According to the linguistic determinism approach, knowledge of sentential complements such as: John says that the earth is flat plays a crucial role in theory of mind (ToM) development by providing a means to represent explicitly people’s mental attitudes and beliefs. This approach predicts that mastery of complements determines successful belief reasoning across explicit ToM tasks, even low-verbal ones, and across populations.
(1) To investigate the link between a low-verbal ToM-task and complements in Specific Language Impairment (SLI), (2) To determine whether this population shows similar ToM performance to that of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or those with Typical Development (TD) once these groups are matched on competency for complements, (3) To explore whether complements conveying a falsehood without jeopardizing the veracity of the entire sentence, such as complements of verbs of communication, are more crucial for belief attribution than complements which do not have this property, namely complements of verbs of perception, (?John sees that the earth is flat).
Methods & Procedures
Children with SLI (n = 20), with ASD (n = 34) and TD (n = 30) completed sentence–picture-matching tasks assessing complementation with communication and perception verbs, as well as a picture-sequencing task assessing ToM. Children were furthermore evaluated for general grammatical and lexical abilities and non-verbal IQ.
Outcomes & Results
Results reveal that competency on complements relates to ToM performance with a low-verbal task in SLI, and that SLI, ASD and TD groups of equivalent performance on complements also perform similarly for ToM. Results further suggest that complements with an independent truth-value are the only ones to show a significant relation to ToM performance after teasing out the impact of non-verbal reasoning.
Conclusions & Implications
This study suggests that clinical groups of different aetiologies as well as TD children perform comparably for ToM once they have similar complementation skills. Findings further highlight that specific types of complements, namely those with an independent truth value, relate in a special way to mentalizing. Future work should determine whether these specific structures could be effective in ToM remediation programmes.