The ability to discern other's intentions, desires and beliefs is called "theory of mind" and typically develops at about age 4 or 5, according to the study.
In a classic example, a child is shown two dolls, "Sally" and "Anne." The experimenter puts on a skit in which Sally puts a marble in a basket. While Sally isn't looking, Anne moves the marble from the basket to a box. The experimenter asks the child where Sally will look for the marble when she returns.
Knowing that Sally will look in the basket requires understanding that others have beliefs that may differ from our own.
Previous studies have shown that children with autism develop this ability later than other children, if ever, Young said.
But what's been difficult from a research perspective is that adults with high-functioning autism develop means of compensating for their social difficulties and would almost certainly be able to figure out the question involving the dolls, said Clara Lajonchere, vice president of clinical programs at Autism Speaks.
Researchers have had more difficulty assessing the more complex, nuanced skills required in making social judgments, something this study does well, Lajonchere said.
"The individuals with ASD [autism spectrum disorder] weighted outcome more highly than intention," Lajonchere said. "The ASD group did not reliably judge accidental versus intentional harm."
Yet, in many ways, people with and without autism were fairly similar. Given other scenarios, such as having bad intentions and causing harm, or having bad intentions but inadvertently having a good outcome, both group's answers were similar.
And there isn't necessarily a right or wrong answer to how readily we should forgive or give another the benefit of the doubt when they've caused harm to someone else. Even those without autism vary greatly in this capacity, Young said.
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