People with Asperger's syndrome, a variety of autism spectrum disorder, characteristically have trouble perceiving the mental states of others, making social interactions difficult. But many adults with the disorder lead highly functional lives, leaving researchers to wonder how their brains differ from those of neurologically normal adults and children.

A report published online yesterday in Science shows that many adults with Asperger's who cannot spontaneously anticipate another person’s state of mind, can still correctly guess it when given a simple verbal prompt to.

To test the ability of adults with Asperger's to read another person’s state of mind, the study authors used a test often given to children called the Sally-Anne False Belief Test. In the experiment, subjects watch as an actor places an object in a box and then leaves the room. While the first actor is gone, another actor moves the object to a different location in the room. When the first actor returns to the room, the researchers track the eye movements of the subjects, which indicate where they think the first actor will look for the object. Research has shown that normally developing children as young as two years old correctly expect the first actor to look in the box in which he or she placed the object—not in the spot to which the second actor moved it—thereby imagining the world from someone else’s point of view.

Video recorded during the experiment with adults that have Asperger's showed that they “looked randomly” from box to box rather than at the box in which the actor should have checked, explains lead study author Atsushi Senju of the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at Birkbeck College in the U.K. “They didn’t anticipate a preference,” he says. But when explicitly asked to verbally predict where the actor would look for the object, they answered correctly.

The results show that the difficulties even high-functioning autistic adults face are more nuanced and complex than some researchers had believed. But they also suggest ways to help those with Asperger's, Senju says. The findings could pave the way for the development of training to assist people with the disorder to make more conscious assessments of others’ thinking, thereby improving their capacity for social interactions.

The findings also hold a valuable lesson for those who work with both kids and adults with the syndrome, Senju explains. "We can find a way to adjust ourselves to their capacity.”