Ownership as a physical measure of the self-referential effect in children with autism
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Typical research on children with autism focuses on a Theory of Mind (ToM) deficit. However, the self-concept appears to be equally (if not more) important, providing the critical foundations for ToM development as well as enhancing memory performance. For example, information that is encoded in relation to the self is better remembered than information that is encoded in relation to another person. This memory advantage for self-relevant information is known as the self-referential effect (SRE) and is suspected to be reliant on the self-concept. Children with autism are considered to have deficits in developing a highly structured self-concept, specifically relating to psychological self-awareness (such as the ability to use personal pronouns and engagement in pretend play), although they are relatively unimpaired in regards to physical self-awareness (passing self-recognition tasks). Therefore, the current study employed a physical measure of the SRE using an ownership paradigm (as owned objects are considered to be physical extensions of the self), in order to assess whether children with autism also benefit from self-relevant processing and hence, have other intact aspects of a self-concept. Fifteen children with autism were compared with fifteen typically developing chronological age matches and fifteen typically developing verbal mental ability age matches. Pairs of children between four- and fourteen-years of age (N = 45) sorted 56 picture cards depicting a range of different toys into self- and other-owned sets. A surprise recognition task revealed a significant memory advantage for self-owned items regardless of participant group. This effect was significantly related to ToM ability and lower levels of autism impairment. These results highlight that, contrary to previous reports, children with autism are able to use self-relevant processing to their advantage and therefore must have an intact self-concept, although this may be specific to physical self-awareness.