Date of Award

Summer 8-7-2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Lauren B. Adamson, PhD

Second Advisor

Roger Bakeman, PhD

Third Advisor

Michael Beran, PhD

Fourth Advisor

Şeyda Özçalışkan, PhD


This study aimed to characterize parent-child conversations about the mind among typically-developing (TD) toddlers, toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and toddlers with non-ASD developmental delays (DD). I systematically assessed how often and in what ways parents and their toddlers engaged in mental state talk (i.e., production of mental state utterances) in a semi-naturalistic setting. The sample included 141 22-month old toddlers (50 TD, 44 ASD, 47 DD) and their parents recruited upon completion of screening for ASD during a well-baby checkup. Overall, I found that parents of TD toddlers and parents of toddlers with ASD or DD did not differ in the quantity or quality of their mental state talk. In contrast, some group differences emerged among toddlers. Most notably, TD toddlers were more likely to produce mental state utterances than toddlers with ASD or DD. The few toddlers with ASD or DD who did produce a mental state utterance looked similar to TD toddlers in terms of producing desire terms most often, referencing their own mind more than their social partner’s mind, using mental state terms when talking about the psychological world, and rarely initiating conversations about the mind. The present study contributes to the limited body of existing work on children’s early mental state talk by characterizing the quantity and quality of conversations between two-year-old toddlers and their parents during interaction and before the child receives a formal diagnosis. Its findings provide support for the idea that parents of typically and atypically developing toddlers provide a similar linguistic environment to their child. Thus, the differences we see in toddlers’ early use of mental state terms is likely more a reflection of the challenges children with ASD and other developmental delays face when trying to reason about others’ thoughts and feelings during social interaction, and less a matter of the quantity and quality of language available in their environment.