Take the Sally-Anne task, which is widely used in studies of autism to test ‘theory of mind,’ the ability to understand other people’s beliefs, intentions and emotions. The participant watches an interaction between two dolls and is asked to predict the behavior of one of the dolls based on an understanding of what the doll ‘believes.’
When children with autism answer incorrectly, the assumption is that they have failed to read the doll’s mental state and that similar failures explain their difficulties interacting with other people. However, many adults with autism pass this test, and even others that are more challenging, yet still experience severe social difficulties.
These observations clearly demonstrate that traditional tests of social cognition fail to capture key aspects of social interactions, particularly in adults, that are essential to understanding autism.
We need tests that allow us to precisely measure behavior in complex, reciprocal social interactions. To achieve this goal, we and others are investigating the use of virtual-reality technology as a tool for research and, potentially, therapy.