Language and theory of mind in atypically developing children

Michael Siegal and Candida C. Peterson

in Social Cognition and Developmental Psychopathology

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print September 2008 | ISBN: 9780198569183
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754432 | DOI:

Series: International Perspectives in Philosophy & Psychiatry

Language and theory of mind in atypically developing children

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Language and theory of mind are two essential human capacities that can be considered as the culmination of an evolutionary process. Through language, we converse about our culture and transmit knowledge across generations about the nature of the mental and physical worlds. Communication between people can take place more rapidly when they converse together in a language governed by grammatical rules than through direct observation, facial or bodily signals, pictorial media, or other non-linguistic formats. In this sense, conversation is evolutionarily adaptive as it provides an efficient means to communicate feedback about potentially threatening events that are remote in time and space (Dunbar 1993).

A second essential human characteristic seems inextricably linked to language and conversation (Astington 2000; Harris 2005). This is possession of a theory of mind (ToM) which permits us to reason about the mental states of others—their beliefs, desires, and intentions—and to understand and anticipate how these differ from our own. A lack of ToM would be a formidable obstacle to all sophisticated forms of human social interaction, including family cohesion and close relationships. Without the recognition that beliefs can be true or false, there would exist a constant state of misunderstanding, mistrust, and conflict. Moreover, without ToM reasoning, we would be unable to appreciate many of the hallmarks of human culture. Events portrayed in novels, drama, and song would be meaningless as these often rely on the recognition that persons have been misled by their false beliefs. Indeed, given its importance, ToM has come to dominate the study of social cognition in typically and atypically developing children over the past 20 years (Flavell 2004).

As there are children whose language acquisition is jeopardized because their hearing or vision is impaired, a key issue that arises concerns the effects of disruptions of the typical course of language acquisition on the expression of ToM reasoning. In this chapter, we discuss how sensory impairments can jeopardize the language acquisition and conversational understanding that may play crucial roles for ToM. We examine these issues in relation to the social cognition of typically and atypically developing children, such as children who are deaf or blind or who may be suffering from autism. As such, upon finishing the chapter, the reader will not only be familiar with the role of language in the development of social cognitive deficits associated with deafness, blindness, and autism, but also the role of language in typically developing social cognition.

Chapter.  14304 words. 

Subjects: Psychiatry

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