Similar difficulties have also been found in older age. We assessed social understanding in younger and older adults from the general population. Both younger and older adults who report more autism-like characteristics experience more difficulties with social understanding. However, few differences were found between younger and older adults.

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