The Double Interview Task: Assessing the Social Communication of Children with Asperger Syndrome

Social Cognition

Social cognition can be defined as "our innate ability to think through and apply information to succeed in situations that require social knowledge" (Winner, 2003). More broadly, social cognition is thinking about people. It involves our attempts to make sense of human action such as how people think, perceive, feel and react. Developing an awareness and understanding of what people think, feel and do is important for children's effective functioning in the social world (Hala, 1997). Social cognition is the process that underlies our understanding of the social world (Feldman, 2003).

The development of social cognition begins during infancy. From very early on, infants display different interaction patterns with humans than with objects. Infants display many different behaviors which suggest that they focus on interactions with people. For example, infants spend more time listening to human voices than to other sounds (Colombo and Bundy, 1981). They prefer to look at human stimuli over inanimate stimuli (Walton, Bower and Bower, 1992). They look longer at faces that are accompanied by voices (Haith, Bergman & Moore, 1977). By about seven months of age, babies can begin to recognize emotional expressions (Walker-Andrews & Grolnick, 1983).

Social referencing. An important transition in social cognitive development occurs at around nine months of age when infants start to tune into the attention of the people around them (Franco, 1997). The emergence of social referencing suggests that infants not only detect and discriminate others' expressions, but also form a connection between those expressions and other events in the environment (Franco, 1997). The process of social referencing occurs when infants look for a person's reaction to objects and social events (Bruner, 1981). For example, a baby looks at others to find out if an object is safe, and responds differently to a smile than to an expression that shows alarm (Barbieri, 1999). By watching adult's facial expressions and listening to their tone of voice, babies as young as 10 months old can use emotional information to make decisions (Walden and Ogan, 1988). Social referencing may be considered the beginning of the ability to take someone else's emotional point of view about a common referent.

Theory of mind. Over time, young children develop theory of mind, the ability to understand that others have intentions, thoughts, desires, and feelings that differ from their own (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985). When children understand false beliefs is said to be a gauge for determining when children first acquire theory of mind. According to Hala and Carpendale, (1997), children need to understand that people will act according to their beliefs about the world, even when theses beliefs are wrong in order to possess an adequate theory of mind. Two year-olds are said to lack any understanding of beliefs (Wellman, 1991). Sometime around three years of age, an understanding of beliefs emerges. Children understand that people will behave in accordance with their desires as well as in relation to their beliefs. For example, children with an emerging understanding of beliefs will predict, if a boy wants his puppy and he thinks the puppy is in the garage, then he will look in the garage first. Around four years of age, children are said to go through a conceptual revolution in their thinking and full belief-desire psychology is said to emerge (Hala & Carpendale, 1997). According to Wellman and Banerjee (1991), in order for children to develop belief-desire reasoning that supports their intentional actions, they must first understand the nature and causes of emotions.

Perspective taking. Perspective taking is the ability to assume another person's perspective and understand his or her thoughts and feelings (Santrock, 1999). Underwood and Moore (1982) found that perspective taking was positively related to prosocial behavior. Children's perspective taking is said to increase their self-understanding as well as improve the quality of their friendships. A developmental theory of perspective taking is outlined by Selman (1980). According to Selman (1980), these stages begin with the egocentric viewpoint in early childhood and end with in-depth perspective taking in adolescence. Children three to six years of age hold an "egocentric viewpoint". In this stage, the child has a sense of differentiation between himself and others, but does not distinguish between the social perspective (thoughts and feelings) of others and himself. Children six to eight years of age are in the "social-informational perspective taking" stage. The child is aware that others have a social perspective based on their own reasoning, and this perspective may or may not be similar to the child's. However, the child has a tendency to focus on one perspective instead of coordinating viewpoints. Children eight to ten years of age are said to be in the "self-reflective perspective taking" stage. The child understands that each individual is aware of the other's perspective and that this awareness influences themselves and other's view of each other. He can judge other's intentions, purposes, and actions by putting himself in another's place. By ten to twelve years of age, the adolescent is in the "mutual perspective taking" stage and can step outside the two-person dyad and view the interaction from a third person perspective. Between twelve and fifteen, the adolescent is said to be in the "social and conventional system perspective taking" stage. In this final stage, the adolescent realizes mutual perspective doesn't always lead to complete understanding. Social conventions are seen as necessary and understood by all members of the group.