ResearchLIFE magazine shares with you the exciting discoveries happening in University of Manitoba labs. Get to know the research, learn how it makes a difference in our communities, and meet the person behind the passion.

First published in 2009, ResearchLIFE’s premiere issues won a prestigious Prix D’Excellence Gold Medal for Best Magazine: Research-Intensive Institution in our budget category, from the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education.

The magazine is published twice annually.


There’s an old joke about a psychologist who is walking down the street and meets another psychologist coming from the other direction. As they both walk past one another, the first psychologist says, “Hello,” and the second psychologist says, “Hello.” After walking a few steps, the first psychologist thinks, “Hmmm. I wonder what he meant by that.”

By Chris Rutkowski

The ability to think about the intentions and beliefs of other people is a fundamental part of our thinking processes. This ability is important in both social interaction and interpersonal communication. Our understanding of the mental states of others is called “theory of mind” (ToM), and develops during our childhood, usually by about age five.

“But in children with autism, development of this ability seems to be delayed,” says Melanie Glenwright in the department of psychology at the U of M. “Examining ToM in individuals with autism can advance our understanding of typical development in children.”

She notes that traditional methods of assessing ToM in children usually involve complex verbal problems and often a series of questions asked by an experimenter. But children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may not have the ability to respond easily or effectively in such testing situations.

Glenwright has developed a novel solution to this problem: she has received a two-year SSHRC grant for almost $75,000 to study how eye gaze can give insight into children’s ToM reasoning and their ability to make moral judgements.

(l-r) Melanie Glenwright with research assistant and student Elena Bilevicius.

Studies with very young children and babies have shown that the most effective way to test understanding and comprehension in this young cohort is to record and analyze their eye gaze. Since they can’t express themselves verbally, observing their eye movement can tell researchers if the children are responding to stimuli.

 In her study of children with ASD, Glenwright shows children a pictorial story book with two possible endings to the story. In one example, Sally and Ann are together in a room. Sally has an apple, and places it for safekeeping in a basket in plain view of Ann. She then leaves the room for a nap, and while she is away, Ann moves the apple out of the basket and into a box. When Sally wakes up and returns to the room, does she look for the apple in the basket or the box?

“Babies as young as fifteen months old will know Sally will look in the original hiding place in the basket,” explains Glenwright. “But children with autism spectrum disorder will think she will look where Ann put the apple, even though Sally had no way of knowing the apple was moved.”

Glenwright uses video cameras to track the movement of children’s eyes to determine if they are looking at the appropriate picture, thus showing understanding of the complex thought process. Glenwright notes that psychologists do not know why this cognitive error occurs in people with ASD. Her experimental work will hopefully help her gain insight into this puzzling mechanism. At the same time, she says parents of child research participants get to watch their kids do vocabulary tests and the kids get to see “where grownups go to school.”

“Parents can often express a sense of pride and get great satisfaction from seeing their children participate in these studies,” Glenwright says. “Once they experience this kind of testing in a laboratory, they often become ‘regulars,’ because it’s such a positive thing to do and they can see their kids ‘in action.’ ”

Glenwright’s research assistant demonstrates how the ToM research is conducted.

The mother of a young child herself, Glenwright has been conducting research on children’s social cognition for more than ten years. She also studies how children gain understanding of verbal concepts like humour, sarcasm, teasing and gossip, and how they learn to differentiate these concepts that some people have trouble recognizing, even as adults.

A second experiment she is working on has Glenwright showing children a different picture book in which two boys, Tom and Josh, are playing. Tom has brought a cupcake from home and is keeping it in a bag. He puts the bag on a table and then goes out to play. Josh is cleaning the room and puts the bag in the garbage can. But did he throw out Tom’s cupcake on purpose, or was it an accident? In one case, it was a moral transgression, but in the other, it is an accidental transgression.

“Morality is the intuitive sense of right and wrong that guides our behaviour and leads us to judge others,” Glenwright explains. “Understanding the intentions of another person reflects our ability to make moral judgements.”

Between ages three and four,children usually can evaluate moral transgressions, but children with autism are less likely to recognize a person’s mistaken actions as unintended.

Glenwright explains: “The aim of these experiments is to understand  conditions that optimize ToM reasoning in participants with ASD in order to advance our knowledge of typical cognitive development.”

As important as this basic research may be, it’s not without its challenges to researchers.

“It’s been difficult to conduct some of these experiments on children’s comprehension,” she says. “Recruiting parents whose children have been recently diagnosed with ASD is quite challenging, and I have a smaller sample size than I would like to see.”

She explains that parents of recently-diagnosed children with ASD tend to desire immediate intervention or assistance rather than simple participation in a study.

“It’s asking a lot of parents to participate in a study when they are dealing with a lot of things and are experiencing new stresses,” she adds.

Glenwright says that the goal of her studies is to learn about social cognition in typical development as well as in autism.

“But it is only through working with ASD children that we can  understand how cognition usually develops in children,” she points out. “This is fundamental social sciences research that may not have immediate benefit to parents and their children, but may in the long term help us understand how best to teach young people and work with them to better communicate in our complex world.”

She adds: “This research will [help us to] gain useful information that will be of interest to parents, educators and policymakers working to improve the lives of Canadian children.”