Autismis a complex neuro-developmental disorder characterized by impaired socialinteraction, communication skills and restricted and repetitive behaviors (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).Symptoms vary along a spectrum and can range from mild to severe depending onthe individual. There is no single known cause of autism, but genetic factorsare thought to play a part (Veensra-VanderWeele et al., 2004). The brain ofan individual with autism is thought to develop much differently than theneurotypical brain, and has been found to contain an overabundance of synapses, or braincell connections (Bauman & Kemper, 2005).
SLI is adevelopmental language disorder diagnosed when a child does not acquirelanguage at the same rate as his or her peers. However, unlike autism, there isno apparent neurological dysfunction or any other condition such as apraxia,degenerative syndromes or hearing loss present to account for these languagedelays and deficits. Like autism,SLI is thought to have a strong genetic basis where oftentimes, parents andsiblings of the child also experience delayed onset of speech and languagerelated difficulties. Both SLI and autism are recognized mostoften by a parent or schoolteacher, and usually evaluated and diagnosed by aspeech and language pathologist (SLP).
The SLP will typically use standardized assessmenttools and observe precursory behaviors of content, form and use (Bloom &Lahey, 1980). To some degree, children with SLI and children with autismdemonstrate similar language features including late onset of speech, and maynot produce any words until two years of age (Leonard, 1998). Children witheither disorder also face similar social difficulties including initiating interactionand making new friends (Fujiki et al.
, 1996). A core concept that may relate tothese social challenges is Theory of Mind (ToM),which allows us to understand that other minds are different from our own.Specifically, ToM is defined as the ability to attribute mental states ofothers, such as beliefs, intentions, and perspectives to make sense of andpredict behavior. In a study done by Gillot et al.
(2004) children with SLI andchildren with autism performed similarly on a ToM task, at poorer levels thantypically developing children. However, where ToM is said to beimpaired for children with autism, studies point to evidence that ToM is onlydelayed for children with SLI, who may eventually catch up to these abilities(Nilsson & de López, 2016).