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Early linguistic experiences and development of theory of mind in children with severe speech and physical impairments

Conference paper
Authors Annika Dahlgren Sandberg
Sven-Olof Dahlgren
Maria Larsson
Kerstin Watson Falkman
Published in Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology
Publication year 2006
Published at Department of Psychology
Language sv
Subject categories Psychology


Objective: ”Theory of mind” (ToM) refers to our ability to attribute thoughts, beliefs and feelings to ourselves and to other people, and to our understanding that our actions are governed by these thoughts, beliefs and feelings. This ability is crucial in social interaction and communication. The question of how to explain the development of ToM is still unsettled. Early exposure to communication is one possible prerequisite. If this is the case, then one would expect development of ToM to be affected in children with different communicative impairments. In accordance with this expectation, recent studies have in fact shown that deaf children without early exposure to sign language (Peterson & Siegal, 1999) have difficulties in solving tasks requiring a ToM. Other examples are children with developmental language delay. From this perspective, the development of theory of mind in children with severe speech and physical impairments (SSPI) is most interesting, considering the problems experienced by children with SSPI within the area of early social experience and communication. Methods: In three studies 14, 6 and 16 participants with severe speech and physical impairments participated. Also participating was a group of children, matched to the focus group for mental and linguistic age. They were presented a range of tasks to track the development of ToM: pretend play, perceptual tasks, 1st and 2nd order false belief tasks (so called “Change of location” tasks) and an “Unexpected content” task. Results: Findings from our research suggest that the children have difficulties solving the ToM-tasks, but that they follow a normal pattern of development with severe delay compared to children without disability. Conclusions: There are different possible explanations to the children’s early failure to solve ToM-tasks: 1. Limited linguistic and conversational competence 2. Memory problems 3. Lack of experiences, e.g. pretend play 4. Lack of opportunities to take other persons’ perspectives The ability to take someone else’s perspective is crucial in social interaction and communication. Interpersonal communication enhances this ability. It is therefore important not only to provide children with SSPI with appropriate and sufficient communication aids, such as Bliss for example, but also to provide experiences and the tools with which to use communication aids in an efficient manner. References: Peterson, C. C., & Siegal, M. (1999). Representing Inner Worlds: Theory of mind in Autistic, Deaf, and Normal Hearing Children. Psychological Science, 10, 126-129.

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