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Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASCs) have a core difficulty in recursively inferring the intentions of others. The precise cognitive dysfunctions that determine the heterogeneity at the heart of this spectrum, however, remains unclear. Furthermore, it remains possible that impairment in social interaction is not a fundamental deficit but a reflection of deficits in distinct cognitive processes. To better understand heterogeneity within ASCs, we employed a game-theoretic approach to characterize unobservable computational processes implicit in social interactions. Using a social hunting game with autistic adults, we found that a selective difficulty representing the level of strategic sophistication of others, namely inferring others’ mindreading strategy, specifically predicts symptom severity. In contrast, a reduced ability in iterative planning was predicted by overall intellectual level. Our findings provide the first quantitative approach that can reveal the underlying computational dysfunctions that generate the autistic “spectrum.”

Author Summary The ability to work out what other people are thinking is essential for effective social interactions, be they cooperative or competitive. A widely used example is cooperative hunting: large prey is difficult to catch alone, but we can circumvent this by cooperating with others. However, hunting can pit private goals to catch smaller prey that can be caught alone against mutually beneficial goals that require cooperation. Understanding how we work out optimal strategies that balance cooperation and competition has remained a central puzzle in game theory. Exploiting insights from computer science and behavioural economics, we suggest a model of ‘theory of mind’ using ‘recursive sophistication’ in which my model of your goals includes a model of your model of my goals, and so on ad infinitum. By studying experimental data in which people played a computer-based group hunting game, we show that the model offers a good account of individual decisions in this context, suggesting that such a formal ‘theory of mind’ model can cast light on how people build internal representations of other people in social interactions.